Originally published April 21, 2020 on Young Agrarians
Are you looking to move your business online, transition from what you’re currently using, or integrate Point of Sale with your online sales for your farm or food business? This article from Young Agrarians will provide a toolkit for farmers and food producers who would like to build or manage their own online business, or be better equipped to work with a web or marketing professional.
Consultants and agencies can be hired to build your site for you or customize certain aspects of plug-and-play software or standard theme designs. Marketing professionals can help you build out an amazing plan and teach you how to strategize and set up monthly calendars for your posts.
Shauna Fidler, a permaculturist and web professional with Design Farm, a one-stop shop that specifically supports farms and food businesses, wants you to “remember your job is to grow the food. Find someone whose job it is to support you selling it on-line. You don’t need to stress out about learning a whole new language to get online and start selling, you just need the right tools and the right people to help you.”
When working with a professional it’s always helpful to be armed with some fundamentals in order to best communicate what the needs and vision for your site or online presence are so they can help you make it a reality!
Whether you’re going at it alone or working with someone, having a clear idea – a roadmap – of what it is you want before you start building anything – website, farm, business – should be step one.
By the end of this toolkit you should feel ready to make an informed choice for the online and ecommerce components of your farm or food enterprise and have a clearer vision of what your specific roadmap is.
Ecommerce generally encompasses any way we sell online or conduct a transaction with the help of the Internet. You’re engaging in or with ecommerce in some way when you buy from Amazon, Facebook, Instagram, Wish or a website built on the platforms discussed later on. You’re also doing it when you sign a book out from the library, get tickets to a show, donate to a Charity, download a song, book a Message Therapy appointment online or when you swipe your card in those tiny white squares at the Farmers’ Market. The list goes on, but you get the picture.
There are many things nowadays, however, that you can do on your own (and for FREE!). Before we get started, let’s take a moment to get familiar with some other resources already out there on the world wide web! When thinking about different options, let’s say an online marketplace is like a Farmers’ Market, an online store is like your farm gate and a directory is like the yellow pages.
Cropolis for CSAs can be used to send out ‘fresh sheets’ every week for pre-order boxes. Farmigo is a North American CSA platform and directory. Harvie is a CSA aggregation and distribution platform available across North America, but under-utilized in some geographic areas.
This article on Software Tools for Small Farms created by Chris Bodnar on the YA blog is a fantastic source of information on CSA management, digital record keeping and Point of Sale. More resources for farm and food businesses can be found on the YA business tools page and U-Map!
Don’t forget to take a peak at a few more options! Barn2Door is a one-stop web management platform with some handy integrations. Farm Match is an American platform for farmers and buying clubs that use an a-la-carte ordering, drop location business model.
Local Harvest primarily houses listings for farms and CSAs in the USA but has some located in Canada. I could add here that their user interface leaves a lot to be desired. In contrast, Open Food Network software platform in Canada enables farmers to sell produce online, establishing their own price point. The software can be embedded in your own website, or hosted on theirs.
Local Line and Local Food Marketplace are both marketplace / food hub online platforms that can be used by individual farm businesses, Co-ops, Farmers’ Markets and more. Though the BC Association of Farmers’ Markets is working with Canadian company Local Line, some successful Co-ops like the Kettle Valley Food Co-op in Grand Forks, BC, and the (currently inactive) Kootenay Farms Marketplace out of Creston both use Local Food Marketplace, which is an American option.
The platforms can be used in different ways. You can choose for consumers to directly purchase products then arrange independently with all the farmers to get their products, like some Farmers Markets in BC may operated using Local Line. In contrast, Kootenay Farms Marketplace asked all the producers they were working with to drop off their orders once a week at a central aggregation point and cooler where a staff member would then organize orders. Customers pick up orders that were paid online.
For someone thinking about starting an online marketplace or regional food hub, here’s a great point to consider from the start! Coordinator of Fields Forward Society – the organization that piloted the online Kootenay Farms Marketplace, Elizabeth Quinn found that an aggregation and distribution service requires a minimum of around 300 orders per week to be viable due to staffing, insurance, building rental, software fees, and more since the 75% of sales went back to the producers and food processors. Whereas they were only receiving between 10-15 a week in their pilot year of this initiative.
Having an online presence in 2020 can be pretty fundamental for the success of your business and it is even more paramount if you do choose to have a website that it is mobile friendly. I say this because more than half of online users are now using mobile devices.
Did you know that the vast majority of online experiences start with a Google search and one-third of clicks on Google happen on the first page?
Not only is being online important but also how you’re online. Merely having a website up from 1998 “on the web” that your niece made you in her grade 8 Computer class will not mean anyone will find it, engage with it or care about it if the experience is uncomfortable or slow. In fact, in terms of how you communicate your brand, it’s probably better to just have an updated Facebook page for your farm or food business than an out-dated or unattractive website (less is more!).
I asked Shauna from Design Farm what you should think about when going online.
“It’s important to understand the purchasing experience you want for your clients. Before you jump into developing your e-commerce platform think about the specific and tangible options and messages you want your online store to share with your consumer. Online shoppers don’t get that farm stand experience, so put yourself in their shoes and image how you want them to experience the essence of your farm.”
DON’T FORGET! Communicating your brand effectively and selling things on your website won’t mean anything unless people see it! Don’t forget to funnel traffic to your website through Google and/or social media posts, campaigns and ads!
This post doesn’t go into detail on social media marketing since there’s a lot of great info out there already! The numbers in this blog say it all! “Google’s search engine alone accounts for more than 2 trillion searches each year. Facebook has roughly 214 million U.S users, and Instagram is estimated to have 105 million users in the U.S. Between the millions of U.S. Google searches and millions of users on social media, these two channels have the potential to drive significant traffic and revenue to an ecommerce site.”
TRY THIS! Check out a few of your favourite websites. Make a list of the things that draw your attention in positive and negative ways; things you’d like to replicate and things you’d try to avoid. How have they designed the flow of their home page sections? Is their video first? Do they have a newsletter sign up at the bottom?
They don’t need to be farm or food related. Selling your zucchini or carrots online may not be exactly like selling, say, your yoga instructor services, but the experience you have on the website and the tools you use could be very similar. Let’s touch on a few of the key components to consider for your own website!
HOLD UP! Don’t know what a call to action is? It’s a marketing term that refers to content, like an image, button or slogan on your home page, that invokes or calls you to take an action. This could be something like signing up your email for harvest updates, buying a CSA share or added value product from the online farm store or following you on your social media accounts.
Here are 10 things you should try to avoid in your website experience and why. Keep in mind that anything that slows your website’s loading time down or negatively impacts the user experience is going to have negative impacts on search engine ranking because of search engine optimization (SEO). Generic content, domains or language may not speak to you or your brand.
|Duplicate content||SEO and branding|
|Render blocking scripts in the <head> tag from apps or plug ins||SEO and user experience|
|App overload||SEO and user experience|
|Unclear language||Branding and user experience|
|Irrelevant pop-ups for emails or discounts||SEO and user experience|
|Pop-ups happen too early||SEO and user experience|
|No custom domain or logo||SEO and branding|
|No template and notification customization||Branding and user experience|
|Home page is info heavy||SEO and user experience|
|No contact info||SEO and user experience|
TRY THIS! Write out a physical mind map of how you’d like your site to look and be navigated by your customers! What sections will you have on your home page? What pages will you have? What is the most logical way to organize the information about you or your business into these pages?
By collecting and using information and responding to trends, you can be data-driven when it comes to your online marketing and sales strategy. This is a crucial to grow your business and most platforms will offer access to your analytics, which may get more in depth the higher plan you’re on.
Using something like Google Analytics will up your ecommerce game! How do you know how and where to sell to people online if you don’t know where they’re hanging out or where they’re coming to your site from? How do you figure out that your shipping prices are too steep if you can’t see how many carts are being abandoned at this step of the checkout process and then asking yourself why that may be?
Most platforms will now easily allow you to update and add information for SEO purposes. For example, understanding how keywords or your domain name play into your search ranking in Google could end up being an important part of how you grow your business online. Google Trends is a great way to see what’s hot and what’s not in Google searches in real time and Google Page Speed Insights gives you information about your site performance in one click of a button!
One size doesn’t fit all. It’s important to understand the differences between online sales channels, first and foremost. You need to understand where and how you want to sell. Being aware of what your options is crucial when trying to make the right decision for your business.
For example, you may not put Farmigo in the same category as Shopify or Squarespace from a website or ecommerce standpoint and here’s why. Farmigo would be considered a marketplace/directory. There are definite trade-offs being in a marketplace versus when you’re selling your products through your own online storefront, because you’re not competing with all the others in the marketplace at every moment.
Saying that, successful businesses often diversify and will sell on marketplaces (Facebook, Amazon or, say, Farmigo) and also have their own website with direct sales. This is where they can tell their story and communicate their unique value or selling proposition and usually get the highest return on their products due to direct sales with no ‘broker’. I’d put general ecommerce platforms in their own category and how they can be used by farmers, as opposed to software specifically for farm or food businesses or marketplaces.
It’s also important to understand how sales channels differ in ecommerce (the ways you can sell) and understand what’s best for you for what your needs and goals are. Let’s look at a few examples of scenarios where each enterprising farmer would be using a different and unique combination of tools that suits their needs, capacity and resources. The website builder examples mentioned will be discussed in more detail in a later section.
In all of these scenarios, and when considering scaling up to a more expensive software or plan, consider the alternatives. Time is money – sometimes from the beginning and upgrading will save you hassle in the long-term if you may eventually need or want an online store that also integrates your inventory and sales with your Point of Sale, for example. If the trade-off is 30 bucks a month for this service but you spend 2 hours a week harmonizing sales invoices with your inventory, is it worth it?
Not all platforms and templates or themes are created equal! Consider the following features when browsing your options.
The integrations offered that may help your business as you grow also differ across platforms. Here are a few things to keep in mind when considering platform integrations and plans that could have a great impact on your farm or food business success online and off!
Thinking about these things from the start is important. On some platforms, for example, you may not be able to use in-house payment solutions that are powered by Stripe to process your payments for certain products. Products like CBD oils and tinctures are on the list of restricted businesses and products.
Pseudo pharmaceuticals and other products that “make health claims that have not been approved or verified by the applicable local and/or national regulatory body” are restricted. Community herbalists that are looking to sell their remedies online should this keep in mind when looking at profit margins in relation to going online. In this scenario, your transaction fees will no longer be waived, which could potentially double your online processing fees.
All platforms offer some sort of free trial period. However, I would say that one of the biggest things to consider if you’re going to be managing your own website, even if someone else sets it up for you, is how and where you’ll access support if and when stuff goes wrong (because it’s inevitable). Generally, to save time and resources, consider responding to a problem with your website in this order:
Here are a few other things to consider from the beginning so that you’re not caught off-guard by unexpected costs!
Let’s take a look some ecommerce options mentioned in this review blog that are available to you, without having to know how to code! All of these options have templates or themes that are relatively easy to use and have a drag and drop functionality. Prices are listed in Canadian Dollars and subject to change at any time.
Some platforms like WordPress, Wix, Weebly and Squarespace are website builders with ecommerce functionality, whereas Big Commerce and Shopify were designed as ecommerce platforms. The former have more template options than latter and are more geared to design and content, whereas ecommerce platforms have more sales channel integrations. WordPress is self-hosted and requires a plugin called WooCommerce. It is the platform out of the ones I discuss below that you’d be most likely to hire a professional to help you set up and/or manage.
When setting up your farm or food products on either type of site, if you know the dollar amount or flat rate that you’d charge, say, for a bunch of spinach or a pound of whatever crop, you can also add this as a product to an online store and your customers can add product by product to the cart. You’ll then have that order’s item list as the harvest or packing list, which can be done on sites like Shopify or Squarespace with ecommerce functionality and ready for pick-up or delivery to your community.
If you’re taking e-transfers as opposed to payments directly through a website like one of these then you’d need to be reconciling your bank account with your online store orders manually. With platforms like Shopify, for example, you wouldn’t be charged transaction fees for e-trans, which are considered “manual payment methods“.
Big Commerce is a dedicated ecommerce platform currently offering small business a three-month trial period, extended from the usual 15 days. The most accessibly priced ecommerce plan is $42 and includes most features you’d need to get started. They offer alternative payment options like Apple Pay and gift cards on this starter plan, which may not be available on other platforms starter plans but can prove helpful for sales.
Shopify is also currently offering a three-month trial period. If you just need a website with no checkout functionality, plans start as low as $19. A shopping cart starts at $41. Shopify offers 24/7 phone, email, social media and chat support. Domains can easily be purchased or connected right in the admin and hosting is included. Shopify is the only option available in Canada with the integrated technology to sync inventory and sales across all sales channels including your Point of Sale from farm gate or market sales and mobile app for online store management. If you only need POS to use a card reader without a website, like when using a Square reader, the Lite plan is $13 monthly.
WHY NOT set up your farm store as a marketplace for your other farmer friends’ products as an affiliate! Using custom fulfillment, orders for products you don’t ship are automatically sent out to those who do ship them upon payment confirmation.
*If you are interested in trying out the extended trial, you can use this link and a portion of the revenue share received through the Shopify Affiliate Program if you move to a plan from this campaign goes back to Young Agrarians’ support for farmers and food producers like yourself! Once you sign up for a paid plan you’re eligible to order a free card reader for your POS payments.
Squarespace is a website builder that offers a 14-day trial and has landing pages for $23 and ecommerce plans that start at $36 per month. They have a lot of templates to choose from and support is offered through live chat, Monday – Friday and by email 24/7, though response isn’t immediate. They offer a free domain with an annual plan and hosting is included. Squarespace has an integration for POS with Square available in the USA for ecommerce through its Commerce App with the Commerce Basic or Advanced plans.
4. Weebly (USA)
Weebly is another website builder that has also teamed up with Square for their ecommerce component. They offer a wide variety of theme templates to choose from. The shopping cart is enabled on all plans but advanced ecommerce features are included in the $30 per month plan. Free domains are available with the higher plans and they offer phone, chat and email support.
Wix also offers a 14-day trial and has a $19 per month basic website plan. Ecommerce plans start at $27 per month and has has a wide variety of templates to choose from. The company offers phone support on Monday to Friday from 5 am – 5pm and don’t yet offer chat support. They offer a free domain for a year and hosting is included. According to websitebuilderexpert.com, “Wix is the best website builder with ecommerce functionality on the market.”
6. WordPress / Woocommerce (USA)
WooCommerce for is an ecommerce plugin for WordPress. It’s free to start a WordPress account, custom domain will cost $20 per year and hosting will cost $120 per year, as it’s a self-hosted platform. The platform powers a lot of sites on the web and offers a wide variety of themes that cost anywhere from $20 to $100 per year and plug ins that can enable a WordPress site to do pretty much anything. The platform offers email and live chat with an account.
Design Farm works with this option so I asked why! “Farms needs vary greatly from robust CSA and nursery stock management systems requiring deposits, inventory and signifiant product variables, to simple order forms and payment gateways to process CSA sign ups. Understand what kind of functionality is beneficial to you and ensure your e-commerce is set up to work the way your farm does. The nice thing about a platform like WooCommerce (for a WordPress site) is the diversity of plugins available to grow with your online store.”
Do you offer farm tours or have an online store and want to branch into supplementing your farm income with some ethical merch sales to your community or CSA members?
Companies like Fairware in Canada produce merch and swag that’s cool, functional and ethical! Check out their Zero Waste Lookbook, Upcycled Merch, and some other products made in Canada. Even better – support a local artist by commissioning some custom art you can sell that speaks to your farm or food brand or story!
People want to know where their food is coming from; where their money is going to, and most importantly how they build a better community. Hence, the name Community Supported Agriculture. Here is where you as a farmer shines through.
One of the advantages of selling through your website is that you can tell your farm or food business’s story in a way that you can’t on marketplaces or on social media. Michalina Hunter is our fabulous YA Online Community Manager. She also runs Green Bee Honey and gave me this advice!
“Many farmers shy away from including themselves in their communications, but that’s a lost opportunity. A big part of why people buy local, ecological food is because they’re also buying a story. They love to feel like they know a bit about the farmer and where their food came from. Don’t be afraid to use your own voice in text, include photos of yourself, and share silly or real stories about your farm and why you do what you do. I know many farmers hate being in front of the camera, but your individuality is what sets you apart from big ag. It feels weird at first to give live updates on Instagram, for example, but keep at it and it will flow!”
Did you invest in what you value for food certification? Using some language doesn’t require certification: bio-dynamics, regenerative, no-till, ecological, local, healthy, spray-free. Other terms require affiliation or certification: Kootenay Mountain Grown, Certified Naturally Grown, Certified Organic.
Are you a certified organic farm with COABC or COG? Do you have an Environmental Farm Plan? Have you won some cool award from your local Chamber of Commerce or have a wetland on your property to help local wildlife conservation efforts? Do you pay your farm employees fair wages? How would you like to connect to your consumers on a personal level? Do you have other special accomplishments? Tell your community !
All of these things are part of your brand story and should be communicated on your website through images, text, video or digital stamps. Because customers may see images (hopefully high-def!) of your beautiful greens and tantalizing tomatoes but can’t touch or smell them, these are other attributes of your business that can help set you apart online to retain customers in a competitive market.
Designing your website doesn’t have to be a daunting task. You’ve got other things to do, like grow food. Make sure to keep in mind a few simple design and user experience best practices and even a simple website will be a crowd pleaser! Ask yourself these questions to be sure…
You’ve already learned about a few cool tools but many more free and subscription tools exist online that you can use to make some awesome promotional and marketing material for your business, whether for your website itself or social media campaigns. Check out some suggestions below!
Looking for a few examples of farm and food businesses that are utilizing some of the sites I discussed above? Look no further!
Glade Organics and Forrest Farm are both small-scale farms in the BC, Canada, that use Wix as their online platform. Both farms set up and manage their own websites and Glade Organics also uses Cropolis to send out fresh sheets!
Confluence Farms also in BC uses Shopify with the Avenue theme to sell their farm products online. An American farm, Lavender Pond Farm, uses a combination of free and paid apps on Shopify to manage reviews, send newsletters, build forms, and send customer satisfaction emails. They use an online store for their added value lavender products that’s synced to their Point of Sale for in-person transactions.
Viva Cacao is a food businesses in BC. Their website has a sharp design and was created by our friends at Design Farm using WordPress with the WooCommerce plugin.