Making a living as a farmer isn’t easy. Small farms have so much work on their plates, adding marketing into the mix may seem like an impossible task. But taking the time to make a farm more visible to consumers and to grow the businesses is a vital task for economic health.
In Cultivating Customers: A Farmer’s Guide to Online Marketing (Lioncrest Publishing, Middletown, Delaware, 2019), Simon Huntley offers strategies to both farmers and farmers markets for connecting with their customers online, and for converting one-time buyers into regulars.
Huntley notes that while there are more customers than ever interested in buying locally grown or organic food, there are also many more food purchasing options for them to choose from (and to confuse them), including Whole Foods, online retailers and even conventional grocery stores and supermarkets. Farmers face a lot of choices, too, on how to reach customers so that consumers’ dollars flow more directly to the hardworking farmers, including social media, email marketing, websites and more.
How does a farmer put all of these pieces together to provide a common sense marketing approach that respects the fact that as a farmer, there are many chores to finish after marketing, Huntley asks.
In trying to answer that question, Huntley walks readers through various aspects of digital marketing, including identifying the ideal customer, building interest online, understanding the customer life cycle, and developing a marketing plan (the book includes a worksheet to help businesses work through the different aspects of a marketing plan).
Then, in part two of the book, he gets into specific strategies and tactics for using different tools of the digital world – from social media sites like Facebook and Instagram to email and text-message marketing. Interspersed with his advice are examples from farms who have tackled the tasks well.
For example, he highlights Suzie’s Farm in San Diego as a powerhouse user of Facebook. Life on the farm, upcoming events and farmhouse dinners, recipes and contents of their community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes, as well as dozens of customer reviews were all subjects for its Facebook posts. But ironically (and heartbreakingly for co-owner Lucila De Alejandro and husband Robin Taylor), Suzie’s Farm closed due to financial strains according to an article in The San Diego Union-Tribune. Its closing was the subject of a 10 minute passionate and tearful video announcement on Facebook. Despite this confirmation that making a living growing real food for a community is not easy, the farm’s Facebook closing announcement manages to celebrate what Suzie’s Farm did accomplish.
Yet, Huntley’s advice still rings true: in posting on Facebook, the key is the mix. Posts should be helpful and interesting to the farm’s followers. By focusing more on how to deliver interesting, valuable content to their audience, farmers can end up selling more CSA shares, getting more people out to their events, and getting more foot traffic to the farmstand or farmers market.
Huntley also discusses website design and gets into the nitty-gritty of search engine optimization (SEO), which means using keywords on a website that match what a potential customer may be searching for when they go online looking for local farm products.
When a person does a Google search for local food, local farms, or farmers markets, it’s important that your farm shows up in that search, he writes. If you can get your website in front of them at that crucial time, you’re most of the way toward gaining a new customer.
In part three of the book, Huntley addresses the different sales models farmers can use for selling their farm goods, including farmers markets, CSAs and selling to restaurants. There are pros and cons to each model, and different techniques for building sales. He talks to different farmers about their approach and lets them weigh in with their advice, adding additional experienced voices to the mix.
Local farms and markets need to mature to compete with food-tech startups, online sellers, and food chains, Huntley concludes. We need to up our game. By embracing social media and reaching out to customers and potential customers in the digital world, small farms can expand their customer base exponentially.
Huntley, who grew up on a farm, has experience in helping farmers succeed. In 2006, he founded Small Farm Central, now called Harvie, an online platform for local farms to run a CSA or farm share program. The platform is designed to help farmers retain customers and meet sales growth targets. Since its founding, the platform’s tools have helped more than 1,000 local food businesses. You can learn more about Harvie at www.harvie.farm/forfarmers/small-farm-central.
(Gillian Scott, 8/27/19)
[Editor’s Note (FWB): The film, The Biggest Little Farm (showing in cinematic detail the often dramatic and suspenseful challenges of establishing a successful small farm in harmony with nature) is highly recommended in our recently posted review.]