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,"
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,"
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
- 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
- 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
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.