There's no doubt that social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and other sites are making the world a smaller place. It's making it easier to catch up with old friends, crowd-source advice on where to buy your next computer or pick a restaurant to hit on your lunch break. But it's also making it easier for small businesses to reach their customers and that includes small farms.
Cody Hopkins and Andrea Todt are the co-founders of Falling Sky Farm in Marshall. Recently, at the Conway farmer's market, Hopkins was holding a cup of Starbucks coffee in one hand, an iPhone in the other. A customer came up to him and said, “Hey, that's the farmer of the future.”
He was right. With the help of a few online marketing tools and an iPhone, Hopkins and Todt have been able to build their business, and help out other local farmers in the process.
“When we started the farm we knew we would be going to farmer's markets and restaurants, but we also wanted a way to market our products locally that didn't require a lot of time on our part,” Hopkins says.
“We came upon a program called Locally Grown (www.locallygrown.net). It's essentially an online farmer's market. When we started in 2008, we had about five or six farmers. Now we have 30. I think the first go-round we had 15 customers, now we have about 200 and about 100 of those order something during any given week.”
Here's how it works. On Sundays, the farmers list their products online. That night, Hopkins sends out an e-mail to all the customers registered with the site. Then the ordering begins.
“It's basically like shopping on Amazon.com,” Hopkins says. “You have a cart and you pick what you want.”
Customers have until Tuesday night to complete their orders. Once ordering is complete, an e-mail is sent to the farmers, who begin packing orders and getting ready for delivery. On Friday, the farmers take their produce to Conway and meet up with their customers.
“That program, in a little over a year and half has grossed over $100,000. So it's obvious to me that Conway itself was looking for something like this. It's been a boost to a lot of local farmers' sales, and in a way that doesn't require a lot of investment on their part,” Hopkins says.
After graduating from Hendrix College, Hopkins became interested in farming and thought that sustainable farms, combined with some innovative marketing techniques, could boost economic development in poorer farming communities in Central Arkansas.
“I thought the first thing I should do is try the experiment myself and see if I could do it,” he says. “So we started with very little capital and not a lot of land, and not a lot of knowledge about farming either. But now we're about three years into the experiment and it's really successful. The demand far exceeds what we can produce at this point.”
While there are numerous benefits to marketing products online, Hopkins says you have to be careful.
“One of the problems is you don't get that face-to-face contact with the farmers that you would get if you went to a farmer's market. So much of the local foods movement is built on connecting with the farmers and getting to know them and building relationships with them.”
Hopkins and Todt try to bridge that gap by hosting cooking classes, cheese-making parties or locally-grown dinners featuring other local producers.
Another problem is that in Marshall, the Internet connection is shaky at best. To solve that, Hopkins bought an iPhone and conducts most of his business from the palm of his hand. It's also good for other things too, like checking the weather.
“We have a lot of chickens that stay outside and when they're young they're pretty vulnerable,” he says. “If a storm's rolling in, we have to make sure they're protected. So it's really saved us a couple of times. It's one of those things that people wouldn't imagine a farmer using but it's helped us out a lot.”
Hopkins and Todt recently won the 2009 “Wave of the Future” Harvest Award for innovation and leadership in the sustainable food movement. You can find out more about Falling Sky Farm at http://conway.locallygrown.net.