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Farm Survey Shows Growth in Industry

By Jane Eckert

The past three years, I have conducted an end of the year survey asking my e-newsletter agritourism operators about their business and year end results. I’m pleased to report that 2010 was a much better financial year than 2009.   Yes, the weather played a significant role in the improvement. But even taking the weather into account, these operators implemented new enterprises, increased their marketing presence and believe that they are in a good position to continue growth in 2011.

We can learn from other farm marketers, and I want to share with you this month some of their responses and the industry trends as I am seeing them.

Creating More Guest Experiences with Special Activities
We all know that agritourism is about incorporating fun and special guest experiences unique to our properties.  Because they are unlike the activities found elsewhere, farms have found that our activities continue to bring the guests back for another visit and can add more revenue to the bottom line. Birthday parties, group classes for children and adults, team building, company picnics, plus more non-profit collaborative events are definitely growing in popularity and bringing in more visitors.

Note that I’m not saying you need another “attraction” on the play area, I’m saying an “activity.”  Many of the more mature farm businesses now realize that adding another attraction in the playground, with the expense to install and maintain, does not always mean you can increase the price.  You can lose money if you are randomly adding attractions.

While activities do take time to plan and prepare, they are yielding good financial returns and creating an even more loyal (repeat) customer base. And our data shows that farms are seeking out these special activities that are guaranteed to increase the revenues.

For example, more farms are entering into the “destination” wedding business and doing so at various levels of involvement, service and pricing. Weddings can be offered under a tent, a barn building or a more permanent structure.  The space can be offered as rental—to  allow the consumer to decorate and bring in their own food—or the farm could provide it all as a turnkey service.

No matter how you structure these special activities they are generally less susceptible to the weather than our other business because they are prescheduled and pre-paid events. Come rain or shine, people will participate and come for the activity.

Fall Season Growth Phenomenal
It seems that the crowds of people that came out to our farms this past fall were overwhelming on those beautiful weekend days.  The demand for pick your own apples & pumpkins, daytime & night time corn mazes, haunted houses & trails, bonfire rentals plus haunted wagon rides seemed insatiable.  If you are not doing your best to maximize the fall season revenue it is truly your biggest and fastest means for growth.

While it’s nice to view full parking lots, long concession lines and empty product displays at day’s end, it’s gotten some farmers already talking about how to handle these intense crowds and maintain guest safety and farmer sanity. Most of us can’t increase the ground allocated to parking and activities and therefore will need to be making some hard decisions regarding the future of serving our customers in the fall season.

Marketing Activities—Nothing But Net
The top three marketing strategies all reflect the growing popularity of the Internet.  Everyone agrees that their website is their most important marketing strategy.  Interestingly, the survey showed that farmers believed the second most important strategy was using Facebook (FB) followed third by the electronic newsletter. 

This year’s respondents showed a 300% increase in the use of Facebook over 2009. Here is some of the positive feedback as to why farms rated this as an important tool to grow their business. “More buzz about our business…helps us to get repeat customers…we get instant results of people walking in the door for today’s featured product or call immediately to sign up for classes…coupon redemption is high from our FB fans…our customers are downloading their family photos onto our FB page and increase our credibility…new people coming in the market tell us their friend posted information about us on Facebook and they had to give a try” and the list goes on.

I have truly never seen a marketing strategy take-off as this one has done with such success for so many people.  So what are the draw backs of Facebook? It takes your time.  However, it’s becoming clear to many farmers that the payback is well worth it and no real marketing dollars have been expended for the effort. My guess is that next year even more farmers will be using Facebook as a marketing strategy.

While Facebook gives immediate feedback, the electronic newsletter still rates in third position because it delivers expanded content to your best customers who signed up and gave you permission to come into their mailbox. The users of electronic newsletters grew by over 12% of those farmers taking my survey.

Tourism Connection
Farms are continuing to participate with local and state tourism groups and report that this is an important strategy to increase their business. The word agri+tourism is the connection of the two most important industries in most every state and province.

By connecting with the tourism industry, farms appear on their websites, printed materials, printed maps and are talked about when the tourism professionals tell the media about what there is to do in your region. Frankly, the farms that still haven’t gotten connected with their local and state tourism folks just don’t understand the value that these relationships can bring to your business through increased sales and media awareness.

Based on the 2010 year end survey results and my direct contact with so many farms across North America, I am also confident that 2011 will prove to be a good year for our industry. If you would like to see a more expanded summary of my 2010 survey results just contact me.

Jane Eckert is the founder of Eckert AgriMarketing (www.eckertagrimarketing.com), a full-service marketing and public relations firm that helps farmers to sell directly to consumers, diversify operations and become tourist destinations. She is also CEO of www.RuralBounty.com, a search directory for agritourism farms and ranches in North America. Jane can be reached at 314-862-6288 or you may email her directly.