Vermont vegetable farmer and writer Kate Spring.

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin

“I really love marketing,” said Vermont vegetable farmer and writer Kate Spring during her presentation at the 2020 Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Farmer to Farmer online conference. “I did not know that about myself until I started farming.” Specifically, Spring outlined her success marketing to customers through an e-newsletter, which is sent weekly to subscribers.

Spring and her husband Edge launched Good Heart Farmstead in 2013. Through their CSA, they direct market two acres of mixed vegetables, offering a variety of share types throughout the entire year. Early in their marketing efforts, they used multiple channels – blog, social media and email – to connect with customers. Quickly, they discovered that they preferred email as their primary communication channel to connect with current and potential customers. Her research into marketing also convinced her that email marketing is more effective than social media.

“Like all good relationships,” Spring said, “email communication is based on having permission between the two parties.” This form of communication, referred to as permission-based marketing, means emails are only sent to people who have opted in and given their consent to receive correspondence. Spring said it’s important to use an email service provider (they use Mailchimp) so that farmers have a place to collect addresses and show that participants have given their permission. “In doing this, it creates a foundation of trust and a good place to start growing relationships with customers,” she said.

Their list was small in the beginning – mostly CSA members who opted in on their CSA sign-up form. Now, they use their website to attract more people to the weekly newsletter. There’s a footer on the site that allows a person to sign up, and a pop-up appears when a person starts scrolling on the site.

Spring said one of the keys to email marketing is to let people know what to expect up front. “Let them know how often they’ll hear from you and what they’ll receive. Whatever it is, make sure you show up when you say you’re going to,” she said.

Another important part of email marketing is to create worthy subject lines. With the quantity of emails most people receive, Spring said a good subject line “can compel people to open it when they first see it.” She encouraged farmers to place emails that they personally click open into a folder. This folder can provide inspiration when it’s time to draft a subject line.

Another suggestion was to be consistent and generous, focusing on creating long-term relationships with customers. “Approach marketing as you would a friendship,” she said. “It’s important to not just disappear and then show up asking people to buy. It can create a cold feeling.” One specific way Spring demonstrates generosity is by making herself accessible to customers through email, responding to individual questions in a timely and friendly way. “After weeks of giving and showing up, when it comes time to sell, there is a good feeling, and a natural transition into selling.”

Spring also provided ideas about what type of information to include in email updates and how she approaches the writing process. In her weekly newsletter, she typically includes a harvest list for the weekly CSA share, and provides embedded links to recipes that utilize the produce. She stressed that you don’t need to be a recipe creator in order to share recipes.

Each newsletter also contains an anecdote from the farm. Spring suggested writing these stories as if you’re writing to a single person and to write in a way that reflects how you talk. “Your writing becomes more effective when you’re writing to one specific person because it helps you go from being general to more specific,” she said. She provided two contrasting examples of how a farmer could address parents with young children. The first – “Our CSA is perfect for parents who care about feeding their families” – is general. The second – “If you want your kids to love vegetables, our CSA is for you” – is more specific and reflects how a writer would address a single person.

Her newsletter efforts have provided tangible financial results for the farm business. At the end of each growing season, Good Heart Farmstead offers a limited number of CSA shares at a discount. The goal is to incentivize people to commit to being part of the next season’s CSA, which provides the business with consistent cash flow through the winter. Their first few years, they relied on both social media and email to disseminate information about early shares, and they generally had 10 to 12 people take advantage of the discount.

“A few years ago, I doubled down and focused all of our marketing on email and ended up bringing 23 news signups by the end of November, which meant $23,000 at the end of that month,” Spring said. With each successive year, they have sold more early shares, and in 2019, half of the early shares were sold by lunchtime of the day sign-ups opened. Spring said this shows that as you continue to market with email, the more effective it becomes.

Email marketing allows Spring to set their farm apart from competition by growing and developing authentic relationships with established and potential customers. She said, “Marketing is another form of growing – instead of seeds, you’re growing relationships. Keep learning and practicing. Like plants, email marketing can take time grow. Be persistent, and be generous.”