by Linda Rogge
If the farm you work on is the same as the farm you live on and you are considering expanding your business to welcome “on farm” customers, there are a few things to consider. One of the most important is this: Are you prepared for people to show up at your home when you are least expecting them? Surprise visits from customers can be rewarding, but they can also be a disruption in family and personal life. Establishing clear guidelines for customers before you open for business can give you some “time off” from selling, while still allowing for the flexibility often needed to run a successful small business. Careful thought into a few key steps can help keep surprises from customers to a minimum.
Inviting customers to your farm has definite benefits. U-pick operations are engaging for people who want to know where their food comes from and can save you work from harvesting the goods others can pick themselves. Customers buying directly from your farm saves time and money taking your goods to market. Visits to your farm are great for marketing and promoting your business through offering your customers a unique experience. However, it’s important to create some boundaries. When trying to grow your business and maximize profit, it can be tempting to be open all the time.
First, consider how you are advertising your farm. Dropping your business card in a customer shopping bag while you’re selling at the market is a great way to promote your Facebook site, but if the card also has your address on it, people may come to your home unexpectedly. It isn’t safe to assume that all people follow the same social protocol you do. If you have set hours when you are open, consider putting those on the card, or reference a website or social media page where customers can check those hours. Depending on your business, it might be appropriate to put “by appointment” or “hours vary – check our page” on your business card or flyers as a flag for customers, indicating you don’t run a typical commercial storefront.
Next, evaluate the signage you have at your farm’s entrance. Is there any sign at all? A sign with only your business or family name? Are there hours posted, or something to indicate if you are open or closed? Signs are great ways to get your brand in people’s minds and they can attract new customers. Having prominent signage with an easy “open” or “closed” portion allows you to manage visitors according to your schedule. Most customers will respect boundaries if they are clear.
No matter what steps you take to separate home from business, be prepared for surprises. People may come when you aren’t planning for them. The best you can do is be prepared to deal with that. If you aren’t good at politely but firmly turning customers away, enlist a family member as a back-up. Talk with your family about the challenges of growing a business before you open your farm to strangers, so everyone is prepared and there aren’t any hard feelings while you’re out chatting with customers instead of sitting at dinner.
Last, remember that growing a small business is a learning process, and constant learning is necessary for any company to stay healthy. When things don’t go as planned, don’t get frustrated and immediately close the farm to the public. Consider the issue and what you could do to establish clearer guidelines for your customers. Take action and see if it works. Accept some trial and error. And it’s okay if you eventually decide that working and living with customers isn’t for you – there are many other ways to get your products to the people who enjoy them.