When people think of a farmer’s tools, most conjure images of hoes, spades, seed packages and maybe tractors. They don’t readily associate computers with the farming profession, yet many farmers spend hours “at the desk” each week, speaking and e-mailing with customers, taking orders, researching, communicating with CSA members, bookkeeping. Some are even blogging.
A blog – short for Web log – is a kind of Web site that is generally updated more often than a traditional Web site. It serves as a platform, or soapbox, where a person or entity shares thoughts, observations and/or news.
Blogs have a distinct flavor. They are less formal than a Web site in tone and in information shared. Where a Web site often is a platform for selling goods or services, a blog shares a person’s musings. If a blog strikes a particularly universal chord, it may be popular enough to attract sponsors, aka advertisers, and then it, too, enters the world of commerce.
Blogs often seem to be personal, political and/or religious in nature. Entries are not “dry” and technical but are laced with humor, candor and personal perspectives. A blogger’s voice and tone are crucial for a good blog.
“Stickiness” is another component of a good blog. Sticky refers to the ability of a blog to engage viewers for longer periods and to keep them returning day after day. Blogs, by nature, are meant to be as sticky as possible. Because of their real-time nature and insider tone, they keep readers returning for the next installment of an ever-unraveling story.
Farmers blog for various reasons, including marketing and sharing with customers their thoughts and experiences on the land, with animals, plants, and even the weather. As MOFGA’s executive director Russell Libby reminds audiences when he speaks, one way small farmers succeed is when they tell the stories of their farms and the food produced there. “Food with a face, a place and a taste,” Libby reminds his audiences. A farm blog is a virtual canvas on which to paint the story of the farm in the words (and pictures) of the farmer, so a farm blog can maintain and deepen customer purchasing loyalty.
Valuable for CSA and Other Farm Communications
To one CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) grower, the farm blog is the most efficient and cost effective way to communicate with members. Brendan McQuillan, co-owner of Morning Dew Farm in Edgecomb, figures that a farm blog saves paper, time and headaches. Morningdew gave up tucking weekly paper newsletters into shareholder bags several years ago and switched to an e-mailed newsletter distributed by a service called Vertical Response. In 2009, Brendan and his partner, Brady, started posting all farm news and events on their blog, accessed through the farm’s Web site, www.morningdeworganic.com. They say that the newsletters are extremely important for their CSA offering. “People talk about these newsletters like it is a Pulitzer Prize material,” says Brendan. Authentic farm stories and information, specific to a region or town, are features “that traditional food avenues don’t offer.”
McQuillan uses iWeb, a feature of their Mac “mobileme” account, as their blog template. “The cost is minimal or at least comparable to our previous host,” says McQuillan, and “it’s super easy to use.” He’s had estimates for “dynamic” Web sites (with easy to manage content) in the $2,000 to $3,000 range, “so in this instance spending extra on the Mac was well worth it.”
Clayton Carter, who, with his wife, Kendra Michaud, owns Fail Better Farm in Montville (www.failbetterfarm.com), also communicates with customers through a farm blog. With beautiful pictures and wonderful recipes, the Fail Better blog tells CSA members and wholesale customers, mostly chefs, what vegetables are available in a given week and what may be coming next. Carter says his blog “is in small part a creative outlet, but mostly an effective communication tool for the farm.” Instead of having to churn out a newsletter for members before each CSA share is distributed, Carter relishes his time at the keyboard after all the shares have been delivered. Reflecting on the week’s happenings and what vegetables went into the bags gives Carter a chance to catch his breath after a busy day of harvesting, packing and delivering.
Carter uses Blogger, available free from Google at blogger.com, and finds it “pretty good, though by no means perfect and often downright annoying.” For example, the Blogger program does not lay out text and photos in the same way as Word processing programs; and cutting and pasting photos and text seems to change the formatting and chop up the entry strangely. As with so many Web sites and services such as Facebook or Twitter, the user has to become acquainted with Blogger features and functions to maximize its utility.
Blog software has built-in features that are valuable to farmers. Simple posting procedures for photos and text, as well as the ability to archive all entries, make blogs user friendly for busy farmers who may not be especially tech-savvy. Blogs allow readers to leave comments, although Carter has disabled the comments option on his blog.
“I am infrequently impressed by blog comments,” he says, so he prefers to forego whatever kudos might come through and leaves it up to his members and customers to contact him by e-mail with pressing questions and comments.
Additionally, blogs are often “scrollable,” meaning that the most recent posting is at the top of the Web page and previous postings are below and can be read by scrolling down the page. This allows readers to catch up with missed postings easily. McQuillan explains, “We wanted our farm news to be archived online. When the newsletter contains recipes, [members] can return to them easily.”
“Returning easily” goes back to that issue of stickiness. Rather than receiving farm newsletters as emails, CSA members of Morning Dew and Fail Better Farms go to the farm, virtually, for information about their shares each week and to learn about celebrations and other farm events. The farmers’ goal is to make these sites a weekly stop for members and customers.
This winter, when he has more time, McQuillan plans to make the Morning Dew blog more interactive. “We want “stickiness” and we want [members] to keep coming back, looking for what is new. If I had money and time, I would be doing a podcast. Can’t you picture someone showing a video clip to a friend on their iPhone? ‘Hey, check out what my CSA is doing this week … Here are the farmers harvesting cucumbers!’”
Moving into Video
Jeremy Bloom of Portland, Maine, owner of Techvertising (InternetFarmerHQ.com) and a marketing professional in the Web industry since 1994, had an agricultural epiphany a few years ago and hopes to build a business around farms and e-commerce, blogs, podcasts, basic sites and other Internet tools. He aims to direct farmers toward software and information platforms that will enhance their marketing and sales. Says Bloom, “E-commerce is a whole new world for most farmers. I want to help farmers decide what technology tools have value for them.
“Blogs,” he continues, “are low-cost and easy to use, can be added to any existing Web site or even used as the Web site entirely, and offer farmers a way to express themselves and communicate with customers. Whether it is the written word, or multimedia with photos, audio and video, there are dozens of ways for a blog to bring out the best in a farm or farmer’s personality using whatever technical skill-level they have.
“People love writing in and reading blogs. Farmers who use this tool are doing something people obviously enjoy, and in turn are promoting themselves in creative ways [that] a paper newsletter or traditional advertising never could with the same or less of an effort.”
Most bloggers supplement their writings with photos. Video clips can also be uploaded to a blog easily, giving viewers a mini-movie of some farm event. Photos of food in its natural setting, before being harvested, washed or prepared for cooking, is a special domain of the farmer-photographer. Clayton Carter says he often carries the camera on his farm walks. “I will even run for the camera if something strikes me as particularly beautiful or important to capture.”
Jeremy Bloom is also launching a video project this fall called “The Maine Food & Farm Report”, in which farmers can tell about their land and why and how they farm. He will make these “virtual handshake with the farmer” videos available online so that consumers can see and hear those who grow their food.
Farm blogs are natural places to share recipes by typing them into a blog posting’s text or typing a hyperlink – the name of a Web site, which shows up as a unique color in the posting and, when clicked, opens another Web page that holds the recipe. Recipe Web sites such as www.epicurious.com and www.cookusinterruptus.com are wonderful resources for growers and consumers in the ongoing adventure of eating seasonally and locally.
Blogs may not be as good as an old-fashioned farm tour, but they can keep farmers and customers in touch. As McQuillan says, “Blogs offer a way to connect. It is all about making members feel like they have a finger on the pulse of the farm.”
About the author: Polly Shyka lives and farms at Village Farm in Freedom, Maine. She and her husband, Prentice Grassi, grow vegetables for local families in a CSA and for wholesale accounts. They also raise trees and shrubs, as well as pastured livestock. Polly can be contacted at [email protected].
Farmers: We’d love to hear about and share, in a future MOF&G, your favorite blogging platform. Please email your comments to [email protected].