Websites help CSAs keep up with growing business

Kelsey Thalhofer/Capital Press Elizabeth Miller of Minto Island Growers in Salem, Ore., uses Small Farm Central's community-supported agriculture software to enter customer payments online. Software companies designed with farms in mind allow growers like Miller to easily communicate with customers and simplify payment processes.

By KELSEY THALHOFER

Capital Press

Elizabeth Jenkins' community-supported agriculture farm was doing well -- a little too well.

The CSA program, which sold produce from Minto Island Growers in Salem, Ore., to more than 200 members from Portland to Salem, had outgrown her means.

Jenkins sought a way to streamline the logistics of her business -- the paperwork, customer relations and payment processes that absorbed hours of her time.

Her search led her to software and service businesses that specifically help farmers create and manage their own websites, connect with customers and sell products online.

Due to the increasing need for today's businesses to have an online presence, software developers such as Farmigo and Small Farm Central allow farmers at all levels of tech literacy to gain footing on the web.

"They don't really care about the inner-workings of a website, they just want it to work," Simon Huntley, founder and developer of the website and CSA software company Small Farm Central, said of many of his customers.

Huntley, who grew up on a small farm, founded the Pittsburgh, Pa., company in 2006, and now works with over 700 farmers across the country.

Though free web pages are available on sites such as Wordpress and Blogspot, Huntley said his farming background helped him tailor sites to growers' needs. His sites are photo-heavy and include a calendar, a mailing list and social networking tools such as blogging capabilities.

"I think that people feel comfortable working with us," Huntley said of his four-person staff. "They like doing business with someone who understands their business."

The creators of Farmigo, a CSA network and online market based in San Francisco, use a different approach. Benzi Ronen and his team interviewed over 100 CSA growers and members to find out what they wanted in a site and what problems they'd encountered in the past.

He found growers needed a way to coordinate drop-off and pick-up locations and communicate personally and effectively with customers. Customers wanted the ability to adjust their delivery schedule and easily let growers know when they would be out of town and not in need of their weekly bounty.

"We are extremely passionate about what we do," Miriam Mark, the company's director of sales and marketing, said. She said Ronen's interest in eating locally and helping others to do the same sparked the idea for the site.

A difference between Farmigo and Small Farm Central seems to be the payment system. Farmigo charges 2 percent of sales -- a $150 minimum charge for every month sales are made -- and Small Farm Central uses a sliding scale.

Small Farm Central's CSA service ranges from $30 per month for 50 members to $400 for 1,000 members monthly. Non-CSA members choose a $20-$50 monthly website package and can add an online sales element for $20-$45 per month.

Jenkins, who chose Small Farm Central this January but was also curious about Farmigo's system, said she was concerned that her members would find the new system less personal. However, Jenkins received only positive feedback on the site's ease of use, and said she couldn't have run her growing CSA without it.

"I would encourage farmers to utilize this technology," she said.

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