Growers who market constantly are successful

Amy-Lynn Albertson, an extension agent in Davidson County, N.C., demonstrates the use of Twitter, one of the marketing tools available to growers.
Photo courtesy of Amy-Lynn Albertson.

In agriculture today, growers must not only follow good production practices, but be active marketers as well. Without a market, they may as well throw those fruits, vegetables or nuts on the ground.

Marketing opportunities exist at almost every turn. Growers can sell on the Internet, at farmers’ markets, roadside stands and grocery stores, to name a few. However, some opportunities require a bit more technological knowledge than others.

Personalized Web sites and blogs

Marketing on the Internet has become commonplace these days. It just takes a little research and computer savvy to develop a personal Web site and blog, and be listed on other agricultural and non-agricultural Web sites.

The extension agents and personnel with the cooperative extension service in the North Carolina counties of Davidson and Rowan have held social networking workshops on blogging, building Web sites and using Facebook and Twitter. For farmers, this technology may be puzzling at first.

“Many growers are intimidated by the Internet and building a Web site,” says Amy-Lynn Albertson, an extension agent in Davidson County. “Most growers I work with see the necessity for a presence on the Web, but haven’t the Internet savvy to do it themselves or the funds to pay someone else.”

For these farmers, Albertson advises them to start a blog first, which she says is like a free way to create a Web site. “As our world is more and more connected, the blog allows them to give updates on their farm activities and build relationships with their customers,” she says.

Albertson suggests growers set up a blog on the sites Blogger and WordPress, which she says are east to use. She also says www.localharvest.org and www.ncfarmfresh.com are two Web sites that allow growers to establish links for setting up a blog.

Be aware though that selling through a blog or Web site can happen quickly, sometimes too quickly. “I have talked to people that this happened to,” says Sandra Tanner, tourism development specialist with the Virginia Tourism Corp. “They did a lot of work on their Web site, and it went out. As soon as it went out, they started getting hits immediately, and they didn’t have their products ready. So, when you let that Web site go, have the language on there that you’re filling orders as you can, depending on what you’re providing. There are some people who sit at home, and that’s what they do all day long—looking for things to go and do. So, you might get overwhelmed if you’re not prepared properly.”

Ag and non-ag Web sites

Electronic marketing has become all the rage. The younger generation learns about products and businesses on the Internet faster than the local newspaper reporter can type in a few words. Virginia growers can take advantage of this new marketing opportunity by being listed on the Virginia Tourism Corp. Web site at www.virginia.org, or on the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS) Web site at www.vdacs.virginia.gov, says Martha Walker, community viability specialist with the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service in Danville, Va.

Martha Walker, community viability specialist with the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service, says growers should take a hard look at computer technology and become better educated about its significance to their operations.
Photo by Rocky Womack.

Tanner suggests being listed on the Local Harvest Web site or the Virginia pick-your-own Web site at www.pickyourown.org. They might also consider being listed in state catalogs and guides such as Virginia Grown. Other states and departments of agriculture have their own sites, so be sure to be listed on those as well. Another beneficial Web site is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service at www.ams.usda.gov.

Facebook/Twitter/texting/GPS

Social networking is fueled by people who may or may not live nearby. Walker says a grower’s market is no longer within five or 30 minutes of their home, as the customer could be in a different state or even another country.

Leading those forms of social communication are Facebook (www.facebook.com) and Twitter (www.twitter.com).

• Facebook: Instantaneous—as in give it to me now—is how the public wants information today, so being part of the social networking scene can provide that immediate action. “If you’re not on Facebook, you need to be on Facebook,” Tanner says. “If you’re marketing now and you say, ‘My customers are not doing Facebook; my customers are not doing Twitter.’ They may not be today, but customers are smart. That’s how they’re getting their information.”

Albertson and Darrell Blackwelder, interim county extension director and extension agent in Rowan County, say a big advantage to Facebook is that users can post pictures and update information regularly. That is noteworthy, because growers can post pictures and information about their produce before they set up at the roadside stand or farmers’ market. In that way, customers will see and read what they can buy before going to the market. They also can tell customers what time they will arrive and what day they plan to display.

Blackwelder hopes these social networking sites will attract a younger crowd at the Salisbury Farmers’ Market in Rowan County. He says only about 20 percent who come to the market are under 30 years old.

• Twitter: Twitter is another social networking site where farmers can market. “I see Twitter to be used for announcement purposes like, ‘Strawberries are here. Come on over and pick.’ That kind of thing,” Albertson says. “It’s easy to overwhelm people with tweets, so keep them simple and direct about important things.”

Blackwelder says Twitter is a good networking tool, because users can send short alert messages, especially if they sell at farmers’ markets. “It’s a way to disseminate your message quickly,” he says. “If I was a vendor [at the Salisbury Farmers’ Market] and had a booth, I would do something every Saturday and Wednesday. Twitter visitors can also make comments about vendors and products.”

Another advantage to both Facebook and Twitter is the ease of updating information using smart phones. If growers have smart phones, she says they can stay in touch easier and quicker with their customers.

“I recommend getting familiar with Facebook first,” Albertson says. “I think it is the easiest for people who are a little intimidated by the Internet. Create a personal page, explore and get to know it. When you are good and comfortable with it, then you can create a page for your farm.

“First, ask all your personal Facebook friends to become fans of your farm, and then their friends will also come look,” she adds. “Always keep your personal and farm page separate.”

Though Albertson sees Twitter as more challenging, she says once growers master Facebook use, they can create a Twitter page link to their Facebook page. They also can blog and “before you know it, you will have lots of followers,” she says.

“Facebook has over 350 million users, and the fastest growing demographic is women over 35,” Albertson says. “Traditionally, that is who the target customer is for direct market farmers. If a farm already has a Web site, the Web site should be the hub of the wheel, and blogs, Facebook and Twitter are the spokes. Everything should always link back to the Web site. The key is to keep it current.

“Explore the Internet. Read other farm blogs, Facebook pages and tweets to get a feel for what others are doing,” she continues. “Get comfortable with the technology before you create anything.”

Facebook includes groups, such as farmers, who regularly communicate with each other and share ideas. So, not only is it good for marketing, but business communication or chatting as well, Walker says.

• Texting: Blackwelder says some farmers and customers are even texting on their cell phones. Growers can send out short texts when produce or nuts are available, or if weather has been good or bad for the growing season. Customers can share those texts with other potential customers when they receive a text from a grower, thus expanding the grower’s market base.

• GPS: Growers picking their fruit, vegetables and tree nuts or digging their peanuts might wonder how a global positioning system (GPS) can benefit them in marketing. It’s simple, Walker says, because they can list their business as a GPS point. When a potential customer is searching for produce, then a grower’s farm location can pop up on their GPS device.

Tried and true methods

• Pick-your-own/roadside stands/farmers’ markets:

Pick-your-own operations allow customers to pick exactly the produce that they are looking for and give them a reason to experience the “farm life” again or for the first time.

Roadside stands are good at reaching specific customers who come to the grower. These stands remain popular for some farmers today. It really matters as to the location and product demand. To learn more about marketing with a roadside stand, Walker recommends a Web site from Washington State University at www.smallfarms.wsu.edu/marketing/roadStands.html#A.

Farmers’ markets remain popular for growers. Various farmers can market their produce as the customer comes to them in a central location.

For a directory list of farmers’ markets in the United States, visit farmersmarket.com, or visit the Local Harvest Web site, which also offers a list of farmers’ markets.

• Grocery stores/restaurants:

Grocery store marketing can be challenging. As many farmers know, these operations can be fickle as to what they accept, often-times forcing the grower to return home with part of their product because the store has rejected it. For the few who can crack this market and supply almost perfectly grown produce, they can do well.

For more information about direct farm marketing, visit the National Association for Farm Direct Marketing and Agritourism Web site at www.nafdma.com.

• CSAs:

Community supported agriculture programs spare the customer picking produce and/or nuts. Customers pay a price at the beginning of the year to share in the harvest season. The grower sets up a location where the customer can pick up a bag full of produce and/or nuts each week during harvest. Setting up this type of program gives growers a steady income as long as the growing season and weather cooperate. Grower operations of all sizes can take advantage of this form of direct marketing.

Become aware and stay focused

To learn more about marketing opportunities, especially technology, Walker suggests visiting a local community college or town library.

Take initiative. “If you’re in business, there are no excuses for ignorance,” Walker says. “Begin that planning stage for the future and always assess your customer, where that customer is and what they want, whether it’s electronic, or whether it’s face to face.”

Rocky Womack has written about agriculture and business for more than 25 years and currently serves as a contributing writer and correspondent for agriculture and business magazines, domestically and internationally. In the past, he has worked as a magazine editor and daily newspaper writer. Womack has won numerous awards for his interviewing, writing and in-depth reporting.