Getting your farm on the web on the cheap
The Weltons run a 1-acre specialty vegetable farm and are used to maximizing space and resources. When it came to creating their farm's first webpage, they learned less really is more.

By Amanda Kimble-Evans


Mara and Spencer Welton at Half Pint Farm (2004).

Playing the domain name game

Free websites are great for starting out, and they can certainly fit into most farms' marketing budgets. But they do have their limits. "The only problem with free websites is you don't have your own name," says Mara. For example, the Welton's site name was:
http://groups.msn.com/
halfpintfarm.

Mara and Spencer, after a few years of happily housing their page on the free MSN Groups, eventually purchased their own domain name and moved to a paid host. They've even paid a web designer to create their new page www.halfpintfarm.com with their guidance of course.

Even if you don't stay with your free site for long, all your content can easily be transferred onto your new site by your host. But, warns Mara, "It's a good idea to reserve your domain name if you ever do want to eventually have your own site." The Weltons suggest visiting www.godaddy.com and doing a search for the name you think you'd like to see if someone already owns it.

Hosts offer deals depending on how long you want to save the name. For example, Godaddy.com offers domain names for $8.95 per year. Hosting often runs about $4 a month and includes over 50 e-mail accounts.

--AKE

Farming for the Future

This article was based on a workshop presented by Mara and Spencer Welton at the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture's (PASA) annual conference held in early February 2006.

For more information about PASA or attending the 2007 conference, visit:
www.pasafarming.org

May 12, 2006: Spencer and Mara Welton know how to make the most out of not much. In fact, the very name of their operation, Half Pint Farm, provides the perfect snapshot of the couple's farming philosophy.

The Weltons' Half Pint Farm sits on just one acre in Burlington Vermont's renown Intervale, a center for all things sustainable and home to a wildly successful farm incubator program. Mara and Spencer manage to crank out and market enough microgreens and specialty veggies from that single acre to keep themselves, seven restaurants, two groceries and three farmers' markets well stocked with produce from April through October. (See Thinking Small for more on Half Pint Farm.)

Their high-value, low-input management style isn't just for the field, either. Every aspect of their operation is diligently considered to maximize profit on a small scale, including their marketing plan.

"Web pages aren't just for large corporations. We're living and working in the Internet Age, and a lot of customers are more comfortable going to the web to find the information they're looking for instead of picking up the phone or even asking in person," says Mara.

Making a silk purse out of a sow's ear

When it came to creating a web page for Half Pint Farm, you can be sure Spencer and Mara took the most cost-efficient route first—they started with free. And free is just fine as long as you don't plan to sell online. For that, you'll need to go upscale and get at least a secure website.

A multitude of companies offer free website space. Just type "free web space" in an Internet search bar and you'll get thousands of results touting the best and cheapest space around. But wading through the mess is unnecessary for most small to medium market or CSA farms.

In fact, if you have e-mail, you may already have free space that came with your account. Contact your internet service provider (ISP) to see what kinds of webpage services you may already have or those you can get. Or, if your ISP is a small local company and you'd rather go with a more well-known national corporation for your website, try some of the bigger services like MSN, Yahoo or Google.

The Weltons used the MSN service, MSN Groups (www.msnusers.com). "They've got a user-friendly toolbar to help you design your web page with no more knowledge than you would use for creating an e-mail or a flier on the computer. And, it's absolutely free," says Mara.

The service is also secure, which means you'll be asked to create credentials through a NET Passport account with a valid e-mail address, provide some standard information and agree to a privacy and user policy. Once those steps have been taken care of, you're ready to create your web page.

Just say 'No' to dancing vegetables

The Internet is a visual medium, so most people think first of what kind of look they want their web page to have. The Weltons kept their page simple in the beginning, which saved time, and they relied on photos from their farm to make the site warm and welcoming. Mara firmly believes simple is better. “Don't waste your time looking for dancing vegetable icons or funky cursors—they just annoy people."

Photos can easily be the very best feature on your web page as long as they aren't too big and there aren't too many. And photos are the easiest way to put a face (literally) to your product.

Mara says the very first thing you should do if you're starting a web page is to get yourself a digital camera or a scanner. She also encourages web-minded farmers to look into Photoshop, photo editing software. "Photoshop is a great program and, although expensive, is worth the investment if you're going to be maintaining a website or sharing photos of the farm, which customers love." Of course, most scanners these days come with photo-editing software, and while not as slick or flexible as Photoshop, it’s essentially free with your purchase.

Just make sure your photos are up-to-date. "We know a farmer whose only family photo on his website is from like 1970. That's not the farmer I see at the market," says Mara. Including a little history on your site is good, but make sure history isn't the only thing the customer sees. When your customers can make a visual connection between what they see on your web page and what they see in real life, you'll feel familiar and comfortable and that can mean better sales.

There are a few other "rules" the Weltons say you can follow that will make your web page both easier for you to design and more comfortable for customers to navigate:

  • Don't overcrowd your page with huge blocks of text. Leave some white space on the page to keep customers from feeling overwhelmed by reading material.
  • Don't use more than 2 different fonts. Your text will start to look jumbled if you use too many font designs.
  • Don't overdo it on the background; keep it soft and simple. A strong, dark or complex background will make it hard to focus on the information.
  • Stay far, far away from music, funky cursors and dancing images. Again, they simply annoy visitors and distract from the real information on your page.
  • It's better to have multiple pages than to make people scroll through one huge long page. Create a homepage for example and then link to separate pages for hours of operation or directions or a harvest calendar.
  • Use quality, relevant photos. Photos take a while to load so make sure the ones you use make sense and are going to be valuable to the customer. And keep them e-mail size (640 x 480 pixels or 150k) so that loading time as short as possible.

Who, what, when, where, why and how

"Your content is the critical part of the site," stresses Mara. The information you provide is the meat of your site. This is where existing and potential customers are likely to go to get their questions answered (especially if you're directing them there). You want to make sure you provide quick-and-easy access to the top information people are looking for.

The following top three pieces of information should either be immediately visible, or else links to these details should be immediately visible to a first-time visitor:

WHO you are: Name of the farm and name(s) of the farmers

HOW to get ahold of you: Address, phone number, email, etc.

WHERE and WHEN to find your product: Sales locations and hours

"The average person stays four seconds on a website—even shorter than at your farmers' market stand," Mara explains. "You've got to provide your information fast. People don't care about your site, they just want to find the information they came for."

Once you've taken care of the basic needs of potential or existing customers, you can provide them with a little more about you, your farm and your philosophy. A good story, the WHY, is really an essential tool in selling your product, and your website is the perfect place to get that story out to as many people as possible.

"Just remember who your audience is," warns Mara. Giving customers a glimpse into what you do and how you do it, or the turning of the seasons on your farm, even some recent challenges, make for an engaging read, but a 20-page dissertation on the value of green manures over compost or a lamentation on the difficulties of farming are not. Keep your story up-beat and a digestible size.

Including a little WHAT is always a good idea, as well. When it comes down to it, the purpose of your website is really to facilitate a relationship between the customers and your products. Product offerings, seasonal harvest lists, recipes and other information, updated regularly, will entice your customers to return to your website again and again.

Getting caught in the web

Small-scale operations are finding Internet tools, including web pages, to be time and money savers when it comes to keeping in touch with customers. (See the article Broadcast your Bliss for more on electronic newsletters and farmer blogs.)

Having your own farm web page can also help increase your already existing customer base. "People ask us questions for a newspaper article and if we can't fill them in completely right then and there, we can direct them to the website," explains Mara. If the website is well done, the reporter may put the address in the article and immediately you've gotten free advertising for your farm with an easy way for interested readers to find you and your product.

Creating your own farm web page doesn't have to be expensive, nor does it have to be difficult, but the returns from investing a few hours are immeasurable.