Foggy Bottom Farms Featured in AcresUSA in 2008

AcresUSA Cover April 2008

AcresUSA Cover April 2008

I believe that AcresUSA is one of the best farming magazines in the country. I have always been impressed by the vast range of information that the late Charles Walters, the publisher, brought to bear on subjects that impact not only American farmers, but American consumers. Charles did much to restore communication between these two groups.

Imagine My Surprise

I submitted the article below because I felt as though now was a time when I could add some real value to people trying to build agricultural communities that thrive without government interference. The editors at Acres asked me to trim it down a bit. (Of course, I had to pull out a really funny idea.) And then, I just waited to hear a target date from them.

Imagine my surprise when I pulled the April issue from the mailbox and there it was on the front cover. I encourage you to subscribe to AcresUSA.

I hope that the excerpt from the article below helps you understand why.

“Bringing Your Farm to the Internet.” by John Langlois

In the Southeast, everyone was looking for hay. The call I received from a horse owner was unexpected, but not a surprise. He was desperate. He said he had found us on our website, www.foggybottomfarms.com. I thanked him for calling and explained that our fescue, orchard grass, vetch and clover was really grown for my Dexters and might not be what he wanted. “Then why did you advertise it?” he asked.

I didn’t. Well, I didn’t mean to.

We keep most of our hay for our own use. But he had found our internet site simply by searching for “Better Hay Farms Jackson County Alabama”. His Google search hit on our website page on which we discussed adding sea salts and other amendments to promote the bio-diversity necessary to grow good grass.

This article is not about growing grass, however. It’s about growing your farm business using the internet, and my hay caller provides a good example of how powerful – and complex – a marketing tool the Web can be.

My wife and I own Foggy Bottom Farms. I say we own it, but at age 55 I prefer to think as the Native Americans did that I am borrowing it from my grandchildren.

I also own a website development company named Foggy Bottom Web Design (see www.foggybottomwebdesign.com. You can imagine my chagrin when the farm website confronted me in ways I did not intend. Such is the nature of the internet.

Marshall McLuhan has noted “the medium is the message,” a phrase meaning that the generic form of media is more important than any “meaning” or “content” that the media conveys. For Marshall McLuhan, the content of media is less relevant than the form of the medium itself, which is what ultimately changes our consciousness.

Upon reflection, I saw that the internet had woven a fabric of consciousness between me and my, as yet, unknown buyer. Breaking down the process I saw the following events:

  • I publicized what the farm does in language that reflects my values.
  • The search engines categorized it.
  • Someone went looking for something like what we do.
  • They found us.

Then the moment of truth occurred. Each of has had the opportunity to decide whether this was someone with whom we wished to do business. It turned out in that particular moment that we discovered that we were not a good fit for each other because:

  • I was not willing to sell the hay.
  • He wanted to buy it at last year’s prices, even though he needed it badly.
  • There was no reason for an on-going relationship beyond that first transaction.

My experience has been that many people see having their own website as the most wonderful advertising opportunity to ever come along.

In addition to its promotional function, creating a farm site can be a philosophical experience, helping you to bring into focus the way you choose to do business.

The internet has truly changed the way we do business. Where else can you get the beauty of professionally designed graphics, the directed power of succinct copy writing, the flexibility of instantaneous changes and the assistance of a cast of thousands, all for less than what it would cost to run a few newspaper adds or a display in the Yellow Pages? And, unlike the traditional forms of advertising where you had to broadcast your message far and wide and hope that the right person heard it at the time that they were ready to hear it, now the situation is reversed. You are not “broadcasting.” THEY are “broad-surfing, looking for you.”

Your new customers are now telling you, via the search engines, what they want. The question is whether they will find you among all the clutter that is also a part of the internet. A “me too” offering will never get noticed. Therefore, in order to have a vibrant, well noticed site, you need to build a special identity.

Keywords to Success

Winter Barn

One client that was a special challenge was a “Portable Toilets” firm. They were a first rate company and did an outstanding job, but as an internet developer, I wondered whether I had taken on the task of “putting lipstick on a pig.” How could we build a website that would anticipate what people would search for in a “porta-potty” query? How do you brag about a toilet? What would the search engines value about this business?

I went through all the obvious iterations of “construction site toilets”, “RV camping holding tanks” and “Outside Weddings.” As I talked more with the owner about who his customers were and what could set him apart from a less equipped provider, we hit upon his “ADA Compliant” units. These were portable toilets that were especially prepared for people in wheel chairs. It turns out that many cities require ADA units for their public events. Once we featured those units in his website keyword development, his site shot to the top ten lists on Google and Yahoo.

Obviously, you don’t want to list “ADA compliant toilets” in your farm’s website unless you have some. Instead, keep refining the “unique selling proposition” that is your farm and then figure out how to express it in a language that the public is using.

Right now “public-speak” has lots of “organic”, “whole foods”, “pesticide-free” kinds of language in it, which is truly wonderful. But because the “big-Ag” companies are trying to hijack the goodwill that the organic farming movement built up, it is not enough just to use those words to describe what you offer. You may need to creatively re-package what you are distributing to get noticed and then have your general offerings fill in the blanks.

For example, “The dog food recalls” have everyone seriously concerned about what they are feeding their pets. Dried dog food is not that cheap to begin with. Developing $2.00 per pound pet foods from what was going to be $2.00 per pound hamburger and then getting paid a bonus to ship it to them may turn out to be a more lucrative way to repackage what you offer. More importantly, it may get you noticed by the local “moms on a mission.” Once that happens, the phones start to ring and the emails pile up.

However, you will not get noticed without a website. Getting a handle on the basic website idea is not any more complicated than learning how to run a hay-baler, just different. It does have some complicated components, but for those pieces we hire the pros. You don’t need to know how to fix it to be able to use it.

The good news is you can hire talented people at a fraction of what the corporations can because those people aren’t’t located in traditional “brick and mortar” facilities.

When you finally plan those first website pages, keep in mind the following:

1). Prices for your products matter much less than you think. The people who say they can’t afford your products are not your customers. Often they could afford it, but their priorities are focused on HBO and cell phones. Let the corporations who put your father’s generation out of business with cheap farming feed those who only value cheap food. You’re looking for customers with different priorities.

2).People are hungry for what you know. I moderate a Yahoo discussion group for Weston A. Price members and am startled by the volume of information that is exchanged. There really is a whole “army of moms” out there who are militant about getting their kids the nutrition that has been stolen from their food through factory processing.

3). Write a description of your farm. I don’t mean just size, location and what you grow. You need to verbalize what you really feel about your place. Get a little Zen going. “Be one with the farm, grasshopper.” If you can’t explain Albrecht’s “feed the soil to feed you idea” then how do you expect them to understand it? Write it down and read it out loud to your spouse and friends until it sounds like something you would be proud to hear on TV. Then put it on your website.

4). Give free samples. They work great at trade shows, but have you done that on your website yet? I had a goat milk website send me a free bar of their soap when we purchased something else. We wound up going back for just the soap.

5). Give free recipes. Get a copy of Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions and find a recipe that highlights the bountiful flavor of what you are offering. You should also check out Nina Planck’s Real Food. And don’t forget your in-house recipes. I defy anyone to beat my spaghetti sauce!

6). Communicate every week. A weekly newsletter or a blog is a great way to accomplish this. You are collecting a database of email addresses, arena’t you? Many of your clients will prefer email over a phone call. Visitors to your site will often give you a simple email address just to hear what you have to say. Every one of those people is a prospect for your farm.

The beauty of the internet is that a one page email is as good as four, maybe better. That page with good graphics and a succinct “how to” message, an industry product alert or a special event notice buys you mind share and trust.

7). Cultivate Seasonality with your site. CSA’s understand how to promote “in-season” vegetables, but what do you do in January? Create a newsletter about cleaning out the barn, the house and your mind. Promote January as a group sharing time for a Wendell Berry or Gene Logsdon book. If you dry off your herd for winter, talk with your clients about how nature rests and lives off of the fall’s bountiful harvest. Build anticipation for the bursts of flavor that come with cows nursing spring calves on fresh grass, strawberries in April or basil from that window herb box.

8). Use big, colorful photography. One of the best shots on my farm website is my wife’s close-up of a butterfly. When people comment on it they usually project onto the butterfly picture the feelings and the numinous ideas they have about nature and their desire to find serenity in a bucolic setting.

9). Consider hiring a voice talent — One of my corporate websites uses the voice talent of a young woman from Texas. Clients find her short message to be a pleasant surprise. It’s an inexpensive way to help people remember your site.

If you already have a website that’s working, here are some insider tips to boost your traffic.

1). Put your site on the Yahoo Maps locator. Google has one, too. They require a little work so many people ignore them, but they can raise your site’s visibility.

2). Join a chat group that really shares your values and ask for a critique of your website. Post the “http://www.yoursite.com” link in the group. Not only will the group members help you by visiting, but the search engines will index the link into their database. (You didn’t’t think those rooms were really private, did you?)

3). Do a movie for YouTube.com. The birth of a goat and subsequent nursing, baby chicks breaking out of the egg or a time-lapse on squash growing would generate human interest that leads to more traffic at your site.

One philosophical aspect to all of this is that the instantaneous and ubiquitous communication of the internet will make possible “villages” that depend on local farmers.

It couldn’t’t happen with telephones or regular mail because they were too slow and expensive. But now the 300 families that you need to sustain your efforts that reside in the town of 15,000 people will be able to find you. You will have a better educated clientele and maybe finally get paid for the value you are providing.

Perhaps most important, enjoy the ride.

Recommended Reading

A new recommended reading list is coming soon.

John Langlois

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