Thursday, August 18, 2011

Farmer Software-of-the-week

Small Farm Central-Your Friend in the Cloud

The infrastructure of a city or town say, Pittsburgh, PA or Hadley, MA, greatly depends on raw materials. In the case of Pittsburgh, available steel makes for structures of a solid state and in Hadley, the very fertile river valley irrigates our soil.

But the digital infrastructure is yet another thing. In the City of Steel, Simon Huntley brings the computing cloud to those working under real clouds, the very clouds that make farming as volatile as the stock market.

Today Simon' farming is limited to a small back yard plot but his extensive experience on a farm in Colorado gave him a good look at what it takes to plant, nurture and harvest as well as doing it all over again. Selling the stuff is yet another chore. Simon is also an information technology grad. He formed Small Farm Central four years ago to marry farming with computing. "I'm not in this to make a million dollars, obviously," he said. "We are self-funded and we really just want to make life easier for farmers with direct marketing and web services."

Small Farm Central has four employees and has grown organically. The company now has over 400 customers across the country and in Canada. Services range from a web presence, hosting, e-commerce and mailing list options, all for a monthly fee. "We have a designer on staff. The sites are run on templates so they are easy to create but people still manage to make them look different," said Simon adding that technical support in the form of a person is also provided.
Typically, farmers will use the e-commerce functionality to manage buying clubs, inventory and track wholesale account.  "Typically people will use us for inventory and tracking specialty food like honey and flowers. Inventory capabilities help prevent people from selling out," says Simon. In addition, the company designs websites and provides templates. Locally, Town Farm of Northampton and the Tuesday Farmers' Market are both represented by Small Farm Central websites.

The latest of the company's offerings is a free mapping site for farmers' markets and other groups called "Farmers Faces." Farms are referenced on a map with a link to farms' websites. The map is populated by individuals who run it such as farmers market managers or advocacy groups and others. "We're doing this so that people only have to update their information once," says Simon. "People have a presence online all over the place. They can be a member of a specialty group and selling at a farmers market and through a CSA. With a profile on Farming Faces, users won't have to constantly update their profiles," he said.

The volatility of weather is a big factor in selling fresh food. Getting the word out about late breaking crop news like having lots of melons to move, for example, or increasing awareness about winter shares where direct marketing can come in handy. Social media provides myriad ways to communicate a the rise and fall of food ranging from Twitter to Facebook in a world where everyone seems to be looking at hand held devices. Farmers in the fields checking rain patterns on their Blackberries less than a mile from people driving in cars checking for the nearest farm stand. Simon takes a broad view of social media. "We can provide help with the web side of things," he says. "A good site is the bedrock any marketing plan. We don't do a ton of social media but we will be looking to more integration where necessary."

When asked where he sees the web marketing scene ten years from now Simon responded, "I was just talking to a friend of mine the other day about this," he said. "Ten years ago was just 2001 so I guess my answer to that is that things will be the same only different." Kind of like the weather.