For farmers whose businesses also involve direct sales to the public — from vegetables, fruits, and other farm products, to full-fledged agritourism operations — “a Web site is your most important marketing tool,” says Jane Eckert.

“It works for you 24/7, selling your products, and creating an awareness of your business,” she said at the recent Mississippi Agritourism Association conference at Lazy Acres Plantation, Chunky, Miss. “The Internet has helped level the playing field in the business world.”

Eckert, founder and CEO of Eckert AgriMarketing, which provides marketing and consulting services to agriculture and tourism clients, notes that 79 percent of Americans now have Internet access, and increasingly are turning first to Web sites for information that will assist them in making purchases, planning visits, etc.

“Your Web site should make it easy for them to know what you offer, when it will be available (in the case of fruits, veggies, and other farm products), clear and detailed directions to your farm, telephone number, e-mail contact information — any information that will make it easy for them to find you and spend money with you.

Web sites should include “plenty of photos” of products being offered, farm scenes, and in the case of agritourism enterprises, “lots of shots of people having fun and enjoying themselves. You want to sell experiences, to make them eager to come and be a part of what you have to offer.

“Your Web site will be judged against the best ones out there, so you need to look at yours with a critical eye and ask how it measures up. And you need to revise it periodically — if your site is two or three years old, it’s probably outdated.

“Your Web address should be everywhere, on letterheads, brochures, signs, packaging, and giveaway items, and it should be linked to other relevant sites, such as state and regional agritourism associations.”

A farm Web site should also be used to announce and promote special events, Eckert says, and e-newsletters can be sent to e-mail lists to make people aware of farm events. “E-newsletters are the easiest, most cost-effective way to stay in touch with your customers.”

Social media such as Facebook and Twitter can be time-consuming, she says, “but they’re free and can be a means to build your brand; 59 percent of those in my farmer surveys say they’re on Facebook. The more connected you stay, the more repeat business you’ll get.”

Continuous marketing is “a must” for farm businesses, she says, and can include a wide range of methods, from brochures to newspaper/radio advertising and billboards.

“In today’s economy, when people are wanting to get the most from their dollar, promotion is more important than ever. You need to find creative ways to attract people to your operation and get them to part with their hard-earned cash.”

For those in agritourism, Eckert says, promotions can run the gamut from special days (Valentines, National Agriculture Day, Mother’s Day, Earth Day) to contests (best Halloween costume, baking contests) to classes and workshops and various events aimed at children and school groups.

“Be sure to keep local media informed of what’s happening on your farm — the kind of publicity they can give can be more effective and credible than paid advertising.

“Once you get people to your farm, it’s make-or-break time,” she says. “The experience they have while they’re there will determine whether they will return. You need to make sure you give every single person the best experience possible, whether it’s at 8 a.m. or 5 p.m.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com