by Sally Colby

Malabar spinach, red okra, bottle gourd, bitter melon and stevia may not be standard farmers market fare, but Allison Akbay has developed a strong customer following for specialty vegetables. At the Mid-Atlantic Fruit and Vegetable Convention, held virtually this year, Akbay shared what she has learned about marketing specialty produce.

About six years ago, Akbay purchased a 78-acre property in New Jersey. She started growing organic vegetables and cover crops on the 38 tillable acres, including a variety of specialty vegetables for ethnic customers. As her business grew, she used a camera to record what was happening on the farm.

“I found I was capturing a lot of the daily life around the farm that was really engaging,” she said. “I started saving photos so I’d always have a trove of pictures to use in marketing. We share these pictures on a number of digital platforms and use some for advertising.”

After naming her venture Snapping Turtle Farm, Akbay developed a website and logo. “It was important to show the legitimacy of our business,” she said. “We were a new farm, and I wanted to reassure customers that we were a real business. People in the area could Google us and feel better about taking a chance on a new farm.”

Akbay put considerable thought into developing a logo to brand the farm. “I wanted something bold, in black and white, something that looked good in a variety of sizes,” she said. “Color logos that are complex can be costly to print and might lose detail as you try to print them on smaller things or use different media.” The Snapping Turtle Farm logo appears on the farm’s market banner, T-shirts and on value-added goods.

One of the problems with websites is the tendency to become static, stale and quickly outdated. To keep her website current and appealing, Akbay added a live Facebook feed. Any updates made to Facebook appear immediately on the website, resulting in a constant flow of new content. She also uses a website platform she can edit herself, which allows her to update market information, market dates and add new photos.

“It’s important when sharing posts online to link the information you’re putting up with other websites,” said Akbay. “If you put information on the web and it isn’t linked to anything, it’s hard to find, and it’s almost as if it doesn’t exist.” She noted that in the early days of Google, websites were ranked based on how often they were referenced by other websites. Today, there’s a more complex algorithm at work. “But it still holds true,” she said. “Web information that’s linked is more likely to be found and show up higher in search results.”

Akbay tags and links other farms from her website, and the result is more exposure for her page. Some website visitors then follow the Snapping Turtle Farm Facebook page, raising its community profile.

One benefit of maintaining a strong social media presence occurred unintentionally. When she began growing south Asian vegetables, she wanted to learn more about growing vegetables in her climate. “I started going to different groups on Facebook that were focused on growing Indian vegetables in the U.S. and talking via posts to people about how they grew them, when they started them, harvest time and whether they transplanted or direct seeded,” she said. “Although I did not join these groups to promote our farm, many people became interested in the farm and followed us. They started showing up at our market and talking with me about what they had seen online. Some became subscribers to our vegetable subscription program.”

One Facebook group has 38,000 members, which means thousands of people see Akbay’s posts. She posted a question about growing Malabar spinach, and also asked for recipes she could share. She received numerous responses from others growing in New Jersey, as well as links and recipes. “I found that I’m sharing important information,” she said. “Many of the people in these groups are new immigrants to the U.S. and are new to growing in our climate. I’ve been able to give them information such as USDA zones and introduce them to Cooperative Extension and Master Gardener programs in their county. It’s been a wonderful two-way conversation – not just me advertising but sharing information that has built a community feeling and brings in loyal customers.”

Like other growers, Akbay had to determine how to respond to COVID last year. She typically pots extra transplants and sells them to the public at early farmers markets and at a plant sale at the farm. “Unfortunately, our early markets were closed due to COVID lockdown,” she said. “I was left with several hundred seedlings and no place to sell them. I went to the website for Square, a company we were already involved with because it allows us to accept credit cards at farmers markets.”

As an account holder with Square, Akbay could create a website on that platform at no cost. She customized the site to display various seedlings that were available and provided information about delivery. She advertised using Facebook Marketplace. She posted photos, descriptions and farm location, then linked to the new Square site for more information.

Many new customers were guided to Snapping Turtle Farm through word of mouth and Facebook Marketplace. “It turned out to be very successful,” said Akbay. “We brought in customers we’ve never had before – people from all over the state were here for the Indian vegetables we were selling. I sold just as many seedlings as I would in a normal year and will be doing it in the future.”

Another marketing effort, one that Akbay signed up for prior to the pandemic, was scheduled to take place in a hospital parking lot. Unfortunately, the hospital became exceptionally busy just as that market was scheduled to open. She turned to Facebook to find local groups that would represent various towns in the market area.

“These are small, private groups run by volunteer moderators,” Akbay said, explaining the Facebook effort. “Most don’t allow advertising, and they require you live in one of these towns. I messaged each of the moderators of about 40 different groups and explained the situation, asked if I could do a one-time post explaining about the market or maybe a once-a-month post about the market as a community event and let people know about it. I got a very good response and made posts on about 32 different groups. We estimate the total group view of people who saw the ads was about 70,000.” She found that in the two weeks after the posts, market attendance tripled. There was a sustained increase in market visitors, and as Akbay continued to post about once a month, there was a continued bump in attendance at each market.

Akbay said all of her marketing efforts, other than the farm website and logo, were free. “It’s time-consuming to do this,” she said, “but it’s a low-cost way of building community interaction.”