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Farming 101: How to Market Your Business

November 14, 2012
By: Boyce Thompson, AgWeb.com Editorial Director
Johnson Family Farm
  

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Here's how to create a more professional image for a farming operation

Brent Johnson, a farmer from in Ashland, Ill., asked 100 farmers in the room for a show of hands. "How many of you have a business card?" he asked, frowning at the poor response.

"I really encourage you to put a business card together," said Johnson, emphasizing that farmers need business cards and a website, at minimum, to look professional. "You need to treat your operation like a business."

Johnson gave a presentation on how to market a farming operation at last week's Farmland Value and Leasing Conference in Decatur, Ill. A marketing plan, he said, needs to include everything from a website, to a social media presence, to a resume.

Johnson, who farms with his uncle, father and one full-time employee, had an advantage in developing his marketing plan: His spouse, Elizabeth, worked for a large tractor company, traveled overseas, then decided to stay home and raise their kids. She used her expertise to help market the farm.

Elizabeth Johnson had a prior business connection with a firm, Ranch House Designs in Texas, that specializes in creating simple, one-page websites. The firm recommended that he obtain the URL johnson-familyfarms.com because johnsonfarm.com wasn’t available.

The website, which is loaded with contact information, emphasizes six key competencies that define the firm. It notes that among other things the farm’s attention to technology allows it to generate "higher returns per acre." It says the firm believes in treating rented land the same way it treats land it owns. And it says the company is imbued with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Johnson regularly checks a Google Analytics account that tracks who comes to his site, by country, state, county, even zip code. He hopes to eventually contact visitors through email.

In the meantime, the website, which costs him about $400 a year to operate, is linked to a free blog that he keeps at blogsite.com. With landlords located in Chicago, Belgium and elsewhere, he’s found the blog to be "an efficient way to keep them up to date about what’s going on."

The danger to becoming a blogger is that you need to commit to regularly posting. Johnson says he sometimes catches flak for not updating the blog. "It’s a struggle to come up with things to write about in the wintertime. You can only write about snow so often."

Besides the weather, Johnson finds that people like to read about crop progress, market outlooks, tillage, and what’s happening within his family and neighborhood. Johnson, who is still in his 30s, regularly Tweets, though he hasn’t established a Facebook page.

Some topics he has learned from experience not to write about. He doesn’t blog about politics, for one thing, after learning that his opinions didn’t align with at least one landlord. He never writes anything that might alienate a neighbor. And he doesn’t write about seeds. "A blog is not a place for us to vent about poor performance."

He draws another line when it comes to publicizing blunders. What may be funny to fellow farmers—a flat tire on a combine, a broken axle on a tractor—may look unprofessional to outside observers. If there’s another company’s logo on the vehicle, it may look even worse.

Every three years, Johnson does a snail mailing to current and prospective landlords, bankers, and other prospective clients. He always includes something of importance in the mailing, like a newsletter or an informative letter, along with something of value. "I don’t read half the junk that I get in the mail."

Lately, he’s been attaching his business card to a chip clip with a magnet on back that can be attached to the refrigerator. He loves to visit with clients and see the clip on the fridge. It’s all part of a plan. "We want our landlords to think about us four or five times a year, and prospective landlords to think about us one or two times a year."

Johnson believes in the power of photos, which he uses liberally on his website. He even inserts them in the company’s 40-page resume, which is full of yield data and equipment lists. He has given everyone on the farm a digital camera and sponsors a photo-of-the week competition.

"This has never specifically helped us rent a farm.  But it does make our business look more professional. We as farmers need to look, communicate and act more professionally."

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