Market Builders

Social Media's Reach Surprising

Beth Hornsby and daughter Stella often share life on the farm with their digital Facebook family. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Becky Mills)

If you wonder how social media works as a marketing tool, check out Okra. This heritage breed sow racked up more than 15,000 posts on Facebook and Instagram when she was due to farrow her first litter back in October 2017.

"It was a pretty big deal," Beth Hornsby said, and not just because she thinks pretty highly of Okra. It validated Beth's decision to set up those Facebook and Instagram accounts when she and husband, Josh, started their farm in 2013.

"Social media helps us market our farm and products," Beth said. She gives the farm's digital presence a sizable chunk of the credit for the Auburn, Alabama, farm's growth -- think 10 times.

What started as a 1-acre produce patch is 10 acres today. They've added a pork side to the business, now at six sows and two boars. The couple currently sells in two farmers' markets and delivers 30 to 40 produce baskets weekly. Beth's jams and pickles are in shops as far away as North Carolina and Michigan.

She said at least 70% of the farm's social media followers are also customers. She believes tools like Facebook and Instagram are uniquely suited to reaching the farm's target demographic, which she describes as 25- to 60-year-olds who want fresh produce, eat at least half their meals at home and are involved in their community. One of the best things about social media, Beth added, is the cost: free. It doesn't require specialized equipment to set up or maintain accounts. In Beth's case, her iPhone X is all she needs.

"I do have a camera, but you have to plan to carry it out in the field. Not with this crew," Beth laughed, pointing out her very busy group of helpers, children Sully, 9, Levi, 5, and Stella, 3.

ATTENTION GRABBERS

The most popular posts from Hornsby Farms involve kids and animals, but Beth said there are other ways to draw attention to an operation. She recommended just being your own unique self.

"Maybe you're using seed from your grandmother's plants, or you're growing a variety of vegetable or fruit that hasn't been grown in your area. What makes your operation unique? Things that might seem mundane to you are extraordinary to people who aren't used to farming," she said.

Beth also said to be purposeful with posts -- especially videos.

"Showing our bedding machine at work, for example, is a neat way to give a real-life example of what we're doing," she continued.

It's also important to make time to respond to posts. Beth estimated she spends an hour a day interacting with people who comment on posts or have questions. She saves time by linking Facebook and Instagram accounts so when she posts on one, it automatically posts on the other.

One thing she could do to make their social media campaign even better would be to spend more time on it, she said. But, considering she and Josh are the sole labor force on this first-generation farm, she's had to face the fact that there are going to be some time limitations.

That said, Beth noted in some ways, social media has been a time-saver. Videos, for example, act as virtual farm tours. "We love it that people want to come out and tour the farm, but we just don't have the time," she said.

MEASURE OF SUCCESS

Whether it is Facebook, Instagram or their website, Beth depends on analytics to track interactions. She knows when users comment, like or look at posts. She uses those analytics to figure out which are the most popular posts and as a guide in practical decisions, such as which items she should order for gift baskets.

"Facebook, Instagram and our website all have apps that contain analytics," she explained.

Terrell Davis, media and public affairs specialist for the Georgia Department of Agriculture, uses Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and a website to boost exposure of Georgia Grown, a program promoting products grown in the state. He, too, finds a lot of value in analytics.

"At the end of the day, you don't want to spend your time on something that isn't effective," he noted. He said up to 100,000 people now follow Georgia Grown posts.

Whatever the platform, Beth said analytics, comments on threads and face-to-face interactions tell her she's on the right track when it comes to connecting with customers.

"We want to tell them about our little slice of agriculture and let them know there is a person, a family, at the end of the line," she said.

Davis agreed. "Social media allows people to follow you on the farm. They are more prone to buy a product if they can see the face or family behind the food."

At Hornsby Farms, all the exposure may be doing more than selling product. It could be turning the children into rock stars. Last year, they were at a rodeo and overheard someone say, "There's Farmer Stella!" Beth just laughed and said, "It may be getting out of hand."

GIVING BACK

While Beth's use of social media started as a way to promote the family business, it's also turned into a vehicle for bringing people together to help others in the community.

Josh and Beth joined with their pediatrician, Katie Wolter, to feed 10 families every week through the doctor's Nourish, AL program -- a way to bridge the nutritional gap for some families in the area.

Beth said they pull produce from their own farm and work with others at local farmers' markets to make well-rounded food baskets for these 10 families. A typical basket will contain greens, lettuce, cabbage, broccoli and snow peas from Hornsby Farms, supplemented with grapes, bananas and apples from the farmers' market, as well as rice bought at a discount from the farmers' market. Beth aims for eight items and four to six servings of each. It added up to 15,000 pounds of food a year.

Every Friday, Beth or Josh drop the baskets at the pediatrician's office where volunteers deliver them to families and even help them with cooking tips, if needed.

Beth's social media work helps meet the need, especially during special times of the year, such as Christmas, when the Hornsbys ask for donations from customers and friends to buy hams and gifts for the families.

"It is really neat. It helps build a sense of community," she said. They also help finance the program with on-farm barbecues.

It is a program close to Beth's heart. "We started our garden to help make ends meet," she said. "I had this image of what hunger looks like, but it doesn't look like I thought, not at all. It looks like hard-working families that want to do better but just can't get ahead."

(ES/AG)