A few years ago on a roughly 30-acre property in Warren County, Harold Shippey and his wife decided to get into gardening in their retirement.
They started with two moderately-sized raised vegetable beds. Now they have about 10,000 square feet of vegetable gardens producing 1,700 pounds of vegetables that they sell from their farmstand and in various outlets in Glens Falls.
Neither were farmers, and Warren County wasn’t exactly a hotbed for agriculture, so they turned to an increasingly important tool for farmers, especially beginning farmers: the Internet.
In their rapid expansion, Shippey said, “We gained an appreciation for how much farmers really have to know, which is an incredible amount, and we’ll never know all we need to know.”
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Internet access is slowly on the rise on farms across the country, with 70 percent now online and 43 percent using the internet for business — that means everything from accessing educational resources to tracking blight and taking their marketing to social media.
For Shippey, it’s all about education and information.
One of the first courses he took, through Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Northeast Beginning Farmers Project, was about how to raise poultry. He’s also taken courses in basic and advanced vegetable growing and farm management that required him to write a business plan and budgets as homework.
“There isn’t a whole lot in Warren County for vegetable producers,” he said. “So when the possibility of distance learning came up, it seemed like a great way to be able to sit at home and still talk to other beginning farmers and other experts in the field of production.”
The Northeast Beginning Farmers Project offered its first online course, BF101: Starting at Square One, in 2007, according to online course manager Erica Frenay. They were hoping to get just 30 students enrolled.
“We filled the course in a few days and we could have filled it over and over again,” she said. “We had no idea if people were going to want to learn about farming online, so it was a real experiment for us.”
This year, the program is offering 16 courses and Frenay expects more than 400 participants. While most are generally from the Northeast, Frenay said the course also draw participants from as far away as Iceland and Singapore.
The courses now include topics like organic certification, financial record keeping, mushroom cultivation, effective marketing, and grazing management, among many others. The mushroom course has been especially popular, said Frenay, though BF101 still fills up more quickly than any other.
“That course, more than any of the others, is really like an overview of what it means to be a farmer,” Frenay said. “It appeals to people who are still in the dreaming stage and also, I think, serves to kind of weed out some of those folks who realize that maybe farming isn’t for them.”
The courses can also appeal to more experienced farmers looking to get into something new, she said, like berry production or mushroom cultivation.
As a beginning farmer herself in the Ithaca area, Frenay said two of the traditional three challenges, land and capital, have not changed much over the years. The third challenge is training, and that’s where online tools have really changed how new farmers approach the industry.
“Our online courses have found a niche mostly with people who are sort of, they’re geographically dispersed, they’re isolated, they don’t have an organization around them,” she said.
People like the Shippeys.
Thanks to a course Harold Shippey took last fall about tomato and potato blight, he knew of USAblight.org, a website that tracks blight across the country. It allows Shippey to see how blight is progressing and decide whether or not he needs to take precautions before it becomes a problem— something even the wisest farmer likely would not have been able to do 100 years ago.
Tracking the weather
He keeps in touch with instructors from the online courses, as well as other students, to share information and solutions. He also regularly checks the website of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to keep up to date on the weather.
“These days, we aren’t that familiar with reading the sky or reading the weather, so having a resource like NOAA that’s available to us, that’s updated almost every four or five hours, is extremely important,” he said. “It’s an information age, and it’s amazing how much farmers need to know.”
In Preston Hollow, in the southwest corner of Albany County, Heather Ridge Farm owner Carol Clement has been turning to the Internet and social media to draw attention, and customers, to the tucked-away farm and its Bees Knees Cafe.
The farm’s Facebook page is filled with posts about its Supper Club, baby alpacas, and whatever new dish on-site chef Rob Handel has been cooking up, from apple-filled doughnuts to chicken mole tacos.
“It’s essential,” Clement said. “It’s the main means of communication we have with our customer base.”
Clement, a former marketing professional, said she began with an email list 10 years ago that still plays a crucial role, but Facebook is steadily overtaking it. It allows her to include more photos, tell more stories, and keep the stories rolling — like the surprise baby alpaca — to foster a connection with her customers that goes beyond retail.
“We want people to think of it as their special farm,” she said.
The farm is at the top of a small, winding road more than four miles from the nearest major road and much farther from the nearest population center, making effective marketing all the more essential, Clement said.
“We have to let people know we’re here because they’re not going to pass by us accidentally,” she said. “It has definitely helped with that.”
Shippey said he’s finding the same thing to be true— social media and email lists are his “best sales tool,” he said.
It’s also a lot cheaper. Ten or more years ago, Clement said, this would have been done with printed cards, flyers and advertisements.
“You’d be printing out a million rack cards with the information on one side and the map on another and spending money trying to distribute it all over the place, trying to figure out where the best possible customers might come from,” she said. “Much more expensive, much more time consuming.”
As the weather now turns colder and the harvest is both reaped and celebrated, invitations have been going out to sign up for the Small Farms Program’s online courses, like “Growing Shiitake and Other Mushrooms for Fun and Profit.”
According to David Cox, agricultural program leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Schoharie and Otsego Counties, we are now entering into a new kind of season: “workshop season.”