Profiles of Farmers in Sustainable Agriculture

Final Report for FNC12-870

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2012: $14,634.25
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Tim King
Whole Farm Cooperative
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Project Information

Summary:

This project had the goal of improving the sales of sustainably produced agricultural products for the members of our cooperative. We had been using email marketing since the late 90s and web marketing since the early 2000s. Our intention was to begin using Facebook, improve our website, and write new profiles of our members so as to educate our existing customers and, via Facebook, find new customers. Our cooperative had very little local retail trade. The vast majority of our customers were in excess of 100 miles away and never visited our actual location. This virtual presence, along with monthly deliveries to them, was our only contact with them. It was very important.

Based on email suggestions from our customers we were able to make some improvements on our website. Customers can order directly from our website so this may have helped helped with web based sales. Since the web site started producer profiles were stored on the website so customers could learn about who was producing their food. However, at the beginning of this project all the producer profiles were out dated or non-existent. Also, the information on the website home page had not been changed for five or six years. We began by putting new producer profiles on the home page every month and by placing them on all on a “Producer” link when they were completed. We wrote 15 profiles over the duration of the project.

We discovered staff did not know how to make many changes to the website. We attempted to show them how to do so and how to post to Facebook. We made regular changes to Facebook and discovered that customers appreciated the new photos, particularly of animals, and the new information.

Here are some customer comments obtained from two surveys of customers during the first year of the project:

“I just looked now at your new website home page and love it! I really like the personal information about the producers and their farms, and your photos are lovely. When I saw the photo of the garlic on your web site I remembered to order garlic.” Margot

“Your Facebook page for the farm coop is great! I discovered it a couple of weeks ago and posted it on my profile page. You almost have to get the coop out there on social networking sites to keep it alive these days. The website addition of profiling producers is also a good idea. I was looking for photos and information that I could print and create a farm coop display with when I found exactly what I needed. Two weeks ago a few church members (Immanuel Lutheran in St. Paul) hosted coffee hour to promote the coop. Violet Holmquist and Family Farm, and Fruitful Seasons Dairy were both perfect for the display! Keep up the good ideas!” Karen Osen

“I use Facebook and ‘liked’ the WFC page when I became aware of its existence. I am unlikely to visit the WFC website very often as I hardly ever place an order, so the Facebook page is a nice way to keep WFC on my radar.” Hannah

“I love the pictures of the animals.” Susan

Introduction:

We were a fifteen year old farmers cooperative based in Todd County Minnesota. Our primary market for meat, eggs, vegetables, and other farm products as well as Alaskan seafood, was the Twin Cities. Most customer contacts were made by email. In the late 90s we had sales of approximately $250,000 annually.

Sales plateaued at that time. In retrospect, they did so largely because the cooperative discontinued active marketing and relied on its existing customer base to carry the sales. That was an error and sales begin to decline. The effort of this project was to use email, Facebook, and an improved website as marketing tools to stop the decline and start rebuilding sales.

Co-op cofounders Tim and Jan King, along with son Colin King, begin to work with cooperative staff and members to create a Facebook account, improve the look and utility of the website, and develop producer profiles so customers could put a face to the people who raised their food.

We found customers responded well to the web site changes and Facebook  account however we were surprised to see a fair amount of resistance to use Facebook by long established customers. We also discovered that since the website home page had been unchanged for so long customers no longer visited it. They either went directly to the order page or responded to monthly emails sent out by the marketing staff person. By not using the website as an active educational tool on a regular basis the cooperative had limited its effect to be one in the future. We worked, with some success, with the marketing person to use her emails to introduce customers to the new website and Facebook.

Project Objectives:

A Facebook account was established very early in the project. Some customers told us that they didn’t like and didn’t use Facebook. However, over 100 customers became active users of the account and they were able to learn more about co-op producers and their products. Customers in particular said they enjoyed photos of farm animals. Although its not clear what the overall effect on sales was, a number of customers said they made purchases because of what they learned on the web site, Facebook account, and farmer profiles. It was our intent to work with the cooperative manager to study sales before and after the implementation of this project. The manager, however, was very non-communicative and we were unable to do this. In the third month of the second year of this project the board of directors laid off the manager and marketing person. They attempted to operate the cooperative with volunteers. Our communications with the volunteers was very poor also.

We wrote and photographed fifteen profiles of cooperative producers. Those profiles were posted to the website as a pdf file. Each month a new profile was placed on the website’s home page and customers were notified, via Facebook, that a new profile had been placed on the home page. Photos taken during the profile interviews wer placed on Facebook also. We also did two or three mini-profiles that were exclusively placed on Facebook. We worked with cooperative members to post directly to Facebook. One did so while two others sent us photos for us to post. Our goal had been to get the cooperative members to manage Facebook themselves after the grant.

We did some minor reprogramming of the website based on suggestions by customers. We hoped to do more but discovered, in conversations with the web site administrator, that that would have been too expensive. We should have had that conversation before applying for the grant. We did, however significantly improve the look and slightly improve the utility of the website.

Half way through the project we discovered that many of the producers listed by the cooperative as members were no longer supplying the cooperative. A number of them said they had not supplied the cooperative for two or more years. The number of member-suppliers was exaggerated by staff by about half. We were unable to meet our goal of thirty written and photographed profiles because of this.

Research

Materials and methods:

I believe our methods are described above.

Research results and discussion:

We will never know if this project had a significant positive impact on cooperative sales. Our communications with management were poor and they would not give us a sales report. Management was laid off in July of 2013 so those reports were no longer available. The cooperative dissolved in February following the bursting of water pipes in its offices.

We believe the project helped the cooperative’s customers to understand sustainable agriculture better. We provided them with information about specific production practices as well as numerous articles about more general practices. Their response to this information was consistently positive. There will likely be some long term residual impact.

Impact of Results/Outcomes

1. 15 unique farmer/producer profiles with text and photos.
2. Weekly facebook posts of educational material for over 100 people for 14 months.
3. 8 articles published about cooperative members involved in sustainable agriculture.
4. 12 profiles posted to the cooperative’s home page over 14 months.
5. Two succesful outreach events at the Sustainable Farming Association annual meeting and the Long Prairie Harvest Festival.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

We did two outreach events. One was at the annual meeting of the Minnesota Farming Association in 2013. The other was at the annual Harvest Festival in Long Prairie in 2013. We created poster boards with photos and quotes from customers to highlight our project. Cooperative manager Robert Bromeling also attended an organic growers conference in St. Cloud in 2013.

Project Outcomes

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

We believe that the cooperative’s customers have a better understanding of sustainable agriculture as a result of this project. Parts or all of a number of profiles were published in the farm magazine The Land and the monthly newspaper Senior Perspective. The readers of those publications had the opportunity to read about aspects of sustainable agriculture including grass farming, duck raising, wild rice harvesting, and garlic growing.

Future Recommendations

We have a sense that this project was helpful because of customer comments however because of our poor communication with cooperative staff and the ultimate dissolution of the cooperative it is difficult be make a definite assesment. We do believe, however, that social media is useful as one leg of a marketing program. There is, however, resistance to using it among some people. We believe that world wide web marketing continues to have a place in a marketing program as does email. We’d recommend using an email service such as Constant Contact so as to make emails attractive.

Ultimately, we believe that virtual marketing can not be the only marketing effort for a farmers cooperative. Face-to-face contact with customers is essential to maintaining and building sales. A cooperative must dedicate resources to face-to-face contact if it expects to succeed and grow.

Finally, a cooperative that has poor communication between management, senior leadership, and members has more than a marketing problem. If your cooperative is struggling look at your marketing program but also look at your communications, financial management, and at all key areas of the cooperative.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.