Selling what you sow: farmers and market gardeners on the Internet.
Sell your homegrown fruits and vegetables online.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/ALINAMDWith consumers purchasing everything from books to bonsai electronically, lots off armers, too, are excited about the potential of selling their products online. While few farmers have gotten rich quick through "cybersales," many have found a host of reasons to make the Internet one of their essential marketing tools. Boggy Creek Farm is a five-acre interest in the middle of Austin, Texas, just 50 feet from a city bus stop. The owners, Larry Butler and Carol Ann Sayle, raise certified organic vegetables, flowers, and fruits, which they sell through their stand at the farm, a local Whole Foods Market, and several local restaurants and farmers' markets. "The 160-year-old farmhouse and the chance to stroll around an urban farm, plus the opportunity to buy fresh, organic produce, bring out a lot of visitors," Butler notes.
Web surfers who come across the farm's home page at www.boggycreekfarm.com will find information about the farm's horticultural practices, what's grown and where to buy it, farm pictures, and the latest edition of "Friends of the Farm" newsletter (visitors can sign up for a free email subscription).
"This is a high-tech city and everyone has e-mail," Butler explains.
"Lots of people want to know what's going on at an urban farm." The weekly newsletter is sent to more than 500 people all over the country. "The newsletter relates what's gone on at the farm during the past week, and what produce is in season," Butler says. "We might have a hardship story like, 'We Had 12 Inches of Rain; or it may tell a story of the pioneer family who began farming here in 1839. A lot of folks e-mail us back with their reactions to the stories, and then come to the farm on market day."
Another intriguing page on the farm's Web site gives visitors an opportunity to send friends a "Boggy Creek Farm Postcard," with a selection of farm or produce pictures. E-mail addresses are collected for the time when Butler and Sayle will add an on-line catalog of jams, smoke-dried tomatoes, a book about the farm, farm T-shirts, and tote bags to their Web site.
Canyon Park Orchards, a five-acre farm in Bothell, Washington, is one of the few farms left in the area where Microsoft buildings surround the orchard trees. Owner Tom Berry grows 40 varieties of specialty apples, which are sold at an on-site farm stand for two months during the harvest season. For most of the year, Berry spends about 20 to 30 hours a week in the orchard and the rest of the week as a computer consultant, database developer, and Web page designer.Since a big part of the farm's business is preseason orders, Berry uses the Internet to send e-mail to notify customers when picking has started. Preseason orders are picked, packed, and held in cold storage.
"We have some rare varieties that are quickly sold out, and customers will miss them without their preseason orders," Berry explains. He estimates about 10°/a to 15% of his customers respond by e-mail. "A few years ago, hardly anyone was on e-mail. Now it's becoming more and more popular, especially as people discover how fast and inexpensive it is compared to [postal] snail mail."
On his Web site Berry posts current prices, days and hours the stand is open, and what's available. "We get a lot of feedback that customers do check out our Web site. They want to know what's available at the stand before they come out, since they're often searching for specific varieties."
Berry often uses the Internet to do farm-related research projects. "The Internet came along at a good time," he points out. "Cooperative Extension was undergoing severe budget cuts and a lot of the sources we farmers had depended on for information dried up. The Internet filled that gap."
For Gene and Cathy Purdum, owners of two-and-a-half-acre Dietz Creek Farm in Williamston, Michigan, the Internet is also used in an "intranet" way to keep regular farmers' market customers informed as to what vegetables they're bringing to market by posting to their homepage. Both work full-time off the farm. "The Net is not a major marketing avenue for us at this point," Gene says, "maybe up to 5%, at the most."
Yet the couple find themselves often on the Net, checking e-mail from their favorite lists erves like SANET or Organic Gardening Discussion Group.
Another frequent Internet use for the Purdums is research. When they needed to create some handouts on organic foods, they were able to download summary sheets from various organic sites. Similarly, in the off-season, Gene was able to adapt descriptions from seed company catalogs to past on the farm's Web page for descriptions of what they grow.
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