Plant, Weed, Blog
Written onMarch 01 , 2011
When Vermonters think of local food, we tend to think of farmers’ markets, where each purchase comes with a personal exchange. Or we imagine a tour through Vermont’s characteristic working landscape. Or we recall fresh flavors and home-cooked dishes shared with friends.
Or maybe we think of computers.
As unlikely as it seems, the virtual world—which lacks taste, smell, or farmland—has entered the lives of farmers and the local food scene. In fact, it entered a few digital generations ago.
Jacques Couture, of Couture’s Maple Shop and Bed & Breakfast in Westfield, launched his first website back in 1991. Being online meant his farm near the Canadian border wasn’t so remote anymore. “It put us right on Main Street. No matter where you were in the world, you were on equal footing.” Twenty years later, 85 percent of his maple sales happen online.
Now, Jacques’s “Main Street” has changed yet again with the advent of social media. Blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and a host of simple, free, and interactive platforms are helping more consumers understand our local food system and more farmers tell their stories. For example, Jacques recently posted a short video guide to his farm and received new guest bookings because of it.
Jacques does see reasons for caution. He doesn’t want to spend his days learning new online programs. Returns from social media are notoriously hard to track. And he worries about the effect on customer service. “If a product is not 100 percent correct and the customer tells us, we will make it right—we do more than expected,” he says. “But if now they go straight to Facebook and slam us, then all we can do is damage control.”
There’s also the overriding issue of how much time updating content will take away from other chores on the farm. Dozens of Vermont farm blogs, websites, and Facebook pages have posting dates that trail off as the ground thaws or as once-popular publishing platforms become outdated.
For some farms, it makes sense to dedicate significant time to social media. Calley Hastings of Fat Toad Farm in Brookfield, a dairy selling goat’s milk caramel and goat cheese, estimates that networking and marketing take “about one-third of our time. Whether it’s demos, meeting stores, or social media, it’s fundamental to what we do—especially for a weird thing like [goat’s milk] caramel.”
Calley’s recipes, blog posts, Facebook network, and Twitter account have paid off. She keeps track of other local agriculture activities while telling about her own and stays in contact with customers located down the road or across the nation. She credits Fat Toad’s online presence with attracting attention from the New York Times to Japan’s Cuisine magazine.
Most local farm and food sites have a strong marketing aspect; many also have specific tools for existing customers. For example, the Green Mountain Crop Mob website organizes volunteers for work blitzes at local farms. AndPete’s Greens in Craftsbury publishes a blog that explains uses for the vegetables in its weekly CSA share. The site also provides a virtual bulletin board for members to exchange services, such as carpooling to CSA pick-up sites. As of this writing it was serving as an update page for the rebuilding of the farm’s barn after a January fire.
Social media sites, whatever their content, have the ultimate goal of building virtual community. The individual voice of the farmer, easy publishing that allows for frequent updates, diverse media for storytelling (such as Jacques’s video), and interactivity between farmer and online visitor all support this goal. Toward this end, Mara Welton of Half Pint Farm in Burlington led a Twitter workshop for farmers this February at the winter conference of the Northeast Organic Farmers Association. The Center for an Agricultural Economy in Hardwick and Small Business Development Center will be offering workshops on the electronic marketplace this year.
Joyce Cellars, development officer at the Intervale Center in Burlington, follows the different ways Intervale farmers have built their online communities. As an example, she points to the pick-your-own berry customers at Adam’s Berry Farm who follow the farm activities on Facebook long after the harvest is over. In October 2010, when Intervale farm fields began to flood, Adam’s posted a video of oncoming water to its Facebook page. Joyce immediately posted a call for help to save Intervale crops through the Intervale Center’s social media sites; local supporters forwarded it throughtheir sites, and through these online communities volunteers quickly arrived to save the harvest.
Meghan Sheradin, executive director of the Vermont Fresh Network, has been thinking about what systems help individual farmers create their virtual communities. “At this point it’s a pretty level playing field; whether you’re a small Vermont producer or a big business, you can create your own voice and get it out there,” she observes. The downside of that playing field is that it gets noisy.
One strategy for farmers to cut through the noise is to look for sites where people are naturally congregating, “where farmers can extend the conversation in their own voice,” as Meghan says. These sites get a critical mass of attention and activity, and farmers can check in just when they have something to say, linking back to their own sites for more information. The Vermont Fresh Network is providing one of these congregation points as Vermont’s only statewide organization focusing on the intersection of local food and restaurant dining.
Ultimately, though, Vermont farmers aren’t writing to inspire the next generation of readers; they want their audience to try a caramel recipe, step in during an emergency, and, of course, make a purchase. This means there will always be a mutually reinforcing back-and-forth between providing online info and using that info to find real-world farm and food experiences. Eventually, everything returns to that world of in-person exchange, outdoor exploration, and the great taste that we all associate with Vermont’s local foods.
Fat Toad Farm – www.fattoadfarm.com
Half Pint Farm – http://halfpintfarm.com/
Under Orion Farm – http://catamountaviation.wordpress.com/
Bosky Dell Farm – http://boskydellfarm.blogspot.com/
Green Mountain Girls' Farm – http://vermontfarm.blogspot.com/
Sugar Mountain Farm – www.sugarmtnfarm.com
Jericho Settlers’ Farm – http://jsfarm.blogspot.com/
Liberty Hill Farm – http://vtfarm.wordpress.com/
Pete’s Greens – http://www.petesgreens.blogspot.com/
Gildrien Farm – http://www.gildrienfarm.com/blog.html