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
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
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
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
- 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,
WHEN to find your product: Sales locations
"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
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.