Small Farm Central's latest development project was quietly released a few weeks ago (besides the Small Farm Central project we also provide professional web consulting and development services to agriculture-related organizations).
BuyLocalPA.org's goal is familiar: connect eaters with local sources of food. The technology takes the next step in modeling a local food system by combining the latest web mapping technology from Google Maps with advanced profile creation, local food event management, comment functionality, and more.
The site is open for free to any local food business in Pennsylvania, so if you are in the state head on over to the site and sign up.
Some sample searches:
Map the Pittsburgh area: http://buylocalpa.org/map/15224
Map Philadelphia: http://buylocalpa.org/map/19146
Who is selling lettuce currently near Pittsburgh: http://buylocalpa.org/map/search?text=lettuce&zoomlevel=9&zip=15224
Farmers Markets in Eastern Pennsylvania: http://buylocalpa.org/map?zip=19149&checkedcats=15
Events Near Pittsburgh (local food week is coming on September 21st): http://buylocalpa.org/map?lat=40.466800689697&lng=-79.993499755859&zoomlevel=10&checkedcats=event
A Few of the Innovative Features
Current Products: One of the big questions consumers have is: what is in season now? If you are looking for local corn in February, the site should reflect the fact that farms do not have corn available at that time. Farmers on BuyLocalPA.org create a list of all their products at the beginning of the season with general start of end dates of availability (using a fancy "slider" control) and then the software that runs the site takes a look at that list each week and automatically adds and removes products that should be in or out of season. Of course there is the ability to override the system just in case a strawberry crop fails.
Multiple Locations: Each profile can create multiple mapped locations. For example, if your CSA is located 50 miles outside of the city, but you do 15 drop points within the city, isn't it more important for potential members to know where the drop-off points are rather than the actual farm location?
Trading Partners: Farms and consumers can map out their food-shed by creating links on their profiles to sellers, buyers, farmers markets, and other profiles that are on the site. In this way, a consumer that was interested in Turner Farms milk can find out that the milk is sold at Whole Foods, Giant Eagle, and the East Liberty Farmers Market.
Stay Local: Searching and viewing is done at the zip-code level because eaters in Central Pennsylvania are not interested in the local food offerings of Northeast PA.
And many more innovations from event mapping to making local food connections between users (like, how can I find someone to share a side of beef with me this fall?).
The project will be supported by special features that are available only to paid consumer members and paid local food providers. This is an exciting model and I look forward to continued involvement in making it a success.
This is all part of the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture's (PASA) outreach to local food consumers. I am proud of this project and I hope Pennsylvanians will find something good to eat!
[The Blog had a birthday while we were away on an end-of-summer blog-holiday. I'm sure you didn't mind since you were out harvesting instead of reading, but we are back at the blog and you will see postings once a week for the fall, winter, and spring.]
The Small Farm Central blog has one year under its belt. I have greatly enjoying writing about web marketing topics from the unique perspective of the small farmer.
For those of you who missed these articles or who have just recently come to the blog, here are some highlights.
10 Highlights from the Early Days of the Blog
In no particular order, but I'll number them anyway.
1. August 21, 2007: First blog entry, What is this all about?
2. August 23, 2007 - November 1, 2007: A ten-part course in web design & marketing for farms, Farming the Web
3. August 27, 2007: Market sales drop at the end of the season, a condensed version of a discussion on the market-farming listserv.
4. Fall 2007: Beth Bader contributed recipes on a weekly basis last fall, this is a list of her contributions and a recipe for Cauliflower, Chard and Leek Gratin.
5. September 12th, 2007: An interview with Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo covers his blog marketing strategy and successes up to that point. Since last year, he has been featured in Gourmet magazine, among others, and his Internet sales have taken off even further.
6. October 9, 2007: Specific ideas to get you started on writing a farm blog, Part 1 & Part 2.
7. October 29, 2007: This blog post on canning, Canning is Ideology in a Jar, received several thousand hits from Stumble Upon and still is the most popular blog entry with over 5,000 views. Honestly, I am not sure why it is so popular, but the link got out to the right place.
8. November 12, 2007: We posted some sample cards to hand out at markets or other public facing places. This is a great way to generate hits on your website and help your customers understand who you are.
9. November 27, 2008: Did you know that there are 9 distinct ways to eat your home-canned food?
10. December 26, 2008: You never know who will visit your website or what connections you will make, so why not embrace the Serendipity Factor ?
To another year of farm marketing blogging and providing great web services to farms across the country. Stay in the conversation: tell us what you think, post comments, and ask about topics you are interested in.
Ever wonder how we control spam on Small Farm Central sites? We use a system that you have seen many times throughout the web called CAPTCHA (which stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart).
This is a series of distorted letters and words that is difficult (or hopefully impossible) for a computer program to decipher, but is easy for the human brain to translate.
It's not really important for you to understand the specifics except that a CAPTCHA makes sure that a human is at the other end on comment submissions, emails from the website, mailing list submissions, and anywhere else that we take input from the user.
We use a really interesting implementation of the CAPTCHA called reCAPTCHA (starting in fall 2007) from Carnegie Mellon University which is coincidentally just a few miles down the road in the same city that Small Farm Central is based.
Each CAPTCHA word on Small Farm Central sites is scanned in by a project that is seeking to digitize the literary public domain. There are always certain words that the computer cannot understand as they attempt to encode these books, so the reCAPTCHA project takes the collective brain power that was heretofore wasted on CAPTCHAs and puts it to the task of deciphering these words so that these books can be searched and read digitally in the future.
I won't hope to match the reporting skills of the Wall Street Journal, so that covers the basics: read this Wall Street Journal article for all the interesting details! Thanks, Patrick for the link.
If you want to test a reCAPTCHA for yourself, you are welcome to try leaving a comment on this very entry.
This week we are adding a little theory to go along with the practical marketing advice. One of the key ideas of modern marketing is called "permission marketing" -- most of you are already doing this, but it is a helpful to have a framework and label for what you are doing to keep you on track.
Permission marketing is Seth Godin's term coined in a 1999 book which explains how businesses can effectively market themselves to their best customers without spending a lot of money and by providing value for the customer's attention.
In Godin's words: "Permission marketing is the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them."
This is in contrast to "interruption marketing" like television commercials, billboards, spam email, and junk mail which clutter our physical and mental worlds without adding value.
As farmers providing healthful products that add a lot of value to a customer's life, it is easy to get that permission to market to current and prospective customers. Godin says, you are using permission marketing if customers complain when they don't receive your messages. So, do you customers complain when forget to send the weekly newsletter?
Provide value every time you connect with your customers whether it is a story about your experience producing food or practical information that the recipient can use like recipes, product availability, or nutrition information.
An Agrarian Example
Get permission to send a weekly newsletter to your farmer's market customers. Be timely by sending out product availability for the market the night before. Be relevant by splitting up your list for different markets so only the people who go to a certain market get the message. If you muddy the message by including all your markets for the week you are wasting the attention that your buyers are giving to you.
Try to send this message for the first 10 weeks of the season and then see what happens on the 11th week if you forget to send the message. I think your customers will complain!
Further Reading on Permission Marketing
Do sales stop "cold" after the farmers market closes or you shut the doors on your farm stand in the Fall?
In October and November, there is usually hardy produce in the garden, meat in the freezer, and the chickens are still producing their eggs. Customers are still hungry for local food and it is finally cool enough in the kitchen to do some real cooking.
If you have been collecting email addresses all summer for your mailing list, your customers are just an email away. Use the Small Farm Central mailing list manager or send one on your own to let your customers know about your availability this fall.
Of course the ecommerce extension makes this process easy and efficient. Just set up your inventory, send a note out to your customers to tell them that the online store is open for business, watch the orders come in with email notifications, and then print a report when you are ready to pick and pack.
As you just sweat through another muggy summer day, it seems a bit premature to start thinking about the cool days of fall. The idea of heavy coat is so foreign at this time of year -- it is hard to remember being cold. But if you want to sell in that shoulder season, it is time to start collecting email addresses, planting a bit extra to sell during those after market months, and start informing your customers that this service will be available during the cooler months.
On a more summery note, I like the colorful ecommerce pages Green Gardens Community Farm in Battle Creek, MI created with Small Farm Central:
Or take a look at the "item detail" page for Kale that shows the customer exactly how this crop grows.
Angelic Organics is offering free recipes to promote their cookbook, Farmer John's Cookbook: http://www.angelicorganics.com/recipeservice
This is a nice service because you can download the recipe right in PDF or Word format and paste it right in your newsletter. I assume these are recipes straight out of the cookbook.
I have the cookbook and I really like the stories and photos that are sprinkled throughout the book; it makes a very attractive package. I have found some of the recipes to be a little untested or untasty, so I do not favor the cookbook. I am not sure how others have found the recipes.
This sharing of recipes is a great concept and something we have done from the beginning here at Small Farm Central. Each recipe that is added to a Small Farm Central is available for any other farmer to add to their site with one click.
It has been fun watching the database grow to over 500 recipes and counting. Farmers who just start a new website really like having all that content that they can quickly insert into their website. Search for chard, green beans, or bokchoi and find recipes ready for your site that you don't even need to type or categorize.
Whether you use Farmer John or Small Farm Central, it is a great resource to have all these recipes at your fingertips.
An option we haven't discussed much here at the Small Farm Central blog is having a website custom designed from the ground-up by a designer or developer. This is not the approach we take with the Small Farm Central service (though we can get a custom design done for you, if you like) simply due to the cost incurred in custom development. For some farms, the cost of this work is justifiable.
Don't get caught up with common mistakes when getting your site custom designed.
How much does it cost?
For a good designer or developer, expect to pay at least $40/hour; the most expensive designers can cost much more more than $100/hour. At an average rate of $50/hour, you should not expect to spend under $1,500 on a custom designed website. This of course depends on the features: if you want ecommerce, a mailing list manager, or a blog expect to pay more.
These are initial development costs, so you should expect to pay more for hosting, domain registration, and on-going maintenance of your site.
Questions to ask your designer
It is perhaps a bit obvious, but ask the designer to provide samples of previous work. One thing to account for is that a farm website is going to look vastly different than your average social networking or hard rock band website. You need to make sure the designer has a feel for the agrarian or you will be really disapointed in the product and will likely spend a lot of money getting it right.
I heard the story of organization that supports urban agriculture in a particular region getting a website redesign. They hired a respectable local designer that has done a lot of good work in the past. When the first draft came back to the organization, the header of the website had a large corn field as the main graphic. Of course, it is excusable for an average person to think that corn is an urban crop, it was not excusable for a designer doing work with urban agriculture organization. After a few more rounds of redesigns, it became clear that the relationship was not going to work and another design firm had to be found. This mistake lead to a few thousand dollars wasted on these capable designers who couldn't work with an agricultural look.
Make sure the designer has experience creating some of the advanced features you want on your website like websites and blogs. While these elements should not be a problem for a capable developer, it is hard to know what you will get if you have your designer "learn on the job."
I hear from a lot of farmers who had a friend, customer, or student develop their website for them. I imagine that many of these arrangements work and that I only hear from people who are dissatisfied with their website. Many new Small Farm Central members get tired of contacting their designer to make changes or having someone who isn't a complete professional in the position.
Ask for a Content Management System
A competent web designer does not want to be contacted each time you want to update your product list or add a photo to your website ... they have better things to do. A content management system allows you to login and make basic changes to your website like wording, prices, or photos. This will likely cost you extra in the short run because it is more work for the person you are hiring to design your website. In the long run, it can save you a lot of money. I hear about farms really having to measure how often they can update their website because their designer will charge a full hour rate for any changes made -- think $50 to change a misspelling or add a paragraph.
You will still have to contact your designer for more drastic changes, but most of your pages and your photo gallery should be readily accessible 24 hours a day at no cost to you.
Next week: How to Find Great Designer
Next week, I'd like to talk more about how to find the right designer. I'd also like to post links to some designers that specialize in agricultural web design. I know of some, but I am sure there are many more that I haven't heard of. Do you know any? Please post in comments if you do.
I read the following quote about the fashion industry in a New York Times article a month or two ago:
"We as a business cannot afford to have a customer take a second look and ask, ‘Do I need this?’ ” said Bud Konheim, the chief executive of Nicole Miller. “That is the kiss of death. We’re finished, because nobody really needs anything we make as a total industry.”
This quote reminds me that as a farmer, rancher, or local food producer, the marketing is the exact opposite. You want people to take a second look at their purchasing habits and think why they have to pay a few dollars more on food or spend a few minutes searching for a local producer each week to eat more locally.
Your argument is that everyone needs what you produce for personal health, environmental health, a strong local economy, reducing the amount of oil used in this country, and all the other arguments that help people understand why they buy from you.
The most successful farmer's market vendors always find a way to offer a tasting to customers. This is a chance to experience the difference between, say a peach shipped in from California in February versus an August, tree-ripened, Redhaven peach is obvious and will be remembered for a lifetime after that first taste.
I don't think we need to bang people over the head with the differences between local food and airplane shipped produce and why each food choice is so important. People want to come to their own conclusions, so keep gently nudging your customers and the "lococurious". What you do is vitally important to many aspects of our lives and with a little suggestion over time it should be possible to bring many new customers in-line with your cause.
Have you ever gotten an email from a relative that you have to piece together by scrolling around the photo because it is much bigger than the screen? This is mildly disconcerting because you worry what Uncle Larry took a picture of at first and annoying because it takes so long to get the full picture.
The same problem exists on some farm websites. Photos need to be optimized for web viewing which means they need to be small enough to view on a single monitor and load quickly even on slower connections. Since photos immediately connect your customers to the production of their food, it is important to get this right.
Modern digital cameras take very high quality photos that are perfect if you are zooming into a photo or want to make prints, but in their unprocessed form they are almost unusable on a website.
The software that powers Small Farm Central automatically resizes photos to an acceptable size, but even then some farmers have problems getting the photo to the servers because there is so much unnecessary data in the file. Try resizing your photos first -- if it was taking you a few minutes to upload your photo before, after resizing your photos it should take around 10-15 seconds to get the photo to upload.
If you run Windows, a great piece of software is Picasa which allows you to resize photos in large batches. Read this help document to learn how to resize photos with Picasa. The software has a great interface and a lot of other photo editing tools, so it is definitely worth the download.
If you are on Mac, I don't have as clear of a recommendation. I found this video which explains how to use Apple Mail to resize photos. Perhaps there is a better way? Let the community know in comments.
This advice stands for any farm website you are running, whether it is Small Farm Central or not. We do take care the smaller details of creating thumbnails and sizing the photos correctly, but if you are running your own website, look to resize your full size photos to around 640 x 480 pixels.
It is almost June. It is time to start or restart your summer mailing list.
Some thoughts, suggestions, tips. Feel free to add your own in comments.
How often do you send a notice to your mailing list? Perhaps once a week during the summer and once a month during the winter. It is important to create a clear schedule that you can communicate to new sign-ups on your website or in person. They want to know how often they will contacted and once you have made that promise, don't contact them more often or less often.
Mailing list recipients must have a mechanism to unsubscribe from further messages. A simple message at the bottom of your email to reply with "Unsubscribe" in the subject line is sufficient. Professional mailing list managers, like Small Farm Central, will have an automated way for recipients to opt-out of your email so you don't have to manage the list.
Fill your list
Don't settle for a small list of committed friends and customers. If you are going to take the time to compose and send messages at regular intervals, it makes sense to send to as large a list as possible. I wrote many tips for gathering new email address late last year in Collecting Email Addresses.
Please don't BCC or CC
As you start your list, you may be sending your emails through a regular email client with all of the addresses copied and pasted into the BCC or CC fields of the email. This works for email lists under 100 recipients, but as your list grows, the technology solution must change. You run the risk of having your email message or worse, your email address, marked as spam if you are sending hundreds of emails through the BCC or CC field.
A professional solution sends each message individually. One positive aspect of this approach is that your mailing list members cannot see each other's email address. Also, many Internet Service Providers have a limit on how many messages can be sent per minute or hour; a professional approach will send the emails in small bursts to make sure the email gets to it's destination correctly.
Break it up
I imagine your farm has different kinds of customers: CSA members, beef buyers, regular Monday farmers market customers, or egg subscribers. It may be desirable to send different messages at different times to these groups of customers. One new aspect of Small Farm Central 2.0 (which came out in March of this year) is that each farm can create customer groups and send targeted emails to those groups.
For example, perhaps you send an availability list out to farmers market customers the night before the market. If you have one market on Monday and one market on Friday, it doesn't make sense to send the same message at the same time to both of those groups. So with the new system you can send a pertinent email to each group.
There are many other uses for this functionality: surely chefs at the restaurants you serve do not need the same information that farm stand customers want. Break it up as far as you want while still being able to manage the lists.
I presume that most stand-alone email solutions also provide a service like this.
Your customers love to hear from you!
You have a superior product and agricultural ideals - your customers want to buy your products, but it is often hard to remember to visit the farmers market, farm stand, or pick up the CSA box. It is not your customer's responsibility to remember that sides of beef are available in the Fall.
An email mailing list is a perfect way to remind customers of what you are offering, where you are offering, and why it is important. Americans check their emails numerous times per day (six times per day is the average), so an email is a great way to reach people and get attention.
More on sending mailing lists
Want to know how to get emails from here to there safely? There are lots of options, check out:
Sending Emails Professionally