Web Dev Company Seeks to Arm Small Farmers with Suite of Sustainability Enhancing Tools
May 8, 2012 | Noelle Swan
Simon Huntley likes to say he puts a face on food, an electronic face that is.
Huntley’s Pittsburg, PA-based company, Small Farm Central does just that by providing website development, hosting, ecommerce and CSA-management solutions for direct to market farmers. The company represents the marriage of his childhood spent on a farm and his college education in information technology.
For the majority of Small Farm Central’s clients, a direct connection to their customers is a vital part of their business. “These are not row-croppers selling to major distributors,” Huntley explains. “For the most part these farmers interact directly with their customers through CSA’s, buying clubs, and farmers’ markets.” When it comes to sustainable farming, farmers rely heavily on this direct connection to their consumers. Sustainably farmed food tends to cost more than much of the produce available in supermarket chains. When customers decide to buy organic strawberries, grass-fed beef, or aquaponic tilapia, they are deciding to pay more for certain assurances about how their food was produced. A certain degree of trust must be implicit in the relationship between farmer and consumer. Some rely on organic certification to deliver that trust; others invite customers directly to the farm to see for themselves how their food is produced. Huntley believes that by helping sustainable farmers establish a presence online that facilitates communication with consumers and CSA members, Small Farm Central can help to augment that trust.
When Huntley started building websites for farmers back in 2005, he says that many farmers that he talked to were apprehensive about the idea of a website. “A lot of farmers didn’t know how to get online even if they knew it was an important way to market themselves,” he says. Many were skeptical that they would be able to successfully maintain their own website. He had to reassure them that he would walk them through it until they got comfortable. Today, there are many options for web development and hosting, but Huntley hopes that Small Farm Central’s pointed focus on farming, flexibility, and customer service stand out above the rest.
Here’s how it works: Farmers who come to Small Farm Central in need of a website start by selecting a domain name, such as “myfarm.com,” and a website template. Through an online control panel, farmers can then customize their template independently by uploading photographs, adding information about the farm, and setting up custom menus. Small Farm Central provides PDF guides to help navigate the online control panel and offers support over the phone and via email. A flat $100 fee covers domain registration and basic set-up support. Less computer-savvy farmers can get extra assistance for several hundred more. Web hosting bundles range from $20-50 per month. The bigger the bundle is, the more photos and features available. Adding e-commerce with a shopping cart that links PayPal, Google Payment, or a credit card costs an additional $20-35 depending on the farm’s volume of online sales.
An additional tool that Small Farm Central offers to farmers is the Member Assembler, a web-based CSA management platform. Member Assembler accounts start at $30 per month and go up from there depending on the size of the CSA. Huntley says that the tools included in the Member Assembler can help reduce the amount of time farmers spend in the office and increase their time in the fields. He hopes that these tools cannot only be a time saver, but can actually improve communication between farmers and their CSA members. By moving CSA registration online, for instance, farmers not only spend less time inputting member information into computer databases but also have the freedom to ask more specific questions than might fit on a paper registration.
Accounting tools within the Member Assembler program help farmers track account balances for each CSA-member and process payments on demand, or through automated scheduled billing. The software can generate graphs and charts to help the farmer better understand market trends. Email integration allows farmers to sort mailing lists and send targeted emails. For instance, a farmer may want to send one message to all the members that pick up at the local grocery store and a different message to all members that have expressed an interest in eggs. The Member Assembler will also generate email pick up reminders for members and printable pick up lists for farmers in an effort to streamline distribution.
Huntley says that the Member Assembler is where his heart truly lies, as is evident from the immense satisfaction expressed by some of his clients. Josh Reinitz of East Henderson Farm in Minnesota started using Small Farm Central in mid-January. Already, he estimates that the Member Assembler tools have saved him somewhere between 30-40 hours of administrative labor in just three months. Reinitz says that he has been able to fully customize his membership signup forms, enabling him to ask new members if they would be willing to host a drop site or if they are interested in eggs or meat in addition to a vegetable share. He adds that he appreciates the ability to accept credit cards, saying that the percentage paid to the credit card companies is well worth the professional impression it gives to clients.
Karlin Lamberto, who manages Penn’s Corner Farm Alliance‘s cooperative CSA with 30 member family farms in southwestern Pennsylvania, uses Member Assembler to streamline her job. She has also worked closely with Huntley and his staff to fine-tune those tools adding additional features that she says further slash administrative hours. “Every year I keep a mental tally of things I’d like to talk to them about and we make an appointment to sit down. And every single year they make changes based on those concerns that I had and improve the system by leaps and bounds.”
This year, Lamberto mentioned that she was spending one or two full days compiling pick up lists for each of the alliances’ 40 pick up locations. Huntley responded by setting up a function within the Member Assembler that allows farmers to categorize members by pick up location, select fields to include on the sheet, and automatically generate the sheets that had once taken up many hours of Lamberto’s time. Small Farm Central has since rolled out this feature for all subscribers. The year before, Lamberto’s suggestion yielded a mechanism to send mass emails to sub groups within the CSA membership
Huntley says that he is committed to maintaining this kind of relationship even as the number of farms in the Small Farm Central network surpasses 700. He says he tries to reach out to farmers directly at local statewide conferences, through mailings, and plain old word of mouth. When new clients come aboard, he personally conducts intake interviews and encourages them to come to him with ideas to make his services work better for them.
Perhaps an extension of that collaborative atmosphere is Huntley’s newer mapping service for regional agricultural networks known as Farming Faces. Huntley is currently offering the service for free. Here’s how it works: A farmers’ market, for example, can sign up for a profile directory page that lists all of the farmers participating in that market and maps out their actual locations so customers can get a better idea of where their food is coming from. A headshot is displayed on the site for each farm…that’s where the faces come in. A section of the page entitled “What’s Going On” lists the latest Twitter, Facebook, or other RSS feeds for each farm, keeping the page up to date without adding additional maintenance to the plates of farmers. Huntley says that he hopes that farmers using this service will appreciate the quality of the service and try out Small Farm Central’s paid services.