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The challenge of being seen as a legitimate business when inviting customers to your property

by Pamela Monnette

This year we started the arduous process of getting approval and insurance coverage in order to open up our barn as an event venue rental. So, on top of farming flowers I now find myself in the service industry for special events. Which is honestly very exciting for me as I have been having serious social withdraws since becoming a farmer. (Yes, I know it’s weird but I miss people!) I went from working in a highly social work environment with the Extension Service to running a farm and working long hours by myself. It has been highly rewarding.  I have actually learned more about horticulture in the last two years than I did with ten years of teaching about it.

A baseline for business relationships

In Extension and academia, there were definitely certain standards for collaborating and working together with people. Extension relies on many external partner organizations to carrying out its mission with educational programming. Everyone operated a bit differently. But overall, there was a certain operating procedure that allowed us to continue to do this work for over 100 years across the U.S. Communication was always key. If you don’t respond to people in a reasonable amount of time or have check-in meetings, projects eventually drifting off-track and became a tangled mess of volunteers, non-profits, government agencies and civic groups haphazardly trying to work together. Managing time and expectations of partners was also a huge factor in successful projects. Stuff always comes up, right? That is just life as we know it. However, it is extremely important to outlay expectations of projects in the beginning and ensure that each group is capable of meeting them in the timeframe that had been determined. If you make a mistake or have to pass a task off to someone else, that is ok! You just had to ensure that you communicate that to your team and find a solution. What is not ok, is to completely drop the ball, give no word to your team and leave folks scrambling at the last minute of a grant deadline.

Rustic or not, we are still a business

So, back to managing an event rental as part of a farm operation…

Yes, it’s very rustic. Yes, it had livestock in it only two years ago. Yes, we only have a porta-potty because we don’t have plumbing there. Yes, we are farmers whose work may seem idyllic or easy because we’ve been able to escape the rat race a bit. However, we are still running a legitimate business: one that has deadlines set by nature, shifting responsibilities based on seasons, very tight margins for our farm product, and takes an enormous amount of energy to not only grow our product successfully, but then market and sell it. To me, the growing part of farming is fairly straight forward because it is up to me because I understand the plants needs, for the most part. All plants need water, light, nutrients, ideal temperatures, and pest management in order to thrive. And the best part? They don’t talk back or drop the ball on projects! The marketing piece takes a bit more creative energy to find buyers and sell your product. But overall, it is a fairly straight forward transaction. You have a price for your product, you find a buyer, and you sell it. Done deal.

The agritourism layer and event rental management is where I find myself scratching my head more than any other part of our business. This component requires managing a calendar, client communication, a contract, collecting deposit money and setting expectations about the service we can provide. I have had more potential clients blow off meetings or not respond to my phone calls than I have with any part of the farm business. I am still not sure why, but the only thing that I can think of is that people think I’m just a crazy farmer with nothing better to do than wander around my field waiting for folks to show up. However, when a client schedules a showing for the barn I have to clean it, mow grass and weed whack, set tables, open gates, etc. And I have to make sure that I am home during that time and not running other farm errands. When a potential client doesn’t show or give me a heads up their schedule has changed, I have just wasted a few hours of my precious time doing tasks that I ultimately didn’t need to do that day. A simple text or email saying that you can’t make it goes a long way. With an event rental space, we are actively trying to book events and drum up more business. If it turns out that the space is just not what you are looking for, please just let us know so that we can archive your request and move on to the next. Leaving folks hanging is, frankly, rude and unprofessional. It all comes down to respecting each others’ time.

Other agritourism events like farm concerts, u-picks, and farm stands are avenues that farmers host in order to diversify their business. If we offer these types of activities, it is because we WANT to share our space with you. It brings us joy to show and teach people about farming and provide a unique experience to the public. However, these take a tremendous amount of planning, communication and risk management in order to be safe and successful. We may not have the fanciest of offerings, but we desire to connect folks to simple joys such as a farm sunset or a fresh picked peach. We ask in return for sharing our space, that you treat us with the same respect that you would any other professional business. Yes, we can be little quirky and often diverge off the beaten path but we still have high expectations for our venture.

Things to consider before inviting folks to your farm

  1. Know your limits. Inviting people on your farm can be a fun, rewarding and profitable piece of your business. However, make sure you have the time and space to take on this type of activity. It does take extra bandwidth to deal with the public on your farm and it might not be for everyone. In order to minimizes risks and make it successful, the space that you invite the public needs to look nice and not present any hazards to folks wandering around the field. You need to ensure that you or your team have the time to clean up, weed-whack, mow and keep your roads accessible. You have to provide a safe and positive experience so a bit of customer service goes a long way. At the end of the day if dealing with people just aren’t your thing… then maybe just stick to farmers markets 😊
  2. Signs! Speaking of communication… adding signs on your farm where the agritourism activity takes place will save you some stress. You don’t want people wondering where to turn, park and check-in at. Your farm needs to have clear signage up directing people where to park and where they access to. You can even make these activities self serve (such as U-pick) but you must have clear directions for where they can pick and how to pay, and make sure to have the proper equipment available for them. Do some role play as a customer and walk your farm in order to think of how you want the customer experience to be and where to identify sticking points.
  3. Events can build your brand. Even if you only have one or two events a year instead of having an open U-pick season or farm stand, it can add a tremendous boost to your marketing efforts. If folks have the opportunity to come out to your farm, get to know you, remember that awesome sunset they had while trying your tomatoes – they will be repeat customers! Trust me, stories and experiences build strong relationships. You need to be able to show people, in person, why they should support your business. It means that they are supporting a family in their neighborhood and it’s a win-win all around.

If you are unsure about inviting people out to your farm, start small with one or two events or experiences. Take notes and try to improve the experience for folks each time. Remember, managing customer expectations before they visit is important. Be available to manage their visit and always have products available to purchase, even if you don’t have a farm stand. The ultimate goal of agritourism is to build your customer base and sell more products. Think of ways to make it a memorable experience and try to enjoy the company – I think it will boost farmer mental health too if we know we are not in this alone.