It’s been a busy winter for us here at Small Farm Central. We’ve traveled about the country visiting fun and inspiring farming conferences, meeting great people, and learning about creative ways that hard working farmers are sharing their stories and connecting with customers.
We ventured out to Indiana this past December to attend the ACRES USA conference in Indianapolis, where we had the good fortune to hear the brilliant and astonishing Temple Grandin speak about her views on humane livestock handling and animal behavior, and share some of her innovative farming facility designs.
ACRES also provided us with many opportunities to connect with some of the great farmers we work with, including Greg and Lavonne Hickl from Artisan Beef Genetics (http://www.artisanbeefgenetics.com/), and Brian Schlatter from Canal Junction Creamery (http://www.cjgrassfed.com/) as well as meet some interesting new people like David Bane, a veterinarian who also runs Bane Family Meats in Sidney, Illinois and Rob Wallbridge from Songberry Organic Farm in Bristol, Quebec (http://www.songberry.ca/).
We also took a little time to explore the sights of Indianapolis. Simon and Leslie braved single digit temperatures to venture out to Maxine’s Chicken and Waffles (as seen on the Food Network!) for heaping plates of southern fried goodness: jumbo chicken wings with sweet potato waffles and peach butter; fried catfish and grits; fried green tomatoes and collard greens; spicy fried potatoes and cornbread. They also had the good fortune to stumble into a sports bar and share a few drinks with happy locals cheering on their Colts, as they crushed the Tennessee Titans – and then recover from their sports bar outing the next day with some delicious locally made treats from the Indy Winter Farmers Market.
Our first adventure of the New Year took us to Saratoga Springs for the NOFA-NY conference in mid-January. Our crew on one flight did NOT inspire our confidence when they had all the passengers get off the plane to stand on the tarmac and watch the maintenance crew work on the landing gear. Once we landed in Albany, NY, Leslie drew quite a few hostile glares and comments by wearing her Pittsburgh Steelers cap in New York Jets territory during a critical playoff weekend, and Simon did his best to put on a smile for our less-than-polite shuttle bus driver who picked us up 30 minutes late and tried to make it seem like it was somehow our fault. Hmmm.
But the wonderful local, organic food and engaging seminars at NOFA-NY more than made up for the rocky start to our travels. Simon led an all-day web-marketing workshop that introduced us to some great New York farmers. We met people like Chris and Chrissey Eberhardt from Joy of the Journey Farms (http://www.joyofthejourneyfarm.com/), who raise goats for their goat milk soap and other natural toiletries; and Jim Hyland of Winter Sun Farms in the Hudson Valley (http://www.wintersunfarms.com/), who runs a successful frozen vegetable CSA during the cold weather months.
In February, we visited State College, PA for the Pennsylvania Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) conference. We had the chance to catch up with a lot of friends from across our state, meet some new folks, and take a little trip out to Elk Creek Aleworks to celebrate Shannon’s birthday and enjoy some excellent local beer and comfort food.
We wrapped up the conference season at the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin at the end of last month. Shannon and Leslie arrived at a pretty deserted airport in La Crosse, with no ground transportation (or airport staff) in sight, but were fortunate to hitch a ride to the conference with some nice farmers from Nebraska, Tom, Linda and Becky Schwarz.
Things just got better from there -- so many Small Farm Central customers stopped by our trade show booth to say hello and talk to other farmers about our services. Thanks to everyone who came by – it was great to put faces to names and meet so many of you in person!
I want to share a great video that Ploughshare Farm (a Small Farm Central customer) put together to promote their CSA.
Any time you can include photos, video, or even a well-produced mini-movie like this for your customers you are ahead of the game, so I really applaud Ploughshare Farm in their efforts this Spring!
I live 500 miles away and I want to buy a share! What a great promotion.
Renee from Canal Junction Natural Meats, who is a Small Farm Central customer, took the time to discuss her buying club with me. I think this is a great example for farmers across the country on how to integrate technology with existing local markets.
CJ Intro: We are Canal Junction Natural Meats and Farmstead Cheese. We are a grass-based operation. Right now we have beef, pork, chicken, turkey, brown eggs and lamb. We also have a grass fed dairy and we make real mountain cheeses from our dairy. We’ve been in operation for about 17 years now, and we are located in Defiance, Ohio.
SFC: First tell me about your farm buying club.
CJ: We do have a private farm club, we deliver up there, so we ask people to sign up and be a member. They find us a couple different ways. One is, through a lady up in Cleo who organizes things in the area. People often go to her or find her website and she directs them to us. Some people are just searching online and find our website. A lot of it is just word of mouth through our members already, they talk to their friends and so forth and it spreads that way. And then they email, sometimes they call or even drive out to the farm. We have them fill out an application form, there are dues that they pay, and from there, they are added to an e-mailing list and every other week they get a reminder message that the delivery date is coming up and that they need to put their orders in. I always put the direct page to the login site on the website so it’s easy for people to login, and I list the deadline for when they can’t order any more.
SFC: What types of products do people buy each week?
CJ: All of the meats and cheeses that we sell are produced here on the farm. We do offer some bulk items, too. We have some raw honey, which is local. We don’t keep the bees, but the honey is local. We also offer some raw nuts and some flours (flowers?) and things. A lot the products are Ohio-produced, but some of the things we just buy from bulk food companies, so it’s not all of our own produced items.
SFC: How did you get started?
CJ: We had one lady who was driving out from Toledo once every two week to get products from the farm, and one day when she was visiting she asked, “Would you ever consider bringing items up to Toledo?” That was about 3 and a half years ago, and we did. Our first trip, we were able to fit everything into the trunk of our car, but since then we’ve grown into right now we have a 20 foot utility trailer and a cargo van that we take things in. And we go up every other week. Everything that we take up is pre-ordered, so unless somebody doesn’t show up, we don’t bring anything home with us.
SFC: What is the timeline of ordering, from when the customer can make an order, to when you do packing and delivering?
CJ: We deliver on Wednesdays, so I usually send out the email either the Wed or Thursday before we go, so it’s 6 or 7 days beforehand. And people can order anytime up until noon on Tuesday the day before we go. I usually tell people that we appreciate having orders in by Monday evening, but that we’ll take them up to Tuesday at noon.
SFC: Tell us how your web-based ordering system differs from the older system you had before.
CJ: Before we would take orders in by individual emails. And some of them would send it to another person and she would make up a spreadsheet of the orders and then send it on it to us. Often, there were missed orders or mistakes in the orders by having a middle person there. Then when the orders came in, we had to hand write every one of them onto an invoice, which took up a lot of time in and of itself, and then we had to go fill the order. But now, with the website, people are able to log on any time they want to, and we are able to regulate orders. For instance, we have a really hard time keeping bacon in stock – it goes out as soon as we get it in. So if I know we’re not going to have something in stock, I just take it right off the site so they can’t order it. So it’s not as much of a hassle for us to tell people, “oh we didn’t have that this time.” Customers can go online and see what we have and what we don’t have, and they can submit their orders. I stress to them that they have to get a confirmation email, and then they check for that, and we print the order and then we go and fill it. So it eliminates a middle person, and it eliminates the need for us to hand write every order.
SFC: What do your customers think of you doing online ordering? What do they say about it?
CJ: We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about it. When we first started it, of course, we worked through some glitches -- people weren’t used to doing it, they didn’t go through all of the steps, and they would come to the pick up and we wouldn’t have their order, and then we felt bad, but once they did it once or twice, they figured out that they were missing a step, like a button they needed to push, but for the most part, people are really excited about it, they like how user-friendly it is, and how professional it looks I’ve gotten a lot of great compliments on it. And I’m pleased with that because I know very little about technology but yet I can control the website and have on it what I want it to say, but not have to do anything behind the scenes.
We're working on the final stages of a new premium template. Look for it coming to a farm website near you soon!
We don't have a catchy name for it yet. Any suggestions?
Adding a video to your website is another great way to get your customers and interested people excited about what is going on at your farm. Checkout the slideshow-esque video on the Barnstable Sea Farms site. You can almost smell the salty air!
Great video on the Barnstable Sea Farms website
Many digital cameras come with video capabilities and Flip cams are fairly inexpensive, easy to use and small enough to carry around with you. And uploading these movies to your site is easy; simply upload your video to YouTube or Vimeo and follow our help doc about inserting code into your site. Inserting code makes you nervous? Drop us an email and we'll help you out!
Having a video on your website can communicate alot of things that photos sometimes cannot; as we prep for these winter months, consider the possible movies you will take come spring!
ACRES USA is holding it's annual conference and trade show in Indianapolis, December 9 - 11th; if you're attending, be sure to stop by our table and say hello! We'll be talking about our Member Assembler (our CSA Management Tool) and showing off our new tradeshow booth! Stop by for a chocolate from Mon Aimee.
We'll also be introducing the newest addition to the Small Farm Central staff, Leslie Fleisher, who will be doing all things sales & marketing as Lead Business Development.
ACRES USA is North America's oldest, largest magazine covering commercial-scale organic and sustainable farming. The conference welcomes more that 1,000 farmers from around the world to witness presentations on cutting-edge organic and sustainable farming techniques.
We're excited to have Will join the Small Farm Central family!
Will's winding path to Small Farm Central passed through high school and university in the suburbs of north-eastern Oklahoma, a stint of network security work and commuting on Washington DC's Beltway, and a change of focus coinciding with a move to Pittsburgh a few years back. Will has been building things and programming various computers for many years, and is always grateful to stumble upon the happy and elusive convergence of an interesting technical challenge, a chance to earn a few bucks, and opportunity to make a tangible positive difference in the world.
Will thinks Pittsburgh is a good place for working on that last bit -- making a positive difference -- and is excited about the opportunities here related to building sustainable local and regional food systems. Will also thinks the new Automated Scheduled Payments feature, which he built for Member Assembler, is great because it will make fresh local food more accessible to people who otherwise couldn't afford the up-front cost of a farm subscription.
We've been hiring a few folks here at Small Farm Central over the last few months, so I've been more aware of the resources out there for agriculture job postings. For our programming and marketing positions, it was important for us to have folks that have some farming interest or background.
One resource I became more aware of is the Sustainable Food Job blog which lists jobs in food across the country. We found our new programmer, Will, indirectly through this blog.
I notice a number of farm intern and farm manager positions have been posted there recently. I don't know what the hit rate is on these. Maybe someone reading this blog will tell us their experience in comments.
Check it out at: http://sustainablefoodjobs.wordpress.com
Where have you had success posting these types of jobs? Leave thoughts in comments.
I know there is a residual Luddite attitude in the small-scale agriculture community and, given the fact that so many farmers have gone into agriculture precisely to avoid the pitfalls of modern life, it is completely understandable. I am not sure how exactly to measure this effect, but in my experience looking at websites of individual farmers and the web resources for small-scale farmers, I see an industry that is not using Internet technology to it's greatest advantage.
That advantage is working together: connecting groups of people and fostering communication that leads to real world action. Here I am referring to the ways that farmers connect with each other and connect to their customers. We can do better with our websites and our connections as a group. For individual farmers I believe that web communication with customers is an imperative.
When it is January and snow covers your fields do you make sure that your customers are thinking of you and your farm? Does your customer know how much work it takes all year round to bring them that steak or watermelon? If not, how can you expect them to sign up for your CSA again, come to your farm market, or buy your meat? The supermarket is always just around the corner - how do you overcome your customer's inertia and have them shop with you (besides having a far-superior product, of course)?
Communicating online is cost-effective and time-efficient -- mailing lists, message boards, and websites. Over the next ten weeks I will release a course in farm web design to help you create and sustain a loyal customer base. Use the subscribe form in left-hand column of the site if you want to receive updates via email as they happen.
I encourage you to continue the conversation by leaving comments on this article and the ones that follow. I look forward to hearing from you!
We're hiring for an individual to lead our outreach effort here at Small Farm Central. This position will be based at our offices in Pittsburgh, PA (East Liberty neighborhood). So if you know of someone who loves farms and has a passion for marketing, they may just be perfect to join our team.