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Savvy farmers communicate with customers and seek feedback

Nicki Anderson with summer cabbages at Brix Bounty Farm in Dartmouth, MA.
Sanne Kure-Jensen

Savvy businesspeople know that happy customers return and spend more money. Smart farmers ask loyal CSA, farmers market and restaurant customers what they liked. Smart businesspeople seek customer suggestions for the future.

Engaged customers are loyal customers. Always greet your customers personally at CSA pickups, farmers markets and on deliveries. Ask customers their opinions and take their advice when you can. Make them feel that your improvements or changes were their idea. It does not matter who gets the credit for a great idea.

Good communication is the key to maintaining loyal customers, continued shopper referrals and steady profitability.

Post Season Reports

Be sure to thank your CSA, farmers market and restaurant customers for supporting you for a whole season (or whatever your timeframe). Send an enews or hand out a printed end-of-season Thank You. Summarize your successes. Remind customers of your challenges and how you managed them. Include photos of the good news and the bad times.

Open with a season summary. Describe how yields, weather and pest pressures compared to past years. Tell customers how hard you worked for them. Say how many families you fed, farm shares you delivered, farmers markets you attended and/or restaurants you supplied. If you weigh your produce, tell how many pounds of food you produced.

If you shared with local food pantries or shelters, tell your customers how many needy families you provided for or how many pounds you donated. Share a quote and photo from a happy recipient (food pantry staff or consumer - with their permission).

Remind customers what you supplied early in the season or give a month-by-month summary. You might write: We shared gorgeous greens, fabulous cabbages, bountiful beans, terrific tomatoes, succulent squash and exuberant zucchini... Include photos.

Describe your devastating droughts, flooding, complete crop failures, as well as major disease or pest pressures. Include photos. Share land security issues if they threaten your ability to continue farming that land.

Share your needs for labor, equipment or even housing. Do you trade work shares for volunteers who wash eggs, harvest crops or manage your social media outreach? Tell your CSA members if you need tools, office equipment or even a tractor. You never know what they many have in a back room collecting dust or who they know with extra ‘stuff.’ Spread the word if you seek a new home for yourself or farm staff.

Be personal. Announce the birth of your or staff children, new hires, marriages, injuries and even deaths. Share lessons from conferences, workshop and adventures with relevant photos. Farmers never have time or money for exciting vacations. Farmers are human and do have adventures – so share photos and stories.

Make it fun. Great photos and art make people smile or laugh. Create happy and fun associations with your farm. Share recipes and photos of customers enjoying foods from your farm. Share farm photos all season: emerging seedlings, snow-covered greens, piles of piglets, fuzzy chicks, pollinators doing their thing, a bird or praying mantis catching pests or bountiful harvests.

Announce your plans for next year. Will you add a Pick Your Own crop, an honor system farm stand or add new markets and CSA pickup locations? Do you plan to add or drop any crops? If so, explain why. Will you change your farming practices? If so, explain why.

Include the dates for next season’s CSA sign up. Explain how to sign up and/or include a web link for details.

Survey Questions

Whether you send out a paper or electronic questionnaire or conduct an informal survey, make it short. With written or electronic surveys, use open-ended questions and offer space for comments. Invite people to include their name at the end, but make it optional.

Here are some basic questions to ask CSA or other regular customers.

  • What did you like best? What do you want more of next season?
  • Please share a favorite recipe you made with our fruit, produce or meat.
  • Please share photos of your family cooking and eating our fruit, produce or meats.
  • What did you like least? What do you want less of next season?
  • What new crops (and varieties) would you like next season?
  • How can we improve your CSA experience?
  • Was your CSA investment a good value this year?
  • Do you plan to sign on again in the future? If so, why? If not, why?
  • May we share your opinion, quote and/or photo in our marketing materials? (get permission to use name and photo)
  • General comments and feedback

Farm Fresh Rhode Island used one post-season survey for returning Veggie Box customers (see here) another brief survey for non-renewing customers. (see here)

Survey Types

Steve Murray of Kettle Pond Farm in Berkley, MA used a "respond to this email" newsletter survey in the final week of their summer CSA. They have also tried paper and electronic surveys from Survey Monkey or Mail Chimp.

Murray said his paper surveys had the highest return rate, but customers did not like completing them. Many CSA customers are in a hurry. Electronic surveys received the second highest number of responses. The "reply to this email" surveys received the fewest responses. Murray said, “I am not sure surveys are the best tool for CSA evaluation.”

Murray’s concern with end-of-season surveys is that CSA members may have “forgotten what they received many weeks ago, so their answers are present focused.’ Instead, Kettle Pond farmers checked in with members during weekly pick-ups. Murray asked, "How was everything last week? Was there anything you really enjoyed? How did you use this?” He also asked, “I noticed you are always late to pick-up your share, would a different day be more convenient?"

Responses include "Everything is great" said Murray. No one knows how honest and accurate customers are when asked face to face. People may be too nice to say something negative.

In future years, Kettle Pond Farm hopes to get CSA members together mid-way through the growing season for a Health Forum. Murray hopes this will foster deeper conversations than any questionnaire or survey. The forum may help farmers learn about customer needs and concerns while customers grasp farm realities. Murray looks forward to spending quality time with members who are seriously committed to the future of his farm operation.

Use the Survey Data

If you take the time to conduct a survey, plan time to gather and review the results. Be sure to share the results with your customers at your website, social media accounts or in an enews. Be sure to say what changes you will make (if any) based on customer feedback. Use the testimonials/comments and photos in your future marketing efforts.

Learn More & Contacts

See Brix Bounty Farm’s 2013 CSA Questionnaire here. Learn more about Brix Bounty Farm (brixbounty.com and facebook.com/brixbountyfarm). Visit the farm’s new site on Bakerville Road, Dartmouth, MA. Contact Derek Christianson via email at derekchristianson@gmail.com or call (508) 822-6919.

Kettle Pond Farm (kettlepondfarm.com and facebook.com/kettlepondfarm) is a 3-acre certified organic farm at 181 Bay View Ave. Berkley, MA. Contact Steve Murray via email at kettlepondfarm@gmail.com or call (508) 992-1868.

Learn about Farm Fresh Rhode Island’s Veggie Box program at here. Send questions to Veggiebox@farmfreshri.org or call (401) 312-4250.

A similar story ran in all four regional editions of Country Folks in January and the February edition of Country Folks Grower.