Understanding and Improving E-Commerce Use by Small Farms
This project used an online and a mail survey to gather and analyze information from farm businesses currently marketing over the Internet in the Northeast. A web page, WVFarm2U.org, that provides a consumer friendly Internet directory of agricultural businesses in West Virginia was created in partnership with the Collaborative for 21st Century Appalachia. The 2007 West Virginia University (WVU) Extension Service’s Small Farm Conference included a workshop on e-marketing and website development for small farms.
Of the 160 agricultural businesspeople who attend workshops on e-commerce development, 150 (95%) will sign up for the West Virginia Specialty Products web site. Sixty (40%) of these businesses will have increased sales of 10-15% after 1 year of listing along with improved customer satisfaction. Forty (25%) of the 160 attendees will develop a web page for their business, and 75% of these (30) will increase sales by 5-10% within 1 year of implementation.
We hypothesize that most farm businesses that develop web pages will use them as advertising for their operation. These business owners will analyze the value of the web page (and other advertising media) by tracking how customers hear about the business. In addition, operators will record sales to those web-using customers. We will survey these businesses after 1 year of listing on the web in order to determine the percentage increase in sales as well as their overall satisfaction with web-based advertising. We project that only a small number of farm-based businesses will actually begin to sell products over the Internet during this first year of web site listing. We will also contact these businesses to evaluate their experience with Internet sales.
First Milestone: Project coordinator will conduct research gathering and analyzing information from farm businesses currently marketing over the Internet.
A survey of farms regarding their use of the Internet for marketing was conducted and results disseminated through presentations and publications.
Second Milestone: CSR and NRAC will make improvements to WV Specialty Products web page.
This plan was changed. Instead, a website, WVFarm2U.org, that provides a consumer friendly Internet directory of agricultural businesses in West Virginia was created in partnership with the Collaborative for 21st Century Appalachia, a consortium of chefs, farmers, extension personnel, educators and others interested in creating a local food system for West Virginia. This website made its début at the 2007 West Virginia State Fair with the Governor and West Virginia Department of Agriculture Commissioner in attendance.
Third Milestone: A total of 160 agricultural businesspeople will attend 1 of 4 workshops on e-commerce development held throughout West Virginia.
The first workshop was held February 28, 2006 in Morgantown, WV as part of a “Marketing for Success Conference” sponsored by the West Virginia University (WVU) Extension Service. A 3-part workshop was part of the 2007 West Virginia University (WVU) Extension Service’s Small Farm Conference. It included a presentation on e-marketing techniques along with methods for evaluating the value of Internet marketing. A presentation was given by the director of the Collaborative for 21st Century Appalachia regarding connecting with and selling to chefs over the Internet using the WVfarm2U website. The third part of the workshop was a presentation by a professional web developer on website development for small farms. Materials developed for that workshop were made available on my website for WVU Extension educators and others to use to educate farmers on e-marketing and web development. Over 125 people were in attendance at this conference in 2007.
This annual small farms conference draws participants from across the state and neighboring states. Much effort goes into making this 3-day conference a worthwhile experience, and scholarships allow attendance by many farmers who otherwise could not make it. After discussion with WVU Extension personnel, it was decided that rather than have poorly attended website workshops across the state, resources would go towards this annual event.
Fourth Milestone: 150 agricultural businesspeople will sign up for the WV Specialty Products web site.
The WVfarm2U website had delays in being developed but went online in August of 2007. It débuted at the 2007 West Virginia State Fair with the Governor and West Virginia Department of Agriculture Commissioner in attendance. The website has been promoted by the Collaborative for 21st Century Appalachia, the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, and at the 2007 and 2008 West Virginia University (WVU) Extension Service’s Small Farm Conferences. In addition, a new WV agricultural website just went online sponsored by the newly formed West Virginia Farmers Market Association which lists a link to the WVfarm2U website. As of April 2008 there were 62 listings on the site in 3 farm categories: on the farm, roadside stand, and CSA. A mailing to encourage farmers, farmers markets and restaurants to sign up on the site is currently underway. We hope to eventually reach the 150 farms projected in this milestone but it may take some time, along with continued promotion of the website.
Fifth Milestone: Sixty agricultural businesses will have increased sales of 10-15% after 1 year of listing on the WV Specialty Products web site along with improved customer satisfaction.
Due to the late development of the WVfarm2U website along with slow signup on the site and the approaching end of this project, we will not be able to determine if this milestone will be achieved. The groups involved in development of this website will be following up with farmers to determine their satisfaction with and benefits from their use of this and other WV e-marketing websites.
Sixth Milestone: Forty farm businesses will develop a web page for their business.
Farmer interest in e-marketing has been slow to develop in West Virginia. Many farms still have dial-up Internet connections and the main high speed alternative, satellite, is expensive. In addition, many specialty product and direct-marketing farmers in WV believe that they cannot meet their current demand and so are reluctant to expand their market through use of the Internet. Farmers are also listing on the variety of farmers market and farm directory websites that are currently available in order to have a presence on the Internet. For many farms, this is sufficient exposure and the costs of developing and maintaining a website for their farm are not offset by the benefits.
From the survey of direct-marketing farmers, we learned that there are many factors (mainly time, money, and interest) that determine whether a farmer will develop a website for his/her business. Attendance at a workshop that promotes and explains website development may be the first step on this path but is not sufficient to lead to website development unless the farmer had already made significant progress towards website development on his/her own. Thus, the workshops that were part of this project were useful in that they probably initiated some websites for farmers who were almost convinced anyway and may have started some farmers to investigate the benefits of a website more intensively.
Seventh Milestone: Thirty agricultural businesses which created web pages will increase sales by 5-10% within 1 year of implementation.
See discussion under sixth milestone. To follow up on website development among WV farmers plans are being made to survey farmers during the winter of 2008/2009 regarding current levels of website use and development for their businesses.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Data from the survey was analyzed to determine which types of farms, farmers, products, etc. are more likely to have adopted a website as part of their marketing strategy. The results were published as “Adoption of E-Marketing by Direct Market Farms in the Northeastern United States” by Alexander G. Baer and Cheryl Brown in the Journal of Food Distribution Research July 2007, 38(2): 1-11.
Additional analysis examining the impact of a website and its features on a business’s gross farm sales was submitted as “Impact of E-Marketing on Direct Market Farms in the Northeastern United States” to the Journal of Food Distribution Research by Cheryl Brown and Alexander G. Baer and is under revision for resubmission.
The 2007 workshop on e-marketing and web development was attended by over 125 people. Materials from this workshop (handouts and 2 PowerPoint presentations) are available on my website for use by extension educators and others. These are: E-marketing Resources for Farmers http://www.cafcs.wvu.edu/resm/faculty/Brown/EmarketingResourcesforFarmers.pdf, Cultivation Customers with E-marketing http://www.cafcs.wvu.edu/resm/faculty/Brown/VA-E-MarketingPresentation2007.pdf, and How to Grow your Website http://www.cafcs.wvu.edu/resm/faculty/Brown/how2growWebsiteF.pdf.
I also presented a Virginia-relevant version of my e-marketing presentation to 160 attendees (farmers, Extension agents, VA government officials and agency representatives) at a conference entitled “Connecting Farms, Food & Communities-Developing the Producer, Market, Table Link” in Syria, VA in December 2007.