Farm Locator directory users believe online marketing future strong in reaching consumers
Participating farmers contacted in a review of The New Farm Locator say the upside potential for online marketing is a bright spot to connect with new customers—but it has to be low-cost, well-promoted and easy to use.

By Greg Bowman

 

January 12, 2007: Evelina Panayotova, monitoring and evaluation manager for The Rodale Institute, provided background on the current status of online marketing by farmers and analysis of what she learned during 2006 surveys of farmer users of Farm Locator (www.newfarm.org/farmlocator). A total of 217 farmers responded to 1,053 valid mailings targeted toward the 1,320 farms listed on the directory.

Background: In 2005, more than half of U.S. farms (51 percent) had access to the Internet—a proportion similar to the corresponding usage rates for U.S. households, and about a third (31 percent) reported using computers for their farm business. These rates are a significant increase from less than a decade ago when in 1997, for example, just about 13 percent of U.S. farmers had access to the Internet (NASS, 2003).

Objective: Evaluate the usefulness of the New Farm Locator to find out what is working well, what is not working as well and what new solutions its users believe it can bring. The work was carried out by Panayotova with the assistance of a Federal-State Marketing Improvement Matching Grant from the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service in collaboration with the AgMap (http://agmap.psu.edu) team of Pennsylvania State University.

Findings from the 217 respondents:

  • 85 percent were from small or medium sized family farms
  • 26 percent listed their farms as certified organic
  • 49 percent were women
  • 62 percent said they accessed Farm Locator at their homes
  • 53 percent said they had high-speed cable or DSL connections to the Internet

Nearly all (93 percent) of the farmers responding said they set up their own Farm Locator pages, with 66 percent of them saying they reviewed it occasionally, and 58 percent reporting making occasional updates. More than a third (38 percent) said they never made changed to their profile once they first entered the information.

All information on a farmer’s or food buyer’s profile is able to be edited, allowing for seasonal changes to alert customers of changing offerings, hours or enterprises. Users can add photographs or new text at any time.

Local is the focus

These farmers overwhelmingly were interested in selling locally within their state, the case stated by 89 percent of them. A total of 61 percent of these Farm Locator farmer respondents recorded 90 percent of their sales in their home state.

Further targeting their marketing, 35 percent said they had more than 90 percent of their sales within 30 miles of their homes. While they found by a 65 percent rate that word-of-mouth is the best advertising, when they named intentional forms of outreach they favored online tools, including a personal website (28 percent saying it was best) or other online directories.

The biggest challenges in marketing are in finding new customers and covering advertising expenses. Price, communication, making deliveries and product quality were cited by less than 10 percent of the respondents as significant problems.

To succeed at their two biggest barriers to reaching new customers—the convenience of retail stores and lack of visibility with their target consumers—respondents said they believed that online tools held the biggest positive potential. These included personal websites, e-newsletters, blogs, collective listings and web-calendars.

“Virtual website” expands reach

editor's NOTE
Thanks to all those who participated in the surveys. We try to respond to suggestions for improvement at our end, to improve the service it affords farmers and those seeking to buy from them. We encourage farmers wishing to sell directly to individuals and other buyers—and buyers who want to sign up to find new suppliers who will sell to them directly—to add their farms and businesses by clicking the “Add your Farm or Business” box on the Farm Locator homepage.

Only 54 percent had their own websites, so Farm Locator provided the remaining 46 percent with a unique ability to be players in the electronic marketing universe. There is no cost to use the Farm Locator. By listing their Farm Locator URL on printed materials (fliers, coupons and posters) and in electronic postings on listservs or email lists, they can help more customers learn about their farms, and have ways to pass on recommendations electronically.

The current reality is, however, that fully 40 percent of the responding farmers were unsure how effective online directories are compared to personalized websites or non-electronic tools, such as print, radio and TV. Contributing this uncertainty is the lack of ability for the profiled farmers to know when a customer viewed Farm Locator before coming in. Only 12 percent said they “very frequently” or “sometimes” had customers mention the Farm Locator as a reason for coming to the farm.

Reported benefits included:

  • 16 percent reported an increase in sales, while 20 percent reported an increase in their customer base.
  • Connecting with other producers, direct contact with farmers, increased visibility from out-of-state viewers and great friendships with farmers.
  • Full control over content, and the face that it is free to use.

Users reported dissatisfaction with needing approval to update photos. This moderating function by NewFarm.org staff is prevents offensive postings. We try to respond promptly to farmer requests for fresh images.

Other concerns are that the list of fruits and vegetables is too specific (requiring too many check marks to cover a farm’s offerings) and that there is no definition of the offered farm description terms, including “sustainable” and “organic but not certified.”

Asked for changes they would like, respondents asked most often for automatic referral tracking to monitor customer response to their Farm Locator listing as the first improvement, then proposed many types of ways to promotion of their Farm Locator profiles to new customers groups, including restaurants, schools and retail and institutional buyers.