Bill Bakan, pictured in sideview mirror at left, markets creatively. An example: a 1950s pickup that serves as a farmers’ market booth and attention-getter (see photo below).
Search YouTube.com for a video on alfalfa and timothy or how a round baler works, and you’ll likely find one of Bill Bakan’s many productions.
Bakan, Hartville, OH, is a former dairy producer who still makes hay as well as grows soybeans, various fruits and vegetables, and makes wine. But one of the most important commodities his family’s Maize Valley Market and Winery yields is authenticity, he says.
“It’s important to be authentic, and part of that is we are real farmers,” Bakan says. “We farm, and I report about what we’re doing today.”
Bakan’s leap into videography was inspired by his “fear of starvation,” he half-jokes.
“I saw the video as a great way to amplify our message to get greater search-engine results, to communicate with my local customers, to convey that message of, ‘Hey, this is what we do on the farm’.”
Creating and posting the videos doesn’t require a lot of technical ability, Bakan says. “I don’t rehearse anything. I don’t edit them. It’s just whipping the camera out there.”
Thousands have viewed Bakan’s forage-related videos, which include showing how hay rakes work and how round and square bales are made. They exhibit his knowledge of agriculture in general and haymaking specifically and allow him a platform to showcase his farm produce and winery.
“If these videos about hay, or tomatoes – or anything – make people more comfortable, or get them to come to us or choose us to spend their time with, I’ve accomplished my marketing mission,” he says.
A 1985 Ohio State University ag education graduate, Bakan started his career as a certified crop advisor. But he returned to dairy farming with his wife, Michelle – a dairy science graduate – and her family. “We were a registered herd; we flushed embryos and proved bulls, too. We had 350, 400 animals or so.”
Ultimately, however, the need for costly upgrades prompted Bakan and family to leave the dairy business. “We needed to expand, but we would’ve had to put in a whole new parlor and all the stuff that goes with a parlor-system barn. We decided at that time to downsize. We started putting in hay because it worked; we made money with it.”
At one point, they made 60,000 square bales a year. Now, “as soybeans and commodities are coming back, we’re starting to scale back our hay a little bit.”
The Bakans currently grow about 60 acres of alfalfa and grasses marketed in part to the horse and pet industries. Their produce is sold through their business, which includes wine tastings, charity events, hot-air balloon lift-offs and their annual Harvest Happenings, during which visitors enjoy wagon rides, pig races, pumpkin-picking, a petting zoo and more.
“All of our income comes from the farm, so we have to find ways that we can diversify,” Bakan explains. “While we’re not hitting the home run every year, when something goes down, the other thing comes up.”
With such farm fluctuations, it’s vital to keep a sense of humor, says Bakan, whose Twitter handle is @FunTSAR. He has created innovative videos from seemingly innocuous farm chores, including the demolition of an old grain bin and the towing home of an old pickup truck.
The demolition provided viewers entertainment – the bin was destroyed using a tractor and cable. The other clip offers a marketing tip: The pickup is one of three early 1950s trucks that Bakan uses to help haul and draw attention to his produce at farmers’ markets.
Bakan and his team, which includes his wife and their extended family, also create unusual events to draw customers to their businesses. The last two years, they held a “farmathalon” at the winery. The event drew crowds of people who climbed a mountain of hay bales, maneuvered through vineyard rows and wound their way through a corn maze.
As fun as the videos and special events are, however, for Bakan, their real value comes in the closer relationship they help build between “real farmers” and the customers who rely on them for so much, often without realizing it.
“With every subsequent generation, we’re farther removed from the farm. Despite our best efforts, which are good efforts, we’re still increasingly becoming more ignorant about where our food and fiber comes from. What is the difference between hay and straw? Most people don’t really understand that there is one. Or care.”
But when they hear about it through videos, he adds, “it’s fascinating.”