by Sally Colby

When the pandemic hit, farms that did business through direct marketing, farmers markets and CSAs were left wondering what their future would be. But Nancy Clark, of Drive Brand Studio, said there’s more than one silver lining for farmers.

“As Americans, we have an intense desire to be healthy, to be outside, and we want to know where our food is coming from,” she said. “We want to know from whom. The pandemic has driven us positively into a very back-to-basics, genuine authenticity, and the farm industry feeds right into that.”

Speaking as a consumer, Clark said it’s important that consumers know where their food comes from. “We buy differently and have changed how we cook and how we eat,” she said. “This is one of the trends for growers. We’re no longer satisfied that it’s coming from ‘somewhere else.’ We want to know it came from someone local – our neighbor.”

Clark said the lines at farmers markets during the summer were long, but those who attended were genuinely happy to be there. “It seemed so vibrant and packed,” she said. “What we saw with farmers markets originally was a leisurely outing, but since the pandemic, this was the place to go get fresh food. It was outdoors and there was little social contact. Farmers markets allow social distancing while meeting the needs of fresh food and meeting neighbors.”

In examining the farm business over the winter, Clark suggested starting with the question “Why?” “Why are you in this business?” she said. “This is hard work. Growers are humble but it’s time to start talking about how important you are. You are keeping us healthy, outdoors, you give us fresh air and sunshine. It’s time to wave your flag.”

Growers are resilient and bounce back. “That gives us light and encouragement,” said Clark. “If you can do it, we can do it. Hang onto these things – it’s what makes growers amazing. Who are you? Consumers want to communicate with growers because growers are keeping people fed. During these COVID times, you are essential.”

So what are farmers really selling? Clark said it isn’t just about the carrots. Farmers are providing health and fresh food with a sense of reality consumers want and need. Clark suggested planning with words. “Write down your words. Keep them simple,” she said. “You’re selling fresh, health, sunshine. Step back and determine what makes you unique. The lifestyle you live is unique and special to you. Don’t be humble – brag just a little about what makes you great.” After writing down words, be consistent and weave these words into your website or social media, and include them in discussions about why people should buy from you.

Clark said that while many aspects of marketing changed with the pandemic, many things reverted to the way things used to be. “When the pandemic hit, there are so many ways we changed our behavior,” she said. “Spending less, staying home, and the things we used to spend money on now seem extravagant.”

Growers should not underestimate the value of their family and team. “If you have a staffed business, don’t underestimate the value of your team when it comes to marketing,” said Clark. “I encourage those of you who have physical businesses to take a step back and look at your sense of arrival – your signage. When someone drives up to your farm, take a look at what it looks like because that is your very first marketing tactic.” Clark said she’s seen signs that need to be painted or weeds that aren’t pulled, which give a negative impression that may signal to customers that they aren’t going to be purchasing quality from the grower.

How are customers greeted as they arrive? Clark pointed out that COVID-19 brought an excess of signage on entry doors. “Just because you have to put the signage on doesn’t mean it has to look like our three-year-old put it up,” she said. “Step back, put it up neatly and consolidate where you can.”

If a farm doesn’t already have a Google business listing, Clark suggested creating one. “This is what comes up when someone Googles your farm,” she said. “This is free space. You can add photos, hours, anything you want. Once you get the listing, then you’ll get reviews. If I want to find a farmers market that’s open seven days a week, those businesses will come up.”

Clark noted a big rise in farms’ online business presences, mostly because people were stuck at home. “We can’t network the way we used to, so we’ve turned to our computers to do that,” she said. “If you have a Facebook and Instagram page, pay attention to them. You don’t have to be all things to all people. For growers, Instagram lends itself to great photography; Facebook allows you to have a real conversation with customers.” Clark stressed the fact that these outlets should be done as time allows – if necessary, choose one app and do it well.

Google, Tripadvisor and Yelp are commonly used, and Clark said the most important thing to do with business listings is respond to them. “This takes minutes if you stay ahead of it,” she said, adding that she responds to every review. “I’ll go on and thank them for the review. This is a conversation – it’s human, it’s kind. Make sure to take a look and see what’s there and get into the habit of responding. Word of mouth dictates everything – it drives our businesses.”

For farms that don’t yet have a website, there are many free tools available to create one. For those who do have a website, Clark suggested going all the way back to the beginning to look for trends. “Who are you, and what are you selling?” she said. “Make sure the words and photos express who you are and why you’re special.” Clark added that being online and keeping current is more important than ever since we can’t connect directly with people.

Communication with customers is more important than ever. Clark said that when communicating with customers, keep a sense of honesty and authenticity, but also vulnerability. “The situation hasn’t been easy for anyone, and it’s okay to show vulnerability,” she said. “It’s honest, genuine communication.”

Email campaigns are on the upswing and there are numerous inexpensive tools such as Constant Contact and Mailchimp that make it easy to stay in touch. While you might be familiar with how to prepare parsnips or rutabagas, many customers aren’t, and appreciate receiving preparation tips and recipes.

Clark said crisis communication isn’t always something farmers are willing to do, but serious issues matter to customers. Customers appreciate honesty from farmers and are usually empathetic toward any losses or severe changes to the business due to any natural events. She said that if there’s a coronavirus outbreak in the area, people are genuinely concerned. If it happens to staff on your farm, the most important thing is honesty, vulnerability and just taking a breath.