Natural growth for an organic operation

PHOTO COURTESY OF STOCK.XHNG/ARIEL DA SILVA PARREIRA .

Patrice Bobier, co-owner of Earthscape/Full Circle Farm in Hesperia, Mich. (www.earthscapefarm.blogspot.com), with her husband Bill, was tired of repeating herself. For a time, it seemed like she told the same stories about her community-supported agricultural operation (CSA) to each one of their 47 shareholders.

In a CSA, shareholders pay farmers a one-time fee—in this case, $425 per 18-week season—to get a share of the vegetables produced at the farm’s 4-acre organic garden. A full share usually buys customers .5 to .75 bushel of produce per week, plus one to two melons in season, 12 ears of sweet corn per week in season and a pint of cherry tomatoes plus a quart of slicers each week in season.

The Bobiers own 200 acres and farm 100. Their main crop is grass, which is fed to a crossbred, 35-cow, cow-calf operation in a rotational grazing system.

Shareholders can also buy organic beef by the side and quarters separately. This year, the Bobiers purchased 13 feeder pigs that are following behind the cows in the pasture to produce organic pork.

They used to have a newsletter they published once a week, and when that became too costly and time-consuming, they switched to twice-weekly e-mails.

She likes e-mailing shareholders because she can create a message whenever it fits her schedule. “I can write an e-mail at 6:30 a.m.—I can’t call anyone at that hour.”

Late this winter, the Bobiers also began blogging. Her posts go back and forth between newsy updates of what’s happening on the farm and simple inventories for the week’s shares, and Bill writes farmer haikus. Readers can capture the look and feel of the farm from the blog. “It functions just like a Web site: it shows views of the farm and offers current information to whoever sees it,” she said.

CSA owners follow the same dusty trail the rest of the business world has followed on its way to profiting from online marketing. Only a year behind most nonfarm, small business owners, more than a few are blogging, especially if they are direct-marketing operations.

Business bloggers write stories about products, processes, brands and personnel in an attempt to differentiate themselves from their competition. Success generally hinges on whether or not the companies’ customer bases search online for products.

Organic farmers have taken this tool and adjusted it into a handier method of customer contact that more adequately addresses the unique nature of their business.

Community creation

One way they’ve found to use blogs is to create communities of connected customers by relating stories about their farms, recipes, product storage tips, even vegetable growing how-to’s and organic educational opportunities.

“We’re personalizing what we do for our shareholders,” said Laura Arboreal, co-owner and operator of Eaters’ Guild of Bangor, Mich. “With our blog, we are encouraging them to feel like more than just shareholders.”

For example, in her June 3 blog, Arboreal invited her shareholders to come to the farm to help weed the carrots. She also included praise for the three farm interns working at Eaters Guild this year and ended with recipes for asparagus soup and radish salad.

Arboreal and her husband Lee have been in the organic CSA business since 2001. They started their business after friends suggested they should grow organic food for profit.

Online customer contact

The Arboreals’ original marketing plan was much like that for many other farmers: word-of-mouth. That method helped them to grow to about 30 shareholders. “We started printing a newsletter and putting one in every order the following year.”

PHOTOS COURTESY OF DAVID WEINSTOCK.
The Eaters’ Guild Web site is search-engine optimized. Notice the multiple tags displayed across the top of the browser. This ultitude of terms translates to a variety of words and phrases that will place this Web site at or near the top of any Web search using those terms.

Each newsletter talked about field conditions, attempted to estimate how much shareholders could expect in their boxes that week and included a weekly recipe. Eaters’ Guild shareholder numbers doubled that year to just about 60 and convinced them of the value of marketing.

Arboreal got serious about the writing game over the next few years and began producing about a full page of “ruminations” about the farm, the traditional weekly recipe and the odd food storage tip. Then, they took a serious look at the printed newsletter’s cost.

Shareholder numbers had climbed to well over 100, costing them a good deal of time and money to produce and distribute the newsletter, so in 2004, they moved to e-mailing their newsletter to shareholders and printing a small brochure for new members.

It was a simple matter of asking shareholders for a useable e-mail address, and e-mailing the newsletter worked so well, the Arboreals switched all their shareholder notifications into their e-mail newsletter.

What should have been the end of the story was not. Enter Yahoo! and its spam filters.

Last year, the Arboreals began getting complaints from a substantial number of shareholders. “They were saying, ‘We sent you a check and know it was cashed, but we don’t know anything about the season,’ because they weren’t getting any notifications about what was coming from us each week,” Arboreal said.

They noticed that all the people who complained had Yahoo! e-mail accounts. After talking to the people at Yahoo!, they realized that they were being considered spam.

When the number of Eaters’ Guild shareholders within the Yahoo! domain reached 35 to 40 accounts, their e-mailing tripped Yahoo!’s spam filters, preventing those shareholders from getting Eaters Guild e-mail.

The previous year, the Arboreals became a part of the Local Harvest online community. Founded in 1998, it is a nonprofit gateway and online community for direct-marketing family farms and direct-marketing family farm customers.

“We joined Local Harvest for the advertising two years ago,” she said. “When we figured out the problem with Yahoo!, we realized the blogging space Local Harvest offered its members was the answer.”

The Arboreals still use e-mail to contact some of their shareholders, and use the blog to contact the rest. They’d like to consolidate their list again, but aren’t sure how to do that.

Twitter may be their answer. It is a free social networking and micro-blogging service that allows senders to send 140-character messages to receivers via text messaging, instant messaging, e-mail, digital audio or the Web.

Using Twitter, Arboreal could “tweet” her 250 shareholders (called “followers”) about the week’s newest blog post on their Eaters’ Guild Web site. Depending on how their shareholders configured their accounts, they would be notified the moment Arboreal posted on Twitter.

Analyzing the data

One thing worth knowing about blogging is that it is not a medium limited to text and photos—it is multimedia, making the use of video and voice possible in blogs.

The Arboreals’ Eaters Guild blog is located on the Local Harvest Web site. The free blog space is one of many of the benefits offered to direct-marketing family farms that hold memberships in this online marketing community.

The key word here is “possible.” Before deciding to use voice, video or even photos, bloggers should be aware of what kinds of computers and communication their readers are using to access their material.

Bobier uses a free service called Google Analytics. Using Web-page-embedded codes to send data to Google, the program generates reports on all kinds of user data back to site owners. She can track visits to her site per day, or how many people visited her blog over a specified period. “How much time they spent on the site, what percentage of them were new users, whether or not they came from a search engine … I can even tell what kind of connection they were using.”

Why is connection information important? Bobier discovered that nearly 20 percent of her blog visitors are still using dial-up. “For that reason, whatever pictures I place on our blog site are very small to minimize download time,” she said.

One thing Web researchers know about page design is that the color combination that promotes readership best is light-colored type against a black background. An acknowledged geek, Patrice Bobier of Hesperia, Mich., not only used her design knowledge to advantage, but also uses online tools to track traffic through her site.

Branding

According to the American Marketing Association, a brand is a name, symbol, term, sign or design that identifies a seller’s products or services and differentiates them from their competition. A good brand seals the deal: it delivers a clear message, connects customers emotionally to the product, motivates buyers and creates brand loyalty.

Blogs are online tools that can be used to create brands. Farm marketers like Arboreal and Bobier create brand recognition for their goods with their shareholders and potential shareholders every time they craft a post.

“Our goal is to generate interest in how food is grown,” says Bobier. “That generates business.”

The authors are freelance contributors. David Weinstock is based in Michigan and Curt Harler is based in Ohio.