Broadcast your bliss
Direct-to-market farmers use e-newsletters and blogs to share their passion and grow their businesses

By Dan Sullivan

Posted January 12, 2006: Relationship marketing is critical to small-scale farming success, and many farmers are increasingly finding the web an effective tool for staying in closer contact with customers. From maintaining a connection through the winter months, to making customers feel more a part of the farm and its operations, to previewing what’s going to be at the farmers' market this week or broadcasting on-farm special events, Internet newsletters serve a variety of purposes.

And while many CSA farmers still prefer an old-fashioned hardcopy newsletters stuffed into subscribers’ weekly shares, others say email distribution holds a number of advantages.

“It’s a great way to cut down on the costs and environmental impacts of printing on paper,” says Sara Ruch of 14-Acre Farm (www.14acrefarm.com) in Summit Hill, Pennsylvania. “Plus, it makes it really easy to forward along to others who might be interested, so it's definitely helping to spread our name, which in turn helps the bottom line.”

Through the vehicle of the 14-acre Farm newsletter (like this June issue), Ruch shares her own as well as customers’ favorite recipes (including tips on how to prepare some of the less-common vegetables), fosters local community by promoting on-farm events such as weekly thematic potlucks, provides subscribers with history lessons about in-season produce, and even offers an advice column on farm-related topics.

Basically, she says, the newsletter is a way to share the personality of the farm.

Ruch echoes the sentiment of many a farmer after a few months of chronicling farm life for customers: “The most surprising parts for me were how many compliments I get and how large our email list is growing.”

Newsletters have proven such a hit with customers—many of whom joined a CSA in the first place for a vicarious farming experience—that some farmers archive past issues on their websites. Some farmers even print them out and assemble them in press packets that easily paint a picture of the farm and its philosophy.

Keeping it current and interesting

“Having received email newsletters myself, I know how important it is to have good content,” says, Lisa Kerschner of North Star Orchard (www.northstarorchard.com), a small farm in Coatesville, Pennsylvania specializing in unique varieties of high quality fruit. “If it doesn’t have good content, I won’t read it. If you’re merely sending out an advertisement, people will stop looking at it.”

With that in mind, Kerschner peppers her e-newsletter with recipes, “critter chronicles,” book reviews, and critical information customers need to know.

"Having received email newsletters myself, I know how important it is to have good content. If it doesn’t have good content, I won’t read it. If you’re merely sending out an advertisement, people will stop looking at it."

“Customers really know what to expect,” she says. “They know when we’re coming back to market for that year…and it also helps with the tail-end of the market season.” And if bad weather is forecast, Kerschner says, customers can rest assured that North Star Orchards will not be deterred and that a trip to the farmers’ market won’t be a waste of time. Through the newsletter, customers are also notified of specials, which they can then order through the farm’s website. “At the markets, these folks are thrilled to pick up their special orders,” she says.

The newsletter was both the vehicle through which the farm’s CSA was built and how it keeps growing, Kerschner says, adding that it also creates a bigger draw at the farmers’ market.

“We know our emails have been forwarded to the friends and extended family of our customers; in return, those friends and family members come to market,” she says. “We doubled our CSA membership in 2005, mostly due to email and our website.”

Kerschner listed ill-timed computer glitches as the single most frustrating aspect of producing a newsletter. Despite the challenges, and while some farmers swap outside production of their newsletter for a full or partial CSA share, Kerschner wouldn’t trade it for the world. “I think that if you want to use the email as a means to get personal with your customers, then doing it yourself is the way to go.”

Farm Blogging--a.k.a. Flogging?

Evermore tech-savvy farmers are also utilizing websites in growing numbers and discovering the world of blogs. No, a blog is not some trendy new vegetable all the chefs are raving about; it’s a personal diary or journal that’s published on the Internet.

Atina Diffley, co-owner of Gardens of Egan, a 100-acre mixed vegetable organic farm south of Minneapolis, prefers the blog to a newsletter because it offers a more immediate and intimate feel.

“It creates a powerful connection with the farm,” she says. “Our blog link is advertised in the stores we sell to and on some of their websites. I try to write in the present tense and create a visual image of farm life. I've been surprised by how many people read it and write to me. They have a strong interest in our daily farm lives and stresses. It reads more like a story then a dry newsletter.”

Farmers like Atina and her husband, Martin, also feel blogs give them personal contact with customers they otherwise might not see on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis.

"Articulating the little farm things that happen on a daily basis creates a stronger sense of what is really happening."

“For me it takes some of the isolation out of farming,” Atina says. “Articulating the little farm things that happen on a daily basis creates a stronger sense of what is really happening.”

Diffley isn’t the only one blogging poetic about her farm either. One of last season’s interns, as well as a young farmer the Diffleys mentor, each had her own soapbox on the Diffleys’ website (www.frontiernet.net/~atinagoe/).

Kate Newkirk of Wintergreen Herbs & Vegetables (which also produces free-range eggs, pasture-raised broilers and pork, and dried tea herbs) (www.wintergreenherbs.com) in Winslow, Maine, started her blog this past season when the farm switched to an online ordering system for its CSA customers. “Each week we mail them a link to the CSA order form and a link to the blog.

The motivation for starting the blog, Winslow says, “was to give our customers an idea of the trials, tribulations and triumphs of farming.”

“Being that it is part of the CSA ordering, at pick-up time there are usually many comments about how the week has gone from sympathy to hurrahs! I guess that means the blog allows them to get emotionally involved.”

Like many farmer/writers, Newkirk says one of the biggest challenges is juggling the regular farm chores with keeping the blog current, particularly when the season is in full swing.

It's not all about the customer

Motives for launching and for continuing a newsletter or blog range from the simple to the sublime.

"I simply like to write about my day-to-day experiences on the farm and, evidently, people like to read about it."

“I simply like to write about my day-to-day experiences on the farm and, evidently, people like to read about it,” says Donna Janeczko, who’s elegant, entertaining and popular blog (www.mountainfarmstead.blog-city.com) chronicles the goings on at her 120-acre Brambleberry Farm (www.brambleberryfarm.biz) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of southwestern Virginia and offers a variety of useful links, tips and references. You can check out her favorite rural blogs, too.

“It's a resource for people to realize that not all of society is completely out of control,” David Von Eeckhout of Hog’s Back Farm (www.hogsbackfarm.com) in Arkansaw, Wisconsin, says of his newsletter. “No matter how crazy their week is, they can sit down at some point and read about what's happening in the fields, what birds I saw this week or how we solved some seemingly insurmountable problem.

“Ultimately I think it's a source of hope.”


Resources:

For tips on creating a web blog visit: www.blogger.com OR www.blog-city.com/bc
For tips on creating a newsletter visit: www.constantcontact.com (Sara Ruch loves these guys!)