How Small Farms Can Use The Internet As A Low Cost Sales Channel

by Kami Semick

Selling direct to local consumers and businesses can help small farms realize a higher per unit sales price for products.  This article will cover the Internet as a low cost sales channel for small food producers. We’ll look into strategies how to sell food online, and discuss benefits and costs.

Why Sell Online?

Where and how food is purchased continues to evolve.  Consumers are diversifying away from the traditional grocery store and exploring new channels. A recent report from The Nielsen Company and Food Marketing Institute, found that 23% of American households are buying food online today.  And a whopping 72% of shoppers surveyed expect to buy groceries online in the future.

First Build Your Brand

Regardless of channel, once you decide to sell direct, you will have to make an investment in defining and building your farm’s brand.  Your brand is not just a logo or the products that you sell.  It’s a compilation of your story, the image you choose to represent your business, and the products you offer.  Watch Marketing Fundamentals for Small Farms webinar if you would like a basic Marketing overview.

Build a Web Presence

If you want to be taken seriously as a business, having a web presence is a must.  Research shows a vast majority of shoppers research potential purchases online before they buy.  And with more people going online to buy food, having a web presence with the ability to accept online orders is a critical step to growing your business.

Outlined below are three easy ways to gain an online presence:  Google Maps, social media, and a website.  These three strategies can work in harmony. Use Google Maps and social media to funnel visitors to your website. Just starting out?  Choose at least one method to create a web presence that fits your time and budget constraints.

Be Found on Google Maps 

Adding your farm or food business to Google Maps is free and easy. Google Maps can be a great way to funnel shoppers to your website where they can learn more about your business, sign up for your newsletter and purchase goods. If you have a farm store or farm stand, you can also add the times you are open to your profile on Google Maps.

The quickest way to add your business to Google Maps is to open an internet browser and navigate to Google Maps.

Click the Menu icon in the upper left corner.  Scroll down to “Add a Missing Place.”  Add your business information.  Google will want to verify your business, so follow the steps outlined to verify your listing.

Use Social Media

Despite Facebook’s recent troubles, over 2.2 billion people are still using this social media platform.  And consumers are using Instagram to find new products and discover businesses. Farming and food lends itself well to photos, making Instagram a great place to start on social media.

Social media is the second most effective marketing tool for businesses.  The first is e-mail marketing. Social media can be used as both a sales channel and a referral channel to your website. As a sales channel, Facebook allows for a “Shop Now” button on a business profile page.  As a referral channel, both Facebook and Instagram allows for links back to your website.

If social media is your only online presence, consider adding a “Shop Now” button to your Facebook page where visitors can view and purchase your goods.  View this video demonstrating how to set up a Shop Now button and link it to your product page within Food4All.

Social media accounts are free of charge, but they require a time investment.  To optimize how you spend your social media time, we’ve outlined social media tips for small food producers.  We’ve also identified the time saving social media scheduling tools for small farms.

Build a Website

A website is the foundation for any small business.  Given that 81% of shoppers research online before making a purchase, a website offers a strong foundation for building your business.

The power of the internet is the ability to match content with action.  A low cost way to receive orders is to give website visitors the ability to purchase products, tickets to farm events, or sign up for your CSA.  As we’ve heard Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms say, e-commerce enabled websites allows you to “take orders while you sleep.” Simple e-commerce plug-ins, such as Food4All’s free shopping cart, offer an easy way add a Buy Now button that converts website visitors to buyers.

The cost associated with a website cover a spectrum depending on your desired level of customization.  If you are seeking a completely custom website, you will have to pay a designer / developer.  This could cost up to a few thousand dollars.  A less expensive alternative is to use one of the many templated website design tools.  Creating a website does not need to be expensive.  We’ve included a chart from showing the top three templated website building tools.


Take Orders Online

E-commerce is typically an add-on subscription. The added functionality is typically targeted towards businesses selling products that are mailed or shipped.  Instead of paying for an e-commerce add on, consider Food4All’s free shopping cart which can be added to any website via a simple link and is optimized for local food sales.

The convenience factor for both buyer and seller of online transactions usually involves credit cards, which then leads to credit card fees.  Food4All gives sellers the ability to add payment by check as a payment method, but know payment by credit cards will always involve a credit card processing fee.  Seems the three things one cannot avoid are death, taxes and credit card fees.

Depending on the payment processor, you may have to pay a monthly subscription fee + fee per transaction.  Make sure to understand those fees and consider possibly lifting your prices to account for the credit card fees.  Prices are typically not the largest barrier in local food.  A survey of California CSA members conducted by UC Davis found that 75% of CSA members were willing to pay up to 19% more for their CSA if the increase provided a fairer salary for the farmer.

Website Tips for Small Farms

  • Have a robust About Us page. The most frequented page of a website, outside of the Home page, is the page that describes Who is behind the business.  This page is often called About Us, or Who We Are.   Visitors want to know the people and story behind the product.  This is your chance to further your brand by providing depth to Who You Are, What Are Your Growing or Production Practices, and What Makes You Special.
  • Capture e-mail addresses for future marketing. Not only can you offer in-depth information about your business and the action to buy, other simple plug-ins and forms also allow you to offer visitors the option to sign up for your e-newsletter or to ask a question.  Read more about the power of e-newsletters for small producers. Offering an easy way for website visitors to interact with your business builds a relationship that could lead to increased sales.
  • Include a blog. Blogging can be a powerful way to grow your farm business by deepening the relationship with current and future customers. Search Engines are more likely to find your website if you blog regularly.

If you are looking for more in-depth online marketing strategies, consider viewing the webinar Online Marketing for Small Farms.