Business is Business but Farming is Personal

Farming is not an occupation, it’s a calling. The farmers that I know are passionate about growing really good food. Additionally, they want to educate their customers and keep them informed, which, in turn, creates loyal customers.

Selling directly to customers creates some unique issues for farmers. Standard marketing methods don’t usually work that well for a couple of reasons: it’s too expensive and casts too wide a net. Farmers who sell directly to consumers need advertising methods that work on a personal basis. They also need to reach customers locally, which can be a challenge on the world wide web.

There are a number of online tools farmers can use to solve some of these issues and yet maintain steady relationships with customers. Blogs and social media are free, immediately accessible, and usually easier to understand and use than a website. What they take, however, is time and a certain amount of dedication to the relationships these tools create. Time is in short supply when weeds need pulling and there are goats to milk and cucumbers to harvest.

I believe the trick is to find and use the tools that best fit your business model and your personality. Let me give you an example: a blog is a great way to keep your CSA customers in touch with what is happening on the farm. If you hate to write, however, a blog is going to be agony to use. A better choice would be Twitter, which limits the size of your postings. You can announce, “Beets are here!” without having to spend lots of time putting together an entry. You can even Tweet from your phone.

Last fall, I explored a few ways you can use social media to improve your marketing ability. In truth, social media and blogs are so new, that there isn’t really a wrong way to use them. (Well, unless you use them illegally.) Any way that you can enhance your customer base using Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, or Blogspot is valid. In fact, folks are quite encouraged to use social media in new and interesting ways.

I’m reserving a later posting to explore methods for reaching customers through social media, blogs, and other online tools. Stay tuned.

Small Farmers and Social Media

I’ve heard from a number of small farmers and small farm advocates that there isn’t a place for high tech in a community-based agricultural endeavor. I say that there is. In fact, I believe that the latest internet tools can enhance a small farming community and can lead to a greater connection with those who appreciate locally-grown, organic foods.

Just as email has become a replacement for a great deal of paper sent through USPS, social media can facilitate conversations with customers when time or distance is a problem. Social Media can also act as an amazingly immediate news service, uniquely geared towards an individual’s needs. Let me explain.

In Los Angeles a couple of years ago, there were a number of very fine chefs who could not afford to open any kind of eating establishment because the cost of real estate was exhorbitantly high. (Ah yes, the good old days…) They were past the apprenticeship stage of their careers but couldn’t get to the next level for lack of capital. These enterprising gourmands could, however, afford taco vans. Essentially, they took some kitchens-on-wheels and renovated them enough to accomodate their culinary specialities. They could park, cook, serve, and go. The biggest problem they had was that they couldn’t park in the same place everytime. So, how did they let their local customers know where they were serving?

They signed up for free accounts on Twitter, or Facebook, or the social medium of their choice, and posted their information on the sides of their vans. Interested customers friended or followed them either online or on their cell phones. They knew exactly where they could get their garlic vegetable soup, or allspice cupcakes, or chicken cordon bleu. The customers were waiting when the van pulled up each day.

It was a low-cost, inventive, quick business model that worked, getting fresh, gourmet foods to customers without all the hassle. (No wait staff to have to pay, either.) They could even drive out to the farms to pick up their fresh produce each day, eliminating the wait for deliveries. Lots of chefs in lots of cities are now following this model and doing quite well.

So, how can this translate to a non-movable small farm business? Let’s take a look at a couple of scenarios:

  • You run a CSA, providing baskets of fresh, organic, heirloom produce delivered to customers. Some of your customers have never seen Cherokee Purple tomatos, or Hokkaido pumpkins, or Collard greens and really don’t know how to cook them. A Facebook account is a great way to provide a listing, including pictures, of what you have included in the baskets that week, and links to recipes you’ve found online. You’re providing important information to your customers so that they can enjoy your produce even more.
  • You have a large section of U-pick crops on your land. You’d like to let people know when your fruits and vegetables are ready for harvesting. You need an immediate notification service to reach those who would be interested. A Twitter account might be just the ticket. Each entry may be only 140 characters in length but you can tell people an awful lot in that space. You can even provide links for more information.
  • You run an artisanal dairy, making unique cheeses. You’re larder is just jam-packed with a well-aged assortment of tasty comestibles and you need to move some stock. Any social media outlet will let you remind folks to meet you at the farmer’s market, ready, with cash in hand, to stock up on your fine cheeses.

Social media can give you direct access to your customers, without an outlay of money. It also eliminates the need to maintain contact lists. Customers have the ability to follow you at their discretion and to forward your information to others who would likewise be interested. Social media accounts, unlike websites, are free. Yep, free. What they do take is a bit of time. Unlike posting static information on a website, you create a conversation with your customers and, sometimes, even customers you don’t yet have.

How do you get your customers to follow you on a social media site? How did they become customers in the first place? Wherever you post information for people to see is where you can add your Facebook or Twitter information. Easy-peasy, pudding and pie…

Incidentally, my twitter account is @ruraltechgeek. If you want to know more about uses for social media, look me up there.