Breaking Ground for the Digital Homestead

Climate change, peak oil, and precarious food systems seem finally to have entered the realm of relatively mainstream discourse. Corporate employees now routinely discuss their gardening plans and dreams of a hobby farm over lunch. Photographs of whole foods guru Michael Pollan grace the covers of popular news magazines. This time around, though, urban and rural homesteaders are learning about backyard chickens and succession planting not from tattered photocopies of Mother Earth News but from organizations whose business is reaching and serving this growing niche.

Somewhat ironically, though, the best way to reach the back-to-basics and local food crowd is through sophisticated, leading-edge, online channels. You may be able to take the city kids back to the farm, but they seem determined to take their high-speed communication channels back with them.

Heirloom Seeds Meet the New-Fangled Blog

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds has a print catalog that vegetable gardeners commonly refer to as “veggie porn.” Its large-format, macro-focused, lushly shot photographs of plants and flowers would make anyone feel capable of saving the world by growing obscure varieties of eggplants.

Still, the vast majority — over 90 percent — of Baker Creek’s orders come in via its e-commerce site, Baker Creek consultant Jerry Orton told the E-Commerce Times. “We handle somewhere between 400 and 500 online orders a day,” Orton said. “On weekend days during peak ordering times such as now, it can be as many as 1,000.”

While they’re searching the site for just the right variety of purple tomatoes, customers also can read on the company’s blog about Baker Creek supplier Andrew Kurtek and the 5,000 plants of specialty garlic he’s growing exclusively for Baker Creek customers.

Baker Creek is encouraging employees to write for the blog and viewing it as a way to give a more personal feel to the site, Orton explained.

While the company likes the reach it can achieve through e-commerce, founder Jere Gettle much prefers to portray an “old-fashioned way of life,” he noted. Thus, those perusing the site can find poultry-raising advice provided directly by Jere, complete with a picture of him holding a stunning Black Breasted Red Phoenix Rooster.

Micro Marketing

In fact, offering advice from people rather than corporate entities dominates the blended marketing approaches used by those serving the new generation of homesteaders. Another organic and heirloom seed supplier, Seeds of Change, provides a whole section on its e-commerce site dedicated to how-to articles carrying the bylines of specific employees — for example, one called “Germination Techniques for Herbs and Flowers,” by Research Farm Associate Emily Skelton.

Not all effective online marketing to homesteaders is so direct, though. Cleveland micro-brewery Great Lakes Brewing Co. serves as a sponsor to Local Food Cleveland, an online community site for those interested in urban and suburban homesteading in Northeastern Ohio. While not many of those who use the site want to learn how to brew beer themselves, certainly many of them are buying it and are interested in local sources.

The company also hosts in-person events held for the members of the site, who range from individuals asking questions about whether or not their municipality allows small livestock to local politicians and community organizers.

Putting the Networking in Network

One such community organizer is Samantha Provencio, who successfully lobbied the City of Cleveland to allow a local school to establish a community garden in a nearby city park. The teacher leading the garden project obtained a grant of hundreds of seed packets from Baker Creek. Now, Provencio has established a group at the Local Food Cleveland site to organize support for the garden.

The ability of corporations to reach the people involved in the community gardening movement in Cleveland was Provencio’s primary motivation for building her group on this particular site, she told the E-Commerce Times.

While other social networking platforms might have been more familiar, this one already had a history of connecting urban homesteaders and the companies that want to cater to them, Provencio noted.

Down and Dirty

Companies managing their online presence very carefully even have begun tracking down those interested in homesteading through the blogs they read. Deanna Duke, for example, regularly gets companies commenting directly on her blog posts on the Crunchy Chicken, she told the E-Commerce Times. Since Duke has a large readership and she raises questions about the products of big enterprises such as Aveda, her word-of-mouth opinion can travel far.

Those firms wanting to reach out and touch the crunchy crowd through the online sources they trust had better take care, though — Duke usually deletes comments left by corporate representatives. She has started accepting very select advertising on her site, though only for companies and products that meet her approval.

“I cherry pick who I will advertise,” Duke explained.

Perhaps a better approach is demonstrated by companies that support, rather than solicit, the efforts of those looking to “get back to the land” — whether that land be in the countryside or the city.

The Local Food Cleveland site, for example, boasts sponsorship from Neighborhood Progress, which provides loans to those looking to develop land.

And the dean of food himself, Michael Pollan, recently visited Baker Creek and spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of over 400 people — an event sponsored by publisher Copperfield’s Books.

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