by Tamara Scully

One might think that farming is all about growing a great crop – but it’s selling that crop that brings in the profit. In today’s agricultural marketplace, dominated by large corporations competing on price, the small farmer, selling directly to customers, can find it challenging to find and retain customers. It’s this part of selling – the marketing – which Charlotte Smith, of 3 Cow Marketing, specializes in teaching. In a recent webinar, sponsored by On Pasture, Smith shared the first three essential steps to profitable farming.

Smith, who operates a micro raw milk dairy in Oregon, grew up on a commodity farm, which eventually went bankrupt during her teenaged years. Through her own success as a direct-market small farmer, Smith has learned the impact targeted marketing has in keeping the farm profitable, and has designed a course, “Farm Marketing From the Heart,” to teach other farmers just how it’s done. It’s all about building relationships.

“I knew my farm was going to look very different than my dad’s commodity farm,” she explained. If you compete on price, “that’s a commodity,” and your direct market farm won’t work. Instead, Smith said, her goal was “to build a customer base of people who would pay my price without question.”

She used relationship marketing to build a farm where she sets her own pricing, covering her costs and adding a fair profit margin. She soon had customer foot traffic that neighboring farms didn’t. Farmers began asking her for advice on marketing, and she developed a course to teach them how to have the same success she’s had.

Smith was named by Food Tank, a non-profit whose mission is to promote global food system education and change and build a social, environmental and economically sustainable system of food production, as one of the most influential women in agriculture today.

“If you skip the parts I’m teaching you today, you will really have trouble trying to find customers,” Smith said. “People buy from you because of relationships. When you form relationships first, price is no object.”

Foundation Step One

The first step in finding enough loyal customers is to take your marketing online via email marketing. It’s not social media that builds your marketing base, Smith said. While social media is a tool, it isn’t a foundation building block, and many farmers are making that mistake. Showing customers that you value them by sharing with them your farm’s story through email is how they come to value you – and want to buy your products.

“When you let your foundation of email marketing slide, those platforms don’t work anymore,” she said. “You can only meet so many people in person,” but email marketing allows you to build a personal connection with many more people.

Sending emails that will actually capture the attention of potential customers, and get read, means crafting emails that make people want to read them.

Emails will be opened and bring in sales if you write them as if you are speaking directly to your ideal customer. That ideal customer needs to be outlined in clear, precise detail. Targeting females between the ages of 25 and 45 is too wide a range. Instead, create your own very specific ideal target customer and write your emails as if they were personal correspondence directly to that customer. Because 80% of purchasing decisions are made by women, in most cases that ideal customer should be a woman.

“You can’t choose wrong,” Smith said, as you can always fine-tune your emails until you are successfully reaching customers and getting those emails read. But developing that ideal customer is the first foundation step, and the other steps are built upon this.

Second Step: Engage and Grow

Sending out mass emails is best done through an email service (Constant Contact and MailChimp are popular providers) to avoid breaking laws on spamming. These services also allow you to see how many people opened your emails and track what subject lines led to better response rates. These also allow you to personalize each email and address your customer by name, send out your emails on a pre-scheduled basis and do so with one click of your mouse.

Smith suggested enticing potential customers to sign up for your email list by offering a freebie, such as a recipe download or tips on healthy eating, as a reward for giving you their email. Don’t offer a free farm item or a discount coupon, because you are seeking customers who aren’t shopping by price but are interested in building a relationship with your farm.

Going out into the community to find more people to add to your list is the best way to find new customers. Speaking at community groups – book clubs, garden clubs, moms’ meetings – is a great way to introduce yourself and your farm. Farmers markets are another way of connecting with customers in the area, as are events at local colleges or places of business.

“When we meet people in person, they are almost 100% likely to buy from us,” Smith said, but online relationships take a few weeks or more to entice customers to make a purchase.

The “lead magnet” is the subject line of your email, and it’s designed to get your email opened. Aside from creating a compelling subject line, your emails are more likely to be read and see results if you stay relevant in your customers’ mind. That means at least one email a month, even in the off-season, and possibly two or more emails during the busy months.

If you let your emails go by the wayside, sales will drop too, according to Smith. Sending emails only when you are pushing a product isn’t going to do anything to build a relationship. Instead, it will demonstrate to customers that they are only valued for their money.

Building Trust

The emails, 80% of which are about engaging your audience, with 20% or less devoted to selling your product, will share things about the farm with recipients and help them realize more value from their purchases. If you’re a dairy farmer, sharing stories of individual cows in the milking herd or recipes for making yogurt will work. Answering commonly asked questions is another way to build relationships via email.

Creating seasons on your farm – even if you sell your product year-round – will help to sell items too. Taking pre-orders becomes successful, as customers are eager to not be left out. Now that you’re customers are engaged, they’ll look forward to your emails. And, when you do send out an email selling something, you will sell out, Smith said.

As you build relationships with your customers, using targeted email marketing as your foundation, they will seek you out to purchase your products, no matter your selling venue. They will come to your farm, visit your farm market booth, order online or join your CSA.

“This is what devoted subscribers do for your business,” Smith said.