Selling your farm’s produce online won’t succeed without planning. Farmer Katie Olthoff recently presented “Maximize Your Online Store” as a FACT webinar. She owns ChopLocal, an alternative meat supply chain in Iowa that helps farmers generate and keep more profits.

ChopLocal helps producers come together with cooperative marketing to sell more products. Olthoff noted that her methods work for selling many kinds of outputs.

Olthoff said the USDA data from 2017 (the most recent available at the time of her presentation) indicate that there are more than 147,000 farmers selling meat directly to consumers; however, only 9% have an online store. Based upon her survey of farmers, of farms selling more than $200,000, 73% have an online store, making those with a store have a competitive advantage.

Olthoff has reviewed hundreds of different online farm stores and said that the biggest mistakes include failing to differentiate from other farms; failing to give customers all the information they need; failing to attract new customers; and failing to encourage repeat customers.

“‘If you build it, they will come’ is so not true,” Olthoff said.

Telling your farm’s story on your website takes skill. A beginner mistake is writing long paragraphs.

“People scrolling on their phone or computer will not read long blocks of text,” Olthoff said. “Have one sentence in each paragraph.”

Using bullet points, underlining, bold text and italics will draw attention to important part of the text.

Include details about the farm’s products “but stay positive with it,” Olthoff said. “There are so many places that pit one type of farm against another. Talk about the benefits of why you do what you do. But you need to explain why you do what you do.”

The benefits of your products are also great to share with consumers (as long as they’re legitimate).

Olthoff encouraged farmers to share photos not only of products but of the farm family, green grass and baby animals. These “can bring back feelings of nostalgia or idealism,” she said. “They can trust you when they can see your face. That’s enough to help them build trust. Find a local photographer or 4-H student who can follow you around the farm one day with a camera.”

Customers also need information to make their decision on whether to purchase your products.

“Make sure you give customers all the time they need,” she said. “The goal is to reduce the number of questions they ask you.”

She said the top questions are:

Is it in stock?

How big is it?

How many per package?

Do you ship it to me?

How can I get it from you?

How is it packaged?

What is included in the bundle?

What are your inputs/how is it grown?

By not answering these questions online, farmers tend to lose sales.

Customers need complete product descriptions, shipping and delivery charges and policies, clear pricing and easy communication options.

“You need to price your shipping fees into your product costs online,” Olthoff said. “I know it’s not easy and it’s not an exact science, but the number one reason people abandon carts is because of surprise shipping fees at the end. If you want to charge for shipping, that’s your choice, but choose a flat amount and tell them upfront. Understand that you’re going to win some and lose some. Offer a pickup discount or discount for local customers. They’ll feel good about getting a discount.”

Customer support is critical for online sales, Olthoff added. “They’re probably sending you a question from their cell phone and probably expect you’ll reply right away. An automatic reply is okay but the longer there’s a delay, the higher chances they’ll find somewhere else to buy their [goods].”

To maximize the chances of customers finding a farm, using search engine optimization (SEO) is essential.

“It’s about getting your name to the top of Google when someone’s searching for products and farmers in your area,” Olthoff said.

SEO enables browsers to identify your farm as a source of what they want. Farmers should use title tags, build backlinks, complete a Google Business Profile, and be prepared to convince people to purchase, no matter what page they land on.

“A lot goes into SEO,” Olthoff noted. “If you have an e-commerce platform that lets you put in metadata, don’t leave those blank.”

Backlinks are when other websites link to your website, such as a local newspaper, another farm that offers a vegetable CSA you could cross promote, restaurants that use your farm’s meat and more.

“These links tell Google you’re credible and you’re a trustworthy source of information,” Olthoff said.

She also recommended regularly posting on social media as that can offer “social proof” of your products’ quality, share your farm’s story and show who you are – and get people to come to your website and buy.

“Social proof is showing other people have purchased from you and are happy, leave ‘like’ reviews and share food customers have cooked,” Olthoff said.

She encouraged farmers to collect email addresses, such as when selling at a farmers market. “Gathering emails when face to face can make your online store worth it as you can sell to your faithful farmers market customers,” she added.

Each product should have its own appealing description and attractive photo.

“Product descriptions and photos are so important,” Olthoff said. “You want to make it enticing. You want to make their mouth water. You’re giving them ideas on how to prepare them.”

Farmers also must follow up with customers before and after the sale by promptly replying to questions and after the sale, thanking them with an automated email – or a physical card.

“I love a thank you card with a family photo or something handwritten, even if you just sign your name,” Olthoff said.

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant