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Combines, tractors, laptops, smartphones: Farmers use digital tools to aid marketing

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Posted on August 25, 2011 |
By Andrea Suozzo



rockville0849.jpg
ERIC ROZENDAAL’S ROCKVILLE Market Farm in Starksboro, like a growing number of agricultural businesses, has benefited from high-speed Internet by employing fresh ideas — such as Web applications, Facebook and other online tools — to market their products. Independent photo/Andrea Warren

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of articles focusing on the changing role of information technology in various sectors.

The series looks beyond the push for universal broadband, asking how Internet access and the advances of technology are changing life in Addison County. It stems from the discussions of a regional technology plan being worked on by the Addison County Regional Planning Commission. We welcome your responses and thoughts on the article or on technology in general, input that will help the team incorporate as many viewpoints as possible into the plan.

ADDISON COUNTY — The road to get agricultural businesses on the Internet has been a long one.

As the push continues to expand broadband Internet and cell phone service to all corners of Vermont, those who live in areas with sparse population are often left for last — and farms, by virtue of their need for open space, are likely to be in areas of sparse population.

But as a new generation takes over farming operations, and as broadband and mobile Internet access expands to more areas of the state, farmers are increasingly incorporating the Internet into their day-to-day business routines.

“We make (our website) a priority,” said Eric Rozendaal of Rockville Market Farm in Starksboro. “I think if we’re going to revolutionize how food is distributed in the future, computers are key.”

Rozendaal is in his second year using a web application called Farmigo to manage subscriptions to his community supported agriculture (CSA) program. The application takes the CSA beyond the traditional model, where subscribers pay an upfront fee for weekly food deliveries throughout the season. Farmigo allows his subscribers to pay for their food as they go, and gives those customers an easy interface to manage or suspend vegetable deliveries from week to week. It also allows them to add supplementary items like maple syrup or meat or eggs. The software, Rozendaal said, heralds a new future for direct marketing in agriculture — not least because it is backed by big-name investors like Google.

“The technology aspect fits really well into the CSA model,” said Rozendaal. “I think the whole CSA model is going to change because of technology.

And Internet connections are not just facilitating direct connections with the consumer, they’re helping out in many other areas of life for farmers as well.

Jennifer Breen of Hall and Breen Dairy Farm in Orwell can check up on the farm’s milking robots from anywhere in the world on her smartphone. She gets a notification if any part of the mechanism breaks, eliminating some of the stress of checking up on equipment. And mobile web access also offers easy, fast access to a world of information like weather and crop prices while Breen is on the go.

“You can be out in the fields and know what the weather forecast is,” said Andrea Ochs, who with her husband runs Crescent Orchards in Orwell. “Between tablets, smartphones and laptops, technology is integral in just about any business these days.”

According to the most recent findings of the USDA’s biennial Farm Computer Usage and Ownership report, farms in the American Northeast are ahead of the curve in terms of connectivity. The report found that 62 percent of farms nationally have access to the Internet, while 78 percent in New England are connected. The New England number has risen from 67 percent in 2007.

Ochs, a member of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission’s Regional Technology Team, said Internet connections aren’t just making life on the farm easier, they’re becoming vital pieces in everything from information gathering to commerce, marketing and education.

Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Ross said the Internet is taking a front seat for farmers hoping to tell their story and the larger story of agriculture in the Vermont directly to consumers across the country.

“(The Internet) can connect farms and farmers to buyers — it can create that direct economic linkage,” Ross said in an interview with the Independent.

Increasingly, farmers are telling their story directly through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blogs. Ross said that’s something that many young farmers, just like young professionals in other businesses, are emphasizing.

“We think of our website as an extension of us,” said Rozendaal. “People have been farming this land since before the (American) Revolution, but we’re the first ones with a website. I think every generation that comes after will have one.”

Web presence has become especially important for farms with a focus in agricultural tourism, said Lisa Chase, director of the Vermont Tourism Data Center and a UVM Extension professor.

But she said developing that presence can be a struggle, especially for small farmers. Many, she said in an email, are struggling to find the time and resources to build, maintain and update websites if they have them, and don’t feel they have extra time to spend on social media.

“Ten years ago farms were asking if they really needed a website, now they’re asking if they really need to get involved with social media,” Chase said.

But as Rozendaal sees it, the Internet is a grassroots forum for connecting to potential customers.

“We’re trying to ultimately reach people who will help us reach people,” he said.

For Blue Ledge Farm in Leicester, having a web presence was never a question. Greg Bernhardt and Hannah Sessions raise goats and make cheese on the farm, and they use their website to tell their story to both a regional audience and to those farther afield.

Bernhardt said their website, blueledgefarm.com, accounts for only about 5 percent of the farm’s cheese sales, paling in comparison to bulk distribution to stores. In fact, he said, that’s how they prefer it — it’s much harder to package individual orders for shipping than it is to sell in bulk.

But the site provides something that can’t be quantified in direct sales. For example, many Blue Ledge interns have found the farm via the website.

“People who have been here, or those who buy our cheese in Boston or New York, can get a sense of who we are,” said Bernhardt. “The more ways people can connect to us, the better.”

For Sessions and Bernhardt, easy website maintenance is key — they don’t want to spend time transferring and uploading photos to their site from a computer.

Recently, Bernhardt pointed out, Facebook has made a big difference in the ease of maintaining a web presence. Blue Ledge Farm’s Facebook page also feeds its website, and Sessions and Bernhardt can easily post an update from a smartphone.

“I could literally be baling hay and post a video right from my tractor,” said Bernhardt.

Within the state, those with prominent social media and web presences tend to be value-added producers, businesses that welcome visitors and those targeting regional and national markets. But for many small producers who sell locally, it doesn’t make sense to have a separate website and ecommerce system.

That’s what Mike Walker and a group of fellow Charlotte-based farmers were seeking to address when they launched yourfarmstand.com last July. Walker, a small meat producer, wanted to reach a larger customer base than just the Charlotte Farmers’ Market.

“We’re a small group of farmers and producers, and we didn’t regularly have an outlet for our products,” Walker said. “We thought, rather than selling online individually, how about grouping together and creating an online market?”

Yourfarmstand.com coordinates a drop-off hub for producers in designated areas — including Vergennes, Brandon, five other Vermont towns and, recently added, Davis, Calif. — each week. Those looking to sell their products must sign up with the website, pick a region, then enter the types and quantities of produce they have available. Consumers then log on, place their orders, pay, and pick up at the drop-off hub.

In Vergennes, the service offers two Thursday drop-off locations at the former Kennedy Brothers building and the Vergennes Farmers’ Market.

Walker said the concept is similar to one being used in other areas of the country, though each one differs slightly. To him, yourfarmstand.com bridges the idea of a CSA, where people pay one fee for weekly produce deliveries throughout the season, with a farmers’ market. One of the goals of the project was to make it as easy as possible for both farmers and consumers, and to make sure it allows for flexibility.

And farmers are only charged a small maintenance fee on what they sell — there’s no membership cost or market fee.

“It’s not a huge business — it’s mainly the farmers connecting with customers,” Walker said.

CONNECTING FARMERS

It’s not just connecting with customers where the Internet has proved useful. It’s also allowing farmers to connect with other farmers.

Young farmers in the Vermont Farm Bureau are working to build a Facebook presence, and several county farm bureaus around the state have Facebook presences. These groups and pages broadcast events and allow for everything from simple introductions to more detailed farming discussions.

And a new land database through the UVM Extension New Farmer Project is seeking to connect new farmers seeking land with farmers thinking about retirement and looking for a successor.

“The project’s main goal is to improve land access for new, expanding and relocating farmers,” said Ben Waterman of the New Farmer Project.

But he added that there’s also more to that goal — the project is also looking to provide support to those retiring farmers as they make decisions that include whether they want to sell or lease their land.

“Farmers need to look outside the family, but that’s intimidating,” Waterman said. “You’re talking about transferring your whole lifeblood to someone you don’t know.”

Right now, he said the database has about 15 people seeking land, and about the same number have listed opportunities for new farmers.

“We’re enabling people to connect with people in a manner that provides open transparency,” Waterman said.

THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

Waterman acknowledged that, especially for older farmers, just learning to use the Internet and the resources it offers can be difficult. But in the past five years, he said, he’s seen older farmers come a long way.

“Many of them want to connect with younger farmers, and they know that they have to do it through the Internet,” said Waterman.

While Internet training remains a limitation for farmers, as it does for many other businesses, Lisa Chase said UVM Extension offers a number of tools to help farmers build their web presences, offering webinars on topics like search engine optimization.

Ochs said she expects to see Internet savvy among farmers grow in coming years, especially as its uses become more widespread in agriculture. She serves as promotion and education chair on the Vermont Farm Bureau, and said there is a great deal of discussion on using the Internet to promote agriculture and local eating.

“You’re seeing more and more interactive technologies used at fairs and in classrooms,” said Ochs. “In coming years, you’re going to see more people that are going to use the Internet and other technological devices to present their farm.”

Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at andreas@addisonindependent.com.

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