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Customers prefer a fresh face

Taking strawberry sales ‘personally’ has been a key to success for Bill Zylman’s on-farmmarketing approach.

By Judie Steeves H

e probably sells the highest-priced strawberries in the Fraser Valley, but this year Bill Zylmans grew about 34 tons, and he sold 90 per cent of them out of his barn in little baskets, to customers who wanted to meet and be able to trust the farmer—and who were looking for good flavour. Zylmans figures his family has probably been growing strawberries in Richmond longer than anyone else in the Fraser Valley, beginning in the 1950s. Top priority has been selling into the fresh market.

From the 1960s to 1980s they got heavily into selling fruit for processing because there was good value in it, but today growers have to grow strawberries for the fresh market, he says. With the influx of berries from countries such as Chile, Mexico and California, available fresh 365 days a year, and the change in family dynamics, there is less interest in processed berries, Zylmans explains. In 2003, he decided that continuing to grow berries for processing was not in the cards any more. Instead, he embarked on a major advertising campaign, even using social media to get the message out that he was selling fresh strawberries from the family farm in Richmond, and using his straight-forward, outgoing personality as a sales tool to market the berries.

No one else grades their berries, but the Zylmans began to separate out the premium-sized berries to sell at a high price, $4 a pound, then the rest at either $2.75 a pound or $2 a pound for jam berries.

“It doesn’t cost us much to grade them. We have three or four people who hand select them on the farm.” Customers have no problem paying a higher price for good quality berries, he says.

With increased interest in organically-grown berries on the part of consumers, Zylmans stopped spraying once the plants had blossomed so he can promote them as berries that


Richmond strawberry farmer Bill Zylmans has found that customers have no problem paying higher prices for high- quality fruit.

haven’t been sprayed.

“You have to be fair, though. You can’t try and fool your customers. You can’t go ahead and spray under the cover of darkness. You have to be truthful.”

Part of his strategy involves getting to know the competition, and Zylmans says he has seen a tractor busy spraying a field behind the fruit stand that advertises ‘no sprays.’

“People believe in us. People want to get to know the farmer; to see the connection between their food and the farmer; what he stands for.

“It takes years to develop a reputation and only a minute to destroy it,” he adds.

If your fruit is not top quality, don’t sell it, Zylmans advises. “Don’t try to squeeze that last little bit out of a crop, because that can kill you.”

He warns that with social media, consumer complaints British Columbia Berry Grower • Fall 2012


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