Q&A with Stephanie Pope
Stephanie Pope is a Partner and Head of Marketing at Hope & Harmony Farms; the gourmet arm of her family’s fourth-generation peanut farm that offers Virginia's finest, gourmet jumbo peanuts that are home-grown and hand-cooked just as they have been for four generations.
Can you tell our readers about your background?
I’m Stephanie Pope, Partner and Head of Marketing at Hope & Harmony Farms. Owned and operated by my husband's family for over a century, our inspiration for running Hope & Harmony Farms stems from continuing a long legacy of integrity and respect for the land. Hope and Harmony Farms is our 5,500-acre family-owned, fourth-generation peanut farm in Drewryville, VA. Producing 1.5 million pounds of the finest Virginia peanuts each year, Hope & Harmony Farms offers the finest quality, super extra-large peanuts that are all home-grown, hand-cooked and hand-packaged on our farm; with a commitment to being all natural, no additives or preservatives, NON-GMO, and Gluten Free. Notably, we’ve been featured on The Cooking Channel with G. Garvin for our famous Southern Heat-Habanero peanuts. In addition to our peanut farm, we run a thriving e-commerce arm of the business that offers high-end, gourmet peanut products year-round (which I was responsible for launching). More about our story.
I was born and raised in South Hill, Virginia; a town with a population of a whopping 4,541 people. I grew up far from agriculture, with my dad being a civil engineer and my mom being a wonderful domestic engineer (AKA stay at home mom). I grew up quite the stereotypical girly girl; lacking an appreciation for hard work and getting your hands dirty. Like most headstrong teenagers, I was determined to move to the big city and lead a more sophisticated life.
In a quest to lead that life, there were three things that I said I would never do:
Marry a farmer (how dreadful would that be?)
Get married in December (why would you want poinsettias at your wedding?)
Live in a place smaller than South Hill, VA.
What’s that phrase? Oh yes, “never say never.” Fast forward to 1991 when girl meets boy and girl falls in love. With who? You guessed it, a farmer! Well, the son of a farmer, if we’re getting technical.
When we first met, Jeffrey was an Agricultural Economics major at Virginia Tech with zero desire to return to his hometown of Drewryville, VA, population: 727. That’s not a typo. Fast forward to 1993: two weeks before graduation and Jeffrey tells me he wants to go back to Drewryville to farm.
Did I mention I don’t like to get my hands dirty?
So, Jeffrey graduated and moved home to do the farming thing and after six years of dating, he proposed! You know what they say: love is blind. So, I happily packed my bags and moved to the “big” town of Drewryville to embark on our next adventure.
It was summer time when I moved to Drewryville and there was lots of work to be done on the farm. Jeffrey decided that he was going to grow butter beans to freeze for the winter. High on love, this sounded fun and domestic. Not. It’s important to note here that we had been to a friend’s wedding the night before and we had a GRAND time. Jeffrey emphasized that we needed to be up early the next morning to pick butter beans before it got too hot. Fun fact: butter beans are picked by hand. Another fun fact: you sit on a five-gallon bucket bent over, picking butter beans for a very, very long time. Well, I was not feeling my best self from our evening out and when the sun began to really beat down….well, let’s just say it was not one of my finest moments.
Nor, was it Jeffrey’s best light bulb moment inviting me to assist with butter bean picking. I was able to compose myself and return to my duties. Jeffrey was then subjected to my rendition of “Green Acres is NOT the place for me” over and over. He gladly sent me packing to the house and has never requested my help in picking again! 22 years and counting.
So, back to those 3 things that I said I would never, ever do.
Yes, I married a farmer, moved to a much smaller town, and got married in December (I drew the line at having poinsettias at my wedding).
But I must say, marrying this farmer was by far one of my finest moments.
What inspired you to start your business?
For generations, farming these peanuts has sustained the Pope family and our ancestors. My husband's grandfather and great-grandfather farmed the land with their bare hands. After graduating from Virginia Tech with an agricultural economics degree, my husband felt the call of the family business. After attending college, experiencing the world, and getting married, was it then that we realized that the grass is indeed the greenest in our little part of world. And as it turned out, our whole family came to the same realization and all of us returned home after college. The farm now had (4) families to provide for. We had to get creative on how to make our farm profitable and sustainable for our families & the next generation. Then there was a major change in the peanut industry in 2002 with a farm bill that had a massive impact on peanut farmers; it was no longer profitable for us to continue. That’s when we started the gourmet peanut business and began processing a lot of our own crop. My husband had a light bulb moment: “Hey Steph, why don’t you cook the peanuts we grow and sell them directly to the consumer?”
Mind you, it was 2002 and we had a 3½-year-old and a 1½-year-old at the time.
But lo and behold, our gourmet peanut business was born.
I would cook, package, and ship peanuts; all with the help of mommy's little helpers and with a lot of help from my mother-in-law.
And just like that, I became the CEO, chef, packer/shipper, janitor, secretary, and accountant; the Jack (or Jill) of all trades for my family’s business.
Now, I can’t take all of the credit. The Pope boys have been growing the finest Virginia peanuts since the late 1800's on our 5,500-acre farm in Southampton County, Virginia; long before I entered the picture. Our peanuts are truly the cream of the crop. We grow only the world-famous Virginia jumbo peanut, prized by gourmets everywhere for its impressive size and even more incredible flavor.
Where is your business based?
Drewryville, VA (population 727)
How did you start your business? What were the first steps you took?
Since we were already growing our product, our journey in selling it directly to the consumer looked a little different since we didn’t have to source our product (peanuts).
(1) Begin with market research. Survey the competitive landscape; what tactics are your successful competitors using? We visited many specialty brick and mortar shops, in addition to their e-commerce platforms, to research our competitors' branding, packaging, marketing strategy, and price points.
(2) We utilized agricultural programs available through our state university to become well-educated on shelf life and regulations concerning food safety.
(3) We worked closely with our State Department of Agriculture to ensure we were in compliance with all state-mandated guidelines for packaging.
(4) We chose our name, designed our labels/packaging, and hired a designer to create digital brand identity pieces.
Since lack of funds are often a deterrent to people in launching a business, I must add that all of the above services were of no charge, with the exception of the designer. Capitalize on free educational resources to help bring your idea to life; run a lean business.
We renovated a building next to our house to serve as our cooking facility. Once the building was up to code, we got busy cooking and packaging our first batches. When we would see or taste a flavor profile we like, we would custom blend or purchase the spice and test it on our peanuts before bringing it to market. When internal testing goes well on a new flavor profile, we create a custom label and introduce it our customers through our website and at gourmet food shows.
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness for your business?
Our story and the power of the Internet have dramatically impacted our business’ trajectory. Because we are the farmers and have control of our crop from planting, to harvesting and processing, customers inherently connect with us and trust the product they’re purchasing. People like the idea of knowing who they are purchasing from. We’re a true farm family with kids and selling an honest, farm-to-table product makes customers feel good about where they’re spending their hard-earned dollars. The Internet has provided the world a window into the farm (transparency) while giving us a platform to sell our gourmet products all across the world. Quality control is our trademark throughout every step of the process - from growing, harvesting and cooking our crop of delicious peanuts to shipping them to any destination you may choose. Our cooking process deserves special mention. Each batch of our Virginia peanuts is cooked according to a time-honored family recipe in pure 100% peanut oil. Our artisan product is made to order in small batches, so you get the freshest product possible. With 30 essential vitamins & nutrients, they are actually a superfood. In addition, peanuts have 7 grams of protein, more than any nut. We believe with 7 grams of protein peanuts provide you energy for a good life, and with our hectic lives who doesn’t need more energy? Our peanuts reflect our passion, heritage, and love of the land and we might be biased, but our Virginia peanuts are the best.
What have been your biggest challenges and how did you overcome them?
With zero prior experience in sales and very little capital to launch this venture, we decided to reach out to our network of family and friends. After all, these were people who wanted to see us succeed. We developed a website (Royal Oak Peanuts) that went live in 2002. I worked with a graphic designer to create a catalog with all of our products, which, we in turn, mailed to approximately 700 people. Since we launched just prior to the holiday season, it served as a prime time to start our business. We were able to generate $50,000 in sales with the help of just our family, friends, and friends of friends. From there, we joined numerous trade organizations and hit the road to participate in gourmet food shows. It was at a show where we met a specialist in marketing and PR who began to talk with us about our branding. We soon realized that there was a major disconnect with our branding. Our branding at the time wasn’t representative of our story or who we were; talk about disheartening. While the Royal Oak Peanuts branding held great meaning to us, the public was struggling to connect with it. We started polling friends about their brand perception and they echoed this opinion. One close friend even said the name almost sounded like a cemetery. Yikes. After many months of deliberating, we decided to make the leap and rebrand from Royal Oak Peanuts to Hope & Harmony Farms. The rebrand finally portrayed who we are as a family and a company: “Love the land. Respect your roots. Give your best.” Our fresh branding was responsible for taking us to the next level with acquiring distributors and wholesale accounts.
How do you stay focused?
The joy of producing an honest crop. During harvest season when the picking has begun, the delicious aroma of peanuts is in the air for miles. Sitting on the porch and watching the sensational sunsets over the fields, listening to the birds and crickets chirp, and the hum of farm equipment being parked for the evening. My favorite: watching the billions of stars light up the sky. There are not many professions where you get a second chance. Farming gives you that gift over and over. Planting season is a second chance year after year. It is a season of great optimism and angst. Certain growing conditions are needed to succeed; soil temperature and moisture are vital to success and it never goes according to plan. I truly believe that farming is like being in Vegas, it’s one big gamble; not for the faint of heart. Knowing that all of your eggs are in one basket can be too much for some to bear. One bad crop can put you out of business. Most family farms today are generational because of the immense appreciation for the land and its unique lifestyle. It is a lifestyle of back breaking work at times, but with that hard work comes tremendous reward. The overwhelming feeling of accomplishment that comes from putting a seed into the dirt, and with water, sun and a lot of hard work, you are able to produce something that is greater than you.
How do you differentiate your business from the competition?
We're one of the only specialty food brands that both farms our own product and sells directly to the consumer; think: full control over integrity and quality of the product from farm to table, literally.
What has been your most effective marketing strategy to grow your business?
Prioritizing relationship building and aligning our brand with influencers and industry experts to boost credibility. As the old adage says, it's not always what you know but who you know. Relationship building aided us in being featured on The Cooking Channel with G. Garvin and provided a platform for us to get the message out about the farm-to-table qualities, nutritional benefits and culinary versatility of peanuts and peanut products.
What's your best piece of advice for aspiring and new entrepreneurs?
I’d love for other business owners to understand that it’s critical to your business and personal well-being to embrace challenges and not to fear failure. At some point, our society (both professionally and personally) became so paralyzed by the fear of failure that we began to view the experience as a source of shame instead of a source of fresh opportunity to self-reflect and evolve. Use failure as fuel for growth and connection and prioritize positive self-talk through each challenge. Creative solutions come to you when you’re in a tight spot; listen to your intuition and keep a tight focus on what truly matters in the highs and lows of each business season because in the journey of business, those seasons are coming. For any small or family-owned business that has experienced amazing, rapid growth, being able to scale in a sustainable way is a challenge that you’ll face. Businesses of all sizes must have a solid infrastructure and business model established to help secure their place in the market. As we grow, continuing to evolve and adopting more sophisticated digital marketing strategy is also a fantastic challenge that we’re excited about embracing. But it’s the love of growing and maintaining and caring for the land that has been worked by my husband’s family for more than a century that makes the challenges worth it.
What's your favorite app, blog, and book? Why?
Favorite app: LogMeIn. No matter what life throws at me, when I am away from the office I can still access my office computer and work remotely when needed. This app has been a lifesaver.
Blog: The Positivity Blog by Henrik Edberg. An easy read that is a reminder that life does not have to be so complicated. Happiness is a choice; no matter how complicated or overwhelming life seems at that moment, there is always something in your life to be thankful for.
Book: Unlimited Power: The New Science of Personal Achievement by Anthony Robbins. This book has provided by me with a sense of courage and motivation, not only in my personal life but in my professional life as well. "Some people have life to happen to them and others happen to life"- here’s to being one of those that happens to life.
What's your favorite business tool or resource? Why?
Shipping Easy. It integrates all of our shopping channels into one platform with ease and integrates seamlessly with our accounting software, reducing/eliminating data entry.
Who is your business role model? Why?
My family. I have been fortunate enough to have many people in my life who have the entrepreneurial spirit. My dad, aunts, grandfather, to name a few. Starting a business and being self-employed is a hard road. With that being said, it is a very personal choice. While others may think the cons outweigh the pro's, it really is all about perspective. For me personally, the pro's have outweighed the cons. I work my business around my family so that I can always put them first. While the flexibility is definitely a pro for me, I am often faced with working longer/later hours to afford this perk. Growing up, I observed my family members and had the privilege to learn from their mistakes and use their successes to propel my own path.
What do you have planned for the next six months?
While it’s important to be present, I always have goals and am forecasting what the next 6, 12, 18 months, etc. will look like in terms of business goals and aspirations.
A few exciting projects in the line up:
(1) Add 3 additional flavors to our Virginia peanut line. (Stay tuned!)
(2) Add additional nuts to our line up.
(3) Amp up our website for an increase in e-commerce sales.
(4) Increase awareness surrounding the health benefits of peanuts and what "Farm to Table" truly means; showing the consumer what goes into the creation of our products from planting, growing, harvesting and processing.
How can our readers connect with you?