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Growing the Farm‑to‑Doorstep Movement

How online direct‑to‑consumer sales offer a new business model for farmers and consumers alike.

Photo by Dirty Girl Produce

Even as a boy, Tom Bennett dreamed of having a farm of his own. His neighbors raised cattle, horses, and chickens as a hobby, and he used to love lying in their fields and watching the cows graze. Back then, he didn’t know anyone who farmed full-time—it always had to be supplemented with another source of income.

So he followed a different dream: He joined the United States Marine Corps. After 10 years of active duty, he returned to civilian life and began working in sales for a food service company. But in the back of his mind, he kept imagining a life for himself raising animals in pastures of his own. So, alongside his steady job, he started to farm.

“It’s a high barrier to entry starting out with nothing, so I started hobby farming,” Tom says. “We were raising just a small amount of animals for bulk sale twice a year, spring and fall.”

Early on, though, people were clamoring for more. Before he knew it, Bennett Farms was officially a business. “We did it as a side hustle for about 4 or 5 years. Then it actually turned into a legit business around 2016, when we filed for our LLC and actually started turning a pretty decent profit.”

Tom Bennett, Bennett Farms

Tom kept working his full-time job while the farm continued to grow. “I was doing that [full-time job] during the day, farming by flashlight at night—trying to make it all work, working what felt like 8 days a week.”

Many US farmers work both on and off the farm to make ends meet: in 2019, the USDA reported that an average of 82% of farming households’ income comes from off the farm. But it’s exhausting to do both. By 2018, Bennett Farms had grown so much that Tom decided to ditch the security of his 9-to-5—which provided health care and a 401(k)—to give farming a wholehearted go.

“It was a big risk, because we have 6 kids and a big family to support. It’s not something you could just do on a whim—it had to work,” he says. “But if it didn’t, at least I would know, and I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life wondering what could have been.”

While he was simply farming as a side hustle, it was easy to sell each season’s harvest by word-of-mouth and at farmers markets. But when it was time for the farm to pay all the Bennett family’s bills, Tom knew he would have to do something different.

Growing business online

“Knowing I needed to sell and make a business, I wanted to have an online farm store before I really knew what that meant,” Tom says.

That’s when he discovered the combined powers of Barn2Door and Mailchimp. As a Mailchimp partner, Barn2Door offers expert Mailchimp marketing services to clients. Barn2Door also offers a platform for farmers to sell their products, which integrates with Mailchimp, making the whole process more streamlined. Tom used both to bring Bennett Farms online. “That’s what really allowed us to be a full-time farm,” he says.

Now, in addition to pork, poultry, and—in advance of Thanksgiving—turkey, Tom also sells subscriptions online, which allow him to keep his business going even in the winter when many farmers markets are closed. “Between the farmers markets, our online store, and our bulk customers, that's pretty much our main 90% of our revenue,” Tom says.

Customers love the option to buy premium meat and have it delivered to their doorstep. Tom loves that his online store works around the clock, taking orders while he does everything else—both on the farm and with his family. With routing software, a fulfillment schedule, and trustworthy inventory practices, he’s found that online sales and door-to-door delivery make his life easier.

“It would be much harder to survive as a farm, selling direct-to-consumer without being online,” he says. “Today people expect the convenience. You can shop our farm from your phone while you’re lying in bed at 9 o’clock at night.”

Brie Casadei, Terra Firma Farm

Keeping up community

When COVID-19 broke out, it was no longer business as usual for Brie Casadei of Terra Firma Farm. Her farm—which she started in 2004—had always revolved around community and education, giving local kids a place to see what work and life were like on her land. She supported her operation with a farm stand, bulk sales to a local grocer, and farmers markets. But all of this was complicated by the outbreak of the pandemic.

It’s estimated that, from March to May of 2020, family farmers lost $1.32 billion in revenue. Brie had to do something quickly to keep her farm afloat. So she brought her business online with Barn2Door and Mailchimp.

From the outset of her venture into online sales, she remained community-minded. She uses her online farm store to sell goods from about 15 other vendors, offering everything from honey to baked goods to locally roasted coffee.

“We noticed that the more we offered our customers, the more they were buying—not necessarily volume, but buying on a more regular basis,” she says. “If you’re just offering milk and eggs, they’ll buy from you every once in a while, but if you can offer almost everything they were picking up at a farmers market and they don’t have to go to the farmers market anymore, that’s what customers want. It’s a convenience thing.”

Tom has seen this work for his business, too. He sells things like milk and mushrooms from other farms that are ethically in line with what he already does, offering something new to his customers.

“I’ve started just partnering with all of these other people around me and saying, ‘Hey, I’ll sell your products for you.’ I’m already in front of thousands of people a week on the website, and they’re all tickled pink,” he says. It’s mutually beneficial, increasing his sales and what he can offer customers, as well boosting sales for other farmers. “It’s good to see that it’s helping them and it’s helping us, because we’re already delivering to all of these regions and places anyway.”

It’s reported that, in 2020, online grocery sales increased 54% in the US, and although that increase was fueled by COVID-19, e-commerce is expected to continue growing for grocers. At the same time, a Quickbooks survey found 93% shoppers said that because of the pandemic, supporting small businesses is more important than ever, making it essential for farmers like Brie and Tom to offer the same convenient shopping experience as their big-box counterparts.

Not only is this convenience a win for shoppers, it’s given Brie more time for the things she really loves. “The nice thing about Barn2Door is that it goes 24/7 to sell something,” she says. “The orders come in on their own.” She says she’s poured this time back into her business and her family. Her kids say that they eat dinner much earlier.

Dirty Girl Produce CSA box

Want to fix the food system? Meet your customers where they are

Like Tom and Brie, Dirty Girl Produce farmer Joe Schirmer felt called to sustainable agriculture. But in the decades since he bought his farm in 1999, he found himself feeling burned out.

It’s common—the job is physically and financially demanding, and the rewards can be tenuous. The number of small farmers in the US has been in steep decline for decades. Going online might be what saved Joe from joining the trend.

After years of showing up to farmers markets all over the Bay Area every week, the pandemic prompted Joe to begin selling his produce online through Barn2Door. This has resulted in more customers and less pressure to be physically everywhere at once.

“All of a sudden there’s all these people that I didn’t know that had never bought from us, because they don’t have the time to go to market hours at certain times and this or that. But they looked online and they found us,” he says. “So, will tech save Dirty Girl? Maybe.”

For whatever online sales might do for Joe himself, he thinks it could be the future for his industry. “I want people to farm. I want them to do it sustainably. And I think that not only is there potential for people to go online, but I think it might just be clutch,” he says. “If all of your customers are going online to buy things, then you need to meet them there.”

There’s more people out there than I can feed by myself ... It’s going to take a lot of us to change the food system.

Joe Schirmer, Dirty Girl Produce

Changing the way people buy food, together

Bringing a business online can be daunting, especially for farmers.

“A lot of small growers like me really have a hard time making changes,” says Joe. “But you have to constantly evolve.”

Now, like Brie and Tom, he finds ways to empower other farmers. As part of Barn2Door’s Farmer Advocate Network, all 3 champion their peers making the switch to online business. They know that working collaboratively is better for their businesses, better for their customers, and ultimately better for the environment.

“If you can bring in other people that are doing different things and work together, it’s definitely more sustainable,” Brie says. “It’s not a competition. The more we make this normal, the more customers are going to reach for it.”

Tom has big dreams for what online direct-to-consumer sales can mean for small, sustainable operations like his. “There’s more people out there than I can feed by myself, so I’m not threatened by other farms doing the exact same thing as me,” he says. “It’s going to take a lot of us to change the food system.”

Published: June 24, 2022

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