If you’re a farm owner, what’s the most important thing you do? 
(This is a trick question).

It’s not growing vegetables or flowers — it’s marketing.

Yes, you need to grow crops in order to have something to sell, but growing on its own won’t make sales.  Sales and marketing is the difference between having a business and a hobby, and as a business owner, the most important thing you can do is market.  

Marketing isn’t only how you make sales.  It’s also how you stay in people’s minds.   It’s how you connect with potential customers and build relationships with current customers.  It’s how you tell the story of your business.

And that’s what marketing really is—storytelling and relationship building. 

As a farmer, you already know how to grow, which makes you a natural marketer, because at its core, marketing is another form of growing - instead of seeds, you’re growing relationships.

There are many ways to market, from brochures, fliers, and word-of-mouth, to social media, buying ads, and blogging.  While all of that can be part of your whole marketing strategy, the most important way to connect with and sell to your customers is through email.

Email is the original permission-based marketing, which simply means that someone has given you permission to sell to them—they’ve opted in to your email list, they’ve raised their virtual hand and said, “Yes.  Please tell me more.”  

Rather than fighting for attention on Facebook or hoping someone will stop scrolling long enough to engage with your latest instagram post, with email, you’ve already been granted their attention.

If you don’t have an email list yet, or if you’re not using one you do have, here’s how to jump-start your email marketing, increase customer engagement, and make more sales — all without having to figure out the latest social media algorithm change.

Why Email?

First, let’s look at the numbers:

According to a 2016 study, email marketing generates 174% more conversions than Facebook and Twitter and gives a return on investment of $44 for every dollar invested in building your email campaign.

Plus,  60% of consumers prefer email over social media for permission-based promotional messages.

This means that you don’t have to try to sell on social media.  Instead, focus your social media efforts on building relationships and pointing people to your email newsletter.

Along with what the numbers tell us, there are other benefits to email marketing, too.  

When you consistently show up in someone’s inbox, you can set yourself apart from the competition by growing a relationship and developing trust with potential customers.  

With each email, you can give customers an insider’s view and reward them with subscriber-only material, like a free bunch of basil with a purchase of 2lbs of tomatoes, or an early-bird CSA discount, for example. 

When it’s time for you to sell CSA shares or get people to come to the farmers market, you’ll have direct access to people who already know, like, and want to support you.

The difference between email and an email list.

When we talk about email marketing, we’re not talking about sending a message from gmail.  Instead, we’re focusing on email marketing services, where people can sign-up for, or opt-in to, your newsletter on their own.  

The flip side of this is that people can also unsubscribe from your emails.  Giving this decision to your email subscribers is part of permission-based marketing.  It’s also a lot easier for you, since you don’t have to manage adding or deleting people to your list.  They can do it themselves.

There are a bunch of email marketing services out there.  Some of the most popular are MailChimp, Convert Kit, Constant Contact, Aweber, and MailerLite.  

While each email service provider allows you to send emails to a list of subscribers, they differ from each other in terms of features and cost.  You can easily compare different providers by googling “MailChimp vs. MailerLite” and then choose the provider that will best work for your farm business.

So you have an email service provider — now what?

The first thing to do is to grow your list.  It’s important to know that adding people to your email list without their permission is illegal.  Remember, email marketing requires your potential customers to give you permission to contact them, which ultimately helps grow trust between you and your customers.

Here are 4 ways to grow your email list:

  • Add a checkbox on your CSA sign-up form, with a call to action.  For example: “Do you want to receive our weekly email with the harvest list and farm recipes?”
  • Add an email sign-up form on your website, with a clear call-to-action.  For example: “Be the first to hear about farm happenings + events, plus get seasonal recipes throughout the harvest season.  Sign up for our email newsletter today.”
  • Point people from social media to your list.  Add a link to your email list to your Instagram profile or Facebook about page to sign-up form.  Put calls to action in your captions, like, “Want a discount at the farmers market? Click the link in our profile to sign up for our email newsletter, and you’ll get 10% off at the next market.”
  • Have a physical sign-up form at the Farmers Market.

While you don’t have to give something away, offering a freebie can incentivize people to subscribe to your email list, and people are more likely to purchase from you through email than social media.  If you’re a CSA or Farmers Market farmer, you might try giving away a downloadable resource like a farm cookbook, or a PDF with your favorite seasonal recipes.

The second thing to do is let your subscribers know what to expect.

When someone opts-in to your list, let them know how often they’ll hear from you, and what they’ll get in return.  Are you sending a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly email? What will they get when they sign-up?  

If you don’t have a freebie to give away, don’t let that stop you from building an email list.  Your weekly harvest list may be exactly what your CSA members or Farmers Market customers are looking for.

Once your subscribers know what to expect, make sure you show up when you say you will.  Consistency is key to growing strong relationships and effective marketing.  

You have an email list.  What to share?

Worried you won’t have anything to say every week?  Don’t be. No one ever gets mad when an email is too short — whether it’s a simple reflection from a field walk, or what’s ripening this week, your customers want to hear from you.  

If you’re not sure what to say, here are 5 go-to subjects to write about:

Recipes: Local food lovers also love recipes.  Weekly recipes can help new CSA members get used to cooking with their share.

Farm Events: Have a farm dinner coming up?  A special farm tour? Let the people know.

What’s happening in the field: Seeding, transplanting, how successions are coming along, plus any challenges that you’re facing, such as pests, weather damage, injury, etc.  The beauty of email is that you can create an authentic connection with your customers. Letting them know about challenges and how you’re dealing with them will help customers better understand the nature of farming, which is a win for everyone.

Specials: Do you have a new crop ready?  Any deals at the farmers market, limited quantities, or special offer for subscribers?  Let them know in an email.

First & Last Offers: One of the worst things for any business, but especially for a CSA farm, is people dragging their feet on signing-up.  

You can use email to increase sales by giving your email subscribers the first chance to sign-up for a CSA share, and by sharing authentic scarcity.  We all respond faster when we’re afraid that what we want is going away. It’s not ethical to make something up, and you don’t need to. There really is a limit to how many shares you can provide.  So use that to your advantage and tell people.  

A CSA farm example:

The Winter CSA always sells out, and we want to give you the first chance to sign up.

A Farmers Market example:

Tomato harvest is here!  First 10 people to buy tomatoes get a free bunch of basil.

Now put it all together and start marketing.

Sign up through an email service provider, start growing your email list, and start sending emails.

Remember, marketing is another form of growing.  Just like a good grower takes care of their crops, a good marketer takes care of their customers.  Be generous — give more than you ask, show up consistently, and market from a place of connection. After all, people aren’t so different from plants.  We all need water, sunlight, and a boost of compost from time to time. Your email may be just the thing that lights up someone’s day and leads them to becoming a CSA member or lifetime Farmers Market customer.

Kate Spring is an organic farmer, mother, and chief inspiration officer at good heart farmstead in Worcester, Vermont. All photos courtesy of the author.