Starting out in farming is daunting. The most obvious question is what the farm will produce. Meat? Eggs? Vegetables? Fiber? I chose livestock, and in the early years of my farm, I remember the challenges and endless experimentation it took to figure out how best to manage my cows and pigs.
There were plenty of resources I could look to for ideas: books, websites, other farmers. But over the years, I came to recognize a major blind spot I had at the beginning, one that I think almost all new farmers share: I had not really figured out who I was going to sell to.
I had the idea that simply setting up buyers’ club locations in reasonably populated areas would organically bring in all the business I could ever want. This sort of worked, but not well enough to put my farm on the sort of healthy growth trajectory needed to make it a viable business.
I needed to figure out how to market, which is how I came to make a directory to help customers find a local grassfed beef farm. But before I get to that, a little background.
Farm Marketing is a Necessity
I have yet to meet someone who got into farming because they loved marketing. This doesn’t matter if you’re lucky enough to be in a position where you can sell milk, grain, beef, or some other product at wholesale prices and make money at it. But to make economic sense, the vast majority of small farms need to get the extra margin that comes with selling directly to the public. And selling to the public takes conscious effort.
In short, how are customers going to find you? There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. If you are a veggie operation on a busy road, then a nice hand-painted sign and a pretty retail stand might be all you need. But if you want people to search you out, you need to make it as easy as possible. Generally, this means helping people find you online.
Unfortunately, it’s getting harder. In my little corner of the world, grassfed beef companies like Butcherbox, the Amazon purchase of Whole Foods, as well as private-label products sold in an increasing number of supermarkets have all made things pretty crowded.
It used to be that anyone looking for grassfed beef online was likely to end up at a small, local farm. These days a potential customer poking around online will have to wade through a half-dozen ads and a couple national brands before getting to a single farm, which may or may not be near them.
Directories are Great, When They Work
In theory, directories are a good answer. Because no single farm has the clout of a national company, it is very hard for us small farms to compete for the attention of customers. A directory listing many small farms solves this. It is a single, central place anyone can visit to let them quickly find a local source for whatever it is they’re after.
Because this is what many customers who Google something like “local grass fed beef” actually want, it has a chance to rank right up there with the big guys. The customer goes to the directory, and the directory helps them quickly find a suitable local farm.
This used to work pretty well. I put my farm on a number of directories, and for a while, they sent me a steady flow of customers. But that flow has slowed to a trickle in recent years, and I don’t think it’s because the fundamental idea of a directory is flawed. I think the problem is the directories themselves. All of the existing directories I know of suffer from one of two problems, and sometimes both.
First, they have not modernized. The internet and how people use it is forever changing, and Google and other search engines change along with browsing habits. A website that looks fine on a computer but is impossible to navigate on a phone might have been okay 10 years ago, but these days, when half of all internet traffic is on phones and other mobile devices, it can no longer serve its purpose well.
Second, most directories charge for their listings. This creates a catch-22. No one wants to pay to be listed on a site that won’t send them a significant number of customers. But Google won’t rank a site highly unless it actually serves a purpose. A national directory of grassfed beef farms that only has one listing per state isn’t going to help many people out.
Why I Built a Directory of Grassfed Beef Farms
It’s possible that the days of directories being a good way for potential customers to connect with local farms have passed, but I’m betting they haven’t. I believe a simple, clear, comprehensive listing page is so useful that there will always be a palace for one. But after hours of searching, I could not find a single directory that actually met the modern criteria for clarity of purpose and ease of use. So, I decided to make it myself.
My hope is that, eventually, whenever someone searches for “grass fed beef near me”, they will see this map of local farms. I’m optimistic, because it is easier to use than any existing directory I know of, especially on a phone or other small devices and because I’ve already listed 400 farms on it, meaning most people in most places can actually use it. I’ve also included some basic information about the ins and outs of purchasing direct from a farmer.
And it’s free. If you’re a farmer who sells grassfed beef direct to the public, please add a listing. You can do so by filling out this form, which takes about two minutes. If there is enough interest in the directory, I plan to make similar free listing pages for pastured chicken, lamb, and perhaps other products like eggs.
A Map Alone Won’t Do It
Obviously, I’m excited about the benefits a good directory can have for small farms. But there’s a lot more that goes into getting customers to make a purchase. While I’m far from an expert, I have spent quite a bit of time learning about the basics of marketing and thinking about how they apply to farms. I’ll be back soon with some important dos and don’ts for building a good farm website.
Until then, I urge you to take marketing seriously, especially if you are a new farmer. You can raise the best beef or broccoli in the world, but it doesn’t much matter if no one knows you exist. Well, that’s not quite true — you still get to enjoy it, which is no small thing. But if you want your farm to be a business, it’s worth having a long, hard think about who your customers are and how you plan on connecting with them.
Garth Brown is an owner of Cairncrest Farm. He sells 100% grass-fed beef and lamb as well as pastured pork and poultry to Long Island, Brooklyn, and the greater New York City area. You can read more of his writing on his farm’s blog.
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