Ever wonder how you can stop customers from squeezing the tomatoes you bring to market each week? Why not ask a fellow farmer? You might get a great answer like this one:
"I put up a big laminated sign that says: Do you like it rough? Tomatoes don't. Please be gentle."
That was one of the suggestions posted to the CSA Farmer Discussion Facebook group that Small Farm Central created this past March. With over 300 members, it's a great place to poll other farmers and get answers to your questions from people who've "been there".
Here is a preview of some of the topics of discussion that have popped up recently:
Farmers weigh in about scaling up and make suggestions about how many CSA shares you can expect from one acre of land.
Can people visiting your farm unwittingly bring blight to your crops? Farmers offer alternatives for keeping your farm safe without closing your doors to visitors.
Farmers sometimes eat worse than their customers! How to feed yourself well when you are busy working hard to feed others.
What to do when your CSA customers are dissatisfied with the season's offerings and forget about the conditions of your member agreement.
The group is kept private so that it stays focused and allows farmers to have candid conversations with their peers, but it's easy to join the conversation. Simply click this link: http://www.facebook.com/groups/306541762795660/, log into your Facebook account, and click the "Join Group" button to be part of the discussion!
Back in June, Small Farm Central made a special offer of free website reviews to the first 25 farms that responded. I was charged with the task of reviewing these websites and providing feedback to the farms. These reviews primarily were focused on the nuts and bolts of a website - were there any broken links, bad image files, formatting, font or navigation issues? They were not intended to be critiques of the quality of the website and for the most part did not include me reading the website’s complete contents.
However, as I reviewed each website, I couldn’t help but read some of the content. In doing so, I got a sense of what these farmers were trying to do with their sites and I began to develop some more detailed content and concept recommendations to share with others. As I did more of these reviews, the concept of "the website as a narrative" really began to take form.
Websites are more than just information depositories; they are part of a larger marketing effort for your farm. Your website is there to tell your farm’s story and it’s important make sure that all of the parts of the story are there, that it is interesting and that it is understood. Having clear and factual information and having a nicely laid out website with good navigation are critical to imparting knowledge to potential customers, but it is the story that your website tells (or doesn’t tell) that will have an impact on whether or not they return. Here are some suggestions to help you craft your own narrative and share your unique story with your customers and communities.
The first important part is to provide the farm’s backstory. Is this a multi-generation farm that has been in the family for a hundred years? If so, tell us the story of the farm’s beginnings, provide old photographs, and talk about how the farm was passed down between the generations. If your farm is a cooperative of beginning farmers, tell us about what brought the original members of the group together, how you acquired your land, and what are your hopes for your endeavor.
Tips: In general, you don’t want to put your farm’s full life story on your website’s home page. Just a snippet will go there; two or three sentences that get to the essence of the farm. Then, create a page entitled something like “About the Farm” or “Our History” that includes the full story and add it as a main menu option in your navigation. Under that option, you’ll want to include a menu option for “Our Farmers” or “Farm Staff” where you can begin to talk about the individuals that make up your farm. You can aslo add a page here that gives more details about your farm's past, present, and future. More on that later.
It is surprising to me how often I look at a farm’s website and they either have little or no information on the farmers and staff that work there. A page that says “Bob/Farmer” and a photo of a guy on a tractor doesn’t tell us much. Depending on your farm, you may have a wide range of characters - the farmers, the staff, interns, volunteers, the family pets, etc. These aren’t just models hired to market your farm, they are a vital part of your farm; so decide how they fit into your farm’s story and feature them on the site.
Tips: Deciding who to highlight in your staff listings can be a task. In general you’ll want to include the principal members of the farm (i.e. the owners), people that your customers will likely interact with (people who answer the phones and email, people who regularly work the markets) and other long term employees or even volunteers that people may associate with the farm. You don’t need to have everyone answer 20 questions, but there is something nice about providing a little more information for everyone than just their name and occupation. At a bare minimum, you will want to include the person’s first name, their role on the farm and a good quality photograph. Customers love to be able to put a face to a name and learn about who’s growing their food.
So you have your backstory and your setting along with your cast of characters, now it is time to tell the rest of the story, but how much is too much? While I’ve come across a number of websites that were underdeveloped and failed to adequately tell their story, there were some that attempted to say too much and as such caused their story to get lost amongst a sea of “too much information”. With a website it is easy to keep adding content, stuff that you feel is interesting or tangential to your farm’s story, but there comes a time when it becomes too much. Similarly, sometimes people will add the same content to multiple pages or under multiple menu items on their website in an effort to make sure the information is not missed. Unfortunately this often leads to clutter on your website that can make it more difficult for a visitor to find the information they are after. This can also lead to problems when you go to update information if you forget to change items on all the pages, leading to conflicting information on different pages.
Tips: So how do you know if you are going overboard? Here’s some some things to look out for:
- Do you have lots of large blocks of text on your website? There’s a time and place for large pieces of writing, however if you have lots of them on your website, it can be a sign that you are rambling a bit. Simplify your text. Use lists. Link to articles elsewhere that speak to the information you are attempting to convey. If you do need to have a text heavy page, be sure to break it up with some photos, paragraph breaks, etc.
- Are you having trouble fitting all of your menu items on your menu bar? Do your drop down menus have more than a handful of items in them?
- Do you have the same information on multiple pages? Remember that with the magic of hyperlinks you can simply include information on one page and then link to that page elsewhere on your site. For example, have one page with all of your relevant CSA share information on it. If you talk about your CSA elsewhere, there’s no need to repeat the information, just have a link to your CSA page.
In line with keeping things simple, you also want to make sure you have consistent use of language and that you define the technical terms that you use on your site. One farm I reviewed used the term “members” on one section of their site and then used “shareholders” on another. I was left wondering if these were two names for the same individuals or if they were two separate groups. Make sure you don’t leave your website users confused about the information you present.
Tips: There are terms such as organic, naturally-grown, free-range that can have various meanings to your customers. Some of these, such as organic, have specific legal definitions. Because of that, you probably don’t need to detail what that means directly on your website (but you should link to information about the standards you meet to be certified.) However, if you use more general language (i.e. “we use all-natural growing techniques”), it is worth spelling out what you mean by that.
As most writers will probably tell you, the best way to get feedback on your writing is to get somebody else to read it and ask for their thoughts. Your website is no different. Find someone - a friend or a customer perhaps - and ask them to review your site. Then use their feedback to make your site better. To help them review try asking them the following questions:
1. Is the information clear and concise?
2. What is your sense of what I'm are trying to convey through my website?
3. Do you think the site does a good job of telling my farm’s story?
4. Do you have any questions that they could not find the answers too? Is anything missing?
Tips: Re-visit your own site regularly and review what you’ve created. Does it still say what you want it to say? What can you add or change on your site to reflect the evolving nature of your farm? Remember: Your story keeps growing. Regularly posting blog entries, new photos and updated information are crucial to keeping your narrative engaging & alive.
Feeling overwhelmed? Small Farm Central is offering Advanced Website Reviews for $99 through the month of August. This service includes a more in-depth assessment of your website, a short phone consultation, and a hour's worth of worth of labor from SFC staff towards making the adjustments you need. Call 412-567-3864 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Welcome to the fifth edition of the We Love Our Farmers photo series! We love hearing about what's happening on the Small Farm Central farms from our farmers, but we love seeing it in their websites even more. In this edition, we feature the Angelic Organics field team, hard at work!
"Angelic Organics field team transplants onions with soil block transplanter, late April, 2013, northern Illinois. Field team coordinator Jon Fagan (left) and machinery manager Primo (Jesus) Briano inspect the planter for depth and press wheel tension. Growing manager Chris Voss (right) and fertility/Biodynamics manager Andrew Stewart on the transplanter. Veteran equipment operator Pollo (Eduardo) Casique on the tractor. We had two soil block transplanters going that nice weather weekend, and put in about 60,000 seedlings total. We got caught up fast. Why fast? Because this group has 42 years of combined experience working at Angelic Organics."
- John Peterson, Angelic Organics Farm
Whether you start your season in March or May, it seems that our North American farmers have passed the halfway point in their growing season. As August marks the last summer month, many farmers are setting their sights on the Fall harvest and the holiday season that follows. It is still a busy time, and we know not many of our farmer friends are thinking about how to improve their websites as they pack CSA boxes and pick tomatoes for market...but they should!
Us folks here at Small Farm Central love our farmers as much as we love the websites we help them build, and so consider it our job to remind you not to neglect your most important marketing tool when your focus has shifted from promotion to production. Here are a few easy ways to make sure your website stays just as fresh as your crops:
Summer is a great time to take photos of your farm. The days are bright, everything is green & growing and there is plenty of work being done! Getting into the habit of regularly taking photos will make adding new content to your website easy. Now with cell phones getting better and better, you might already be carrying a camera in your pocket. Take it out once a day to snap a picture and soon you will have a showcase of images to show your customers what you've been up to.
Most Small Farm Central websites are equipped with a blog feature that makes it easy for you to post updates about your farm right on your website. Don't be scared of the word "blog", you can spend as much or as little time writing your posts as you want. Even simply displaying your newest farm photo with a short caption is enough to get people to visit your site and see what's new. If you don't have a blog, send out an email once a month with updates, photos, and a link to you website so your customers can see even more news.
More and more people are interested in visiting where their food comes from and taking part in on-farm activities. In the U.S., agritourism is a growing niche of the tourism industry and includes farm stays, you-pick operations, and everything in between. While some of the more advanced ventures will require the appropriate permits, insurance coverage, and other legal procedures, there are also simple things that you can do. For example, you can host farm tours, educational classes, volunteer days and customer/member appreciation events. Here is a great Farm Tour Guide from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board about giving farm tours, which can be adapted to any kind of farm, dairy or otherwise.
The relationship between farmers and the people they feed creates a unique and strong bond. Take the time to cultivate that relationship and you will have loyal customers who will be your farm's biggest fans, which is the best marketing tool there is!
There are many of us who celebrate Farmers Markets on a weekly basis, eagerly gathering our tote bags, making lists, and checking farmers' websites to learn about what we can expect to find. The weekly market that is within walking distance of the Small Farm Central office makes me excited for Monday to arrive, even as my weekend is ending. Next week from August 4th through the 10th the rest of the country can officially share in my weekly excitement by celebrating National Farmers Market Week.
It is important for us market patrons to take next week to recognize the value of local markets in our communities and promote them to our neighbors. It is also important for farmers to take part in the celebration. For most small farmers, the market is the most natural way to meet and interact directly with customers, which strengthens the bond between producers and consumers. Promoting your local market means promoting your business.
It's easy to find great online resources that make it simple for people to find out where, when, and how they can get their hands on fresh goods at farmers markets, which is probably why the number of markets in the U.S. has been steadily growing since 1994. Check it out!
The USDA has been collecting information about farmers markets for almost 20 years now and every year they use that information to populate the USDA National Farmers Market Directory. The directory is one of the USDA's most popular consumer search engines, receiving close to 2 million page views every day.
Back in May, the USDA released a Farmers Market Directory API or Application Programming Interface, which gives app (short for application) programmers and developers access to the USDA's database of farmers' market information. Apps like U.S. Farmers Market Finder, have already been developed for smart phones, tablets, and other mobile devices and are using the API to provide market information to its users.
There are many ways that Farmers Markets become established. Some are born out of a need from the community and others can boast that they were the beginning of the community itself. Additionally, no two markets are the same and some are lucky to have an structured organization to support them. Thankfully, for those that don't, there are people who can help. Here are some of them:
The American Farmland Trust is another organization that wants to see markets thrive. All summer long they are running the "I Love My Farmers Market Campaign" which encourages consumers to make a pledge to spend a certain amount of money at their local market and entering that amount into the website each week. Markets with the most pledges will be recognized with an award and entering pledges gets market-goers a free "No Farms, No Food" bumper sticker. Market managers can request a free media kit filled with goodies to help promote the campaign and their market.
If you are looking for support that's more local, here are a few links to organizations that are listed by state, so you can find the one closest to you:
Networking Association for Farm Direct Marketing and Agritourism - http://www.nafdma.com/Resources/Groups/
Farmers Market Coalition - http://farmersmarketcoalition.org/state-associations
Welcome to the fourth edition of the We Love Our Farmers photo series! We love seeing what's happening on the farm! In this edition, we feature the silly goats from Hidden Springs Farm.
"It's kidding season at Hidden Springs Farm and that means baby goats everywhere. These little ladies are trying to figure out how to take the UTV for a spin."
The folks over at The Land Connection (www.thelandconnection.com), are battling an unsettling statistic: 95% of the food that Illinoisans eat is not grown in Illinois. To change this fact, they are fighting on all fronts including land preservation, farmer education and community empowerment. Some of their programming includes the matching of beginning farmers with experienced farmers and farmland through The Midwest Connection, running a year long training program about entrepreneurial farming called Central Illinois Farm Beginnings, and educating consumers about how: "Shopping locally is good for your taste buds, your health, the health of rural communities, and of soil, air, and water."
It's great to have organizations like The Land Connection to support local farmers, who are fighting similar statistics across the country. Even though The Land Connection is based in the Midwest, it is a valuable resource for farmers everywhere. Check out the "Resources" section of their website for important information, links to other helpful websites, and their Farm Fresh Now! weekly vegetable series. Small Farm Central was especially impressed with the Local Food Time Ticker infographic that they created. This smartly designed graphic shows consumers what happens to the nutritional value of food as it travels, includes a chart of seasonal produce and analyzes the distribution of your food dollars.
An infographic is a great way to visually present information to your customers and makes your website or presentations more interesting and engaging. They are also an easy way to share information over social media platforms and in emails. Which is why it is so easy for The Land Connection to share it with you! Help them spread this information on your site, facebook page, or in your e-newsletter. Simply click here to open the graphic as an image file. Then, right click on it to save it to your computer for posting and sharing wherever you like. Additionally, here are some easy instructions on how make it into a widget on your Small Farm Central website:
1. Open this link: Local Food Time Ticker in a new browser tab/window.
2. Right click on the image of the infographic and choose an option to save it to your computer.
3. Log into your Control Panel and navigate to Create Content > Gallery > Upload Photo
4. Upload the infographic to your gallery
5. Navigate to Display > Widgets > Create Custom
6. Title your widget and insert the infographic into the text editor (you may have to play with the sizing based on your website
7. Choose which pages to display the widget using the "Narrow to" field.
8. Click "Submit Changes" and you're done!
For more instructions about creating a custom widget or adding a photo in the rich text editor, read these articles from the Knowledge Base: Using and Creating Custom Widgets & Using the Rich Text Editor. As always, we are here to help, so contact us at email@example.com or call 412-567-3864 and we can walk you through these steps.
Selling goods online is a great way to increase your farm's sales even if you don't want to ship your items far and wide. Contrary to what you may think, most farms are not selling items online that they send through the mail. Rather, they are using the technology to reach out to their CSA members and local customers to allow them to pre-order items from the farm and pick them up at their farm stand, weekly market, or even add them directly to their CSA share. While Small Farm Central's E-commerce tools can handle traditional online sales with shipping, they also work great for selling your extra items to local customers.
Sample E-commerce "Extras" Store
A well-managed web store selling to local customers can be more powerful than selling to people across the country since you already have a good connection with customers in your community. The easier you can make it for your customers to support your farm, the better off you will be. The average web user is now quite comfortable with online ordering and will be surprised and pleased that their local farm now offers this convenience. Additionally, online sales also allow you to enhance the shopping experience by linking to other information such as recipes and videos that you wouldn't be able to easily share with your customers while busy selling at market.
If you are wondering what the other advantages are to allowing online ordering, consider the following:
1) Convenience: Many of your customers spend considerable amounts of time on their computers, both at work and at home. Online ordering allows your customers to shop at a time that works for them and helps people to plan meals ahead of time.
2) Marketing: If other local farmers are not offering online ordering, this becomes a differentiating factor that sets you apart from the rest. You can position yourself as a one-stop shop, encouraging people to order all they need from you alone.
3) Satisfaction: For products that are very seasonal or limited in quantity, your customers can check online to see if the product is available (and order it) before having to drive to the farm or farmer's market. Handing them a package of exactly what they want means they'll never go home disappointed.
4) Ease: There's no data entry. Just go about your day-to-day farm work as the orders come in. Then when you are ready to harvest for market, simply print out a report of the orders. The report will give you an aggregate total of items sold as well as copies of individual orders to use as packing lists.
5) Flexibility: Online sales don't have to mean credit card sales. Many farms let customers pre-order online and pay by cash or check when they pick up their orders. However, credit card integration is available for those farmers interested in letting their customers pre-pay online. Imagine getting paid before you even get to the market!
Small Farm Central's E-commerce tools make taking and processing orders easy. To learn more about the process of selling pre-orders to market customers or extras to CSA members visit the Small Farm Central Knowledge Base and read “Offering Farmers' Market Pre-orders” or “Selling Extras to CSA Members”.
These E-commerce tools are available to Small Farm Central website customers who upgrade to the “Merchant” package and automatically to anyone who is using the Member Assembler CSA management software. If you are interested in upgrading to an E-commerce option for your Small Farm Central account, please contact us at 412-567-3864 or at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can discuss further how E-commerce solutions can work for you.
Welcome to the third edition of the We Love Our Farmers photo series! We love seeing what's happening on the farm! In this edition, we feature the beautiful tulips from Lilies and Lavender.
"Kathleen (Kat) Claar, is harvesting French tulips Which will be used for wedding floral designs and sold at local farmers' markets. She is an intern at Lilies and Lavender, a specialty cut flower farm in Doylestown, PA."
- Kate Sparks, Lilies and Lavender
Welcome to the second edition of the We Love Our Farmers photo series! We love hearing about what's happening on the Small Farm Central farms from our farmers, but we love seeing it on their websites even more. This is why we will be featuring photos taken by our farmers on the Small Farm Central blog. In this edition, we feature the rising creek at Tumbling Shoals Farm.
"Farm owner Jason Roehrig stands by the normally serene Tumbling Shoals Creek that turned into a roaring river that threatened to burst its banks during the May 6th floods at Tumbling Shoals Farm."
- Shiloh Avery, Tumbling Shoals Farm