Profiles of Farmers in Sustainable Agriculture

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports

Information Products

Commodities

  • Agronomic: potatoes
  • Fruits: melons, apples, berries (brambles)
  • Vegetables: beans, beets, broccoli, cabbages, carrots, cauliflower, cucurbits, eggplant, garlic, greens (leafy), leeks, onions, parsnips, peas (culinary), peppers, radishes (culinary), sweet corn, tomatoes, brussel sprouts
  • Animals: bees, bovine, poultry, swine, sheep, fish
  • Animal Products: dairy

Practices

  • Farm Business Management: cooperatives, e-commerce, market study

    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.

    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.