Be honest: As a farmer, how often do you ask yourself what your customers really value about your business? How much time do you take to think about them, what they want from you and how? Chances are, not enough.
I’m certainly as guilty as anyone of this. For a long time, I grew only what I wanted to grow, and then offered that to the customers, but over the last couple of years, our farm has started to reexamine that approach. Competition is increasing, and the novelty of local food feels like it’s wearing off a little. Just being a small, organic farm is no longer enough.
That said, it should have never been enough. We should always be striving to provide our customers with what they want, not what we want to grow or raise. How do we determine what that is? Here’s how we venture into that act of discovery on our farm.
At the end of the 2015 season, we put together a ballot for our CSA customers. On this ballot each customer could vote in or out any particular vegetable. If they didn’t like eggplant or we gave too many peppers, for instance, they could let us know. We made it anonymous and asked for honest criticisms. What we learned was that, indeed, we’d given too much of certain crops. Others, not enough. But we also learned something we hadn’t thought about. People wanted more fruit in their basket. We gave some apples and watermelons that year, but fruit had not been something we’d really put a lot of thought into. Although we’d always wanted to grow more fruit, had we never put out these ballots, we may never have really made it the focus that we do now.
The idea of eating with people to whom you’ve sold food may sound a little funny, but it is not uncommon for farmers to dine with their customers. Few experiences can help you to understand how your food is used once it leaves the market than sitting down at the table of those who buy it. Being able to sit at the table of a customer and hear what they like, what don’t like, and what problems and questions they have—all of this can shed light on the experience of being your customer, informing your work as the farmer. As an added bonus, you’re able to lend them the perspective of what it takes to grow that food. That is surely something many customers value.
The Facebook Group
Every farm should have a Facebook group. You can set one up with relative ease, and the group allows your customers or members to chat about their food and experiences, share recipes, and ask questions. Generally speaking, there are few better ways to get a candid peek into how people are actually using the food than these groups, so long as the group is being used. What it takes to get a good group going is good participation. Make absolutely certain that your die-hard customers are there and posting often. Also, make sure that you’re also taking part. Engaging with your customers in this way, giving them perhaps a glimpse into their farm that the rest of your social media doesn’t get to see, is an excellent way to start the conversation of “What do you want?” and “How are we doing?”
Do not be shy about asking how customers are enjoying the food you grow. It’s simple, and it works. Be specific, too, when seeking out information. Do you like these carrots, they’re a new variety? How do you feel about these paste tomatoes? Anything you’d like more or less of? Don’t put anyone on the spot—just be sincere. Certain customers may always be content or shy about how they really feel, but you should be able to pretty quickly flush out the best critics.
Knowing what people want may take some time and work, but there’s hardly a better recipe for creating a long-lasting business.