CONGERVILLE -- Congerville farmer Henry Brockman admits he doesn't understand Facebook. "I've never seen Facebook with my own eyes," said Brockman, whose business is called Henry's Farm. Yet the Henry's Farm Facebook page is updated frequently by his sister, Terra Brockman. Marketing online and in person has become more important for small farms that do everything from sell at local farmers' markets to produce for large companies, said Atina Diffley, a Minnesota organic farmer and educator who spoke during the recent Central Illinois Sustainable Farming Network annual meeting last month in Bloomington. Since small farmers compete with large grocery chains, branding and marketing their farm and maintaining relationships with customers is an important part of business, she said.
"It's a lot more work to buy from local farmers. Always be thinking about how to make it easier for the customers to buy from you," Diffley said, adding that many small farms benefit from social media marketing. "You are selling more than just food; you are selling values."
Brockman farms 10 acres and grows about 625 different vegetable varieties. He sells his produce at the Evanston Farmers Market and runs a Community Supported Agriculture program for 230 customers in Central Illinois. CSAs are typically family-owned farms that provide produce directly to customers who sign up and pay a weekly fee.
"I haven't had to do traditional marketing. My marketing strategy is to provide the best possible produce and hope that people recognize that," said Brockman, who started his operation 22 years ago. "I don't like the term branding, but people do recognize the name Henry's Farm."
Meanwhile, Justin Turner, who farms with his wife, Erica, in Heyworth, will sell at eggs, fruit and vegetables at the Downtown Bloomington Farmers' Market and Artists' Alley for the first time this year. The market begins May 3 and continues each Saturday through October.
In November 2013, Turner started a five-week online Kickstarter campaign with the goal of raising $10,000. He has raised $10,850 from 98 donors. The money will be used to buy equipment such as tractor parts, a tiller, materials to build a hoop house and items to expand the chicken coop.
"The Kickstarter project helped us out a lot. It helped us get our name out there," he said.
Developing a logo, farm name and marketing materials to hand out helped spread the word about Sangha Farms, he said.
"We put a lot of thought into the name, I think that's big for new farmers to do. Not necessarily to make something that's completely sleek and polished, but something that is meaningful to them that will stick with their customers," Turner said, adding that 'sangha' means 'community' in Tibetan.
At O'Rourke Family Farms in Downs, the family has taken a few years off from selling at markets to focus on their conventional corn and soybean operation, said Carrie O'Rourke.
"It has been a challenge to maintain our customer base. But honestly, one of the hardest things about this way of life is that you need to take a break at some point and sometimes the land needs a break," she said.
O'Rourke said despite not selling directly to customers, marketing is still important as they continue to update their social media sites and respond to customer emails to keep people informed on their business.
It is a similar case for PrairiErth Farm in Atlanta. It has been able to build relationships on social media outlets and communicate with a lot of customers at once, said Katie Bishop, co-owner.
"Since we sell directly to the consumer, it is super important that we're marketing ourselves," Bishop said. "It is a daily thing for us and it is more than just social media. We accept every invitation to speak and we're involved in the community, as well."