One of the central factors determining the success or failure of a business strategy is the ability to distinguish between a fad and a trend.

For any given business the dividing line is often the ability to move from a single product that meets a particular need to a range of products serving a broader population.

In other cases, companies learn from an initial market failure that the product might actually meet a far different need in an entirely unforeseen market.

Gary Dahl made a few million dollars one year selling Pet Rocks. Jeff Bezos made billions (though not much profit) creating a convenient platform for online shopping. Buying a virtual “room” where prepubescent girls could gather to share fantasies about the latest teen heartthrob cost Rupert Murdock $500 million. Creating a virtual world “community center” where last month 1 billion people actually entered the front door at the same time has made Mark Zuckerberg a mega-billionaire and the first world emperor with a shot at getting the entire planet’s population into his domain.

The world’s economy is abuzz with the effort to move from fad to trend and from product to platform. Netflix has moved from a DVD mailing service to an entertainment producer threatening the monopolies of the cable TV giants.

And the cable giants are rushing to buy online news aggregators threatening print media empires and further blurring the line between news and entertainment. Even Intel – the dominant chip supplier of the personal computer age – is trying to jump from the now fading trend of desktop devices to the rising trend of mobile devices by entering the entertainment fray by producing a gadget-oriented reality TV show called “America’s Greatest Makers” with a $1 million prize.

And best of all, trust fund baby, serial bankruptcy artist and full-time narcissist Donald Trump has turned the product of self-promotion into a platform for becoming president of the greatest country in the world. How did we rubes get so lucky?

Where, I have been wondering lately, in all this restructuring, reinventing, platform building frenzy does Maine fit?

I got at least one answer several weeks ago bouncing across the fields of the Snell Family Farm in an oversized go-kart-like wagon with Carolyn, a third-generation agricultural entrepreneur. While fielding calls about a broken cooler and orders from a Portland restaurant, she zoomed her way around the family fields to show me her hydrangea plants, her water lilies (now merely an ornamental attraction for visitors), her apples, her Swiss chard and the myriad other crops she, her family and their employees plant, cultivate, sell, analyze, evaluate and retire.

“I run my business through the Portland Farmers Market,” Carolyn said. “I learn from my customers. Every week I learn a little bit about what works and what doesn’t.”

And every season her planting decisions reflect the fads she abandons and the trends she rides in search of the product whose margins will keep her, her family and her employees growing for another year. “I would be bored,” she said, “merely signing a contract to deliver so many pounds of something.”

Her father, John, added: “And just producing a commodity is the sure road to eventual ruin. We need to keep searching for the new item we can produce at a profit and cover our overhead. We need to stay ahead of the market.”

In the entrepreneurial startup world, analysts praise the serial entrepreneur – someone who starts and builds company after company after company. In Maine agriculture, we have generational entrepreneurs – imaginative and innovative people and their equally energetic and managerially competent descendants who started, built and have continued to adjust enterprises as nimble and acutely aware of changing customer tastes as any gazelle in Silicon Valley, the Research Triangle or the labs at MIT in Cambridge.

The trend of eating more healthy foods; the trend of tracing food back to a known origin in ways that convey a sense of the care and environmental stewardship involved in its production; and the trend of increasing water scarcity in the West – combined with Maine’s abundance of water and lengthening growing season – all represent long-term realities for Maine. Particular product fads will come and go, but nimble Maine farmers will be able to avoid overinvestment by staying close to their customers and sticking with the trend of sustainable production of healthy crops.

In the world of celebrity-oriented fads, Maine’s oldest entrepreneurs – its multigenerational, acutely market-sensitive, trend-identifying family farm enterprises represent a strong base upon which to build a solid economic future.

We could do worse (and have in the past done far worse) than create an economic development strategy on these trends and the entrepreneurial spirit of the families who bring food to the world from our fields and our seas.

Charles Lawton is chief economist for Planning Decisions Inc. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]