How Digital Tools Have Revolutionized Illinois Apple Orchards

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During the last century, many technologies have changed the way farmers grow and distribute food: the railroad system, cold storage and the internet, to name a few. The last decade, however, has proved especially fruitful as orchards around Illinois harness digital tools to grow their business and better market their products, ranging from apples to peaches to sunflowers.

Photo credit: Michael D. Tedesco

Take Don Wenzel, owner of Donnie Appleseed Orchard in LaSalle, for example. He and his wife, Wendy, planted apple trees a decade before they planned to retire, and by the time they did in 2012, they had enough of a crop to do one farmers’ market. Every year since, they’ve steadily added something new to their operation, now raising more than a dozen apple varieties along with 5 acres of garden produce, such as beets, beans, tomatoes and squash. As their offerings have grown, so, too, have their sales, steadily increasing year over year.

Learning to Utilize Facebook

“In large part, the increase we’ve enjoyed is due to social media,” says Wenzel, noting Facebook is the top platform for business. “It’s so easy to use and doesn’t take up any of our time, really.” Wenzel frequently will post photos when he’s out in the orchard, a process that takes him less than a minute but has a big payoff when it comes to growing his business.

Beyond just posting photos and engaging with customers, Wenzel has also gotten savvy with Facebook ads. While initially self-taught, he took a few classes at a local community college and participated in a social media training program through a local business development agency to grow his skillset.

Don and Wendy Wenzel working on their digital marketing at their fruit stand in between customers. LaSalle County Farm Bureau members Don and Wendy Wenzel run a 100-acre, third-generation family farm called Donnie Appleseed Orchard, which has 250 apple trees along with 5 acres of fresh produce, including garlic, onions, green beans and tomatoes. They sell their produce at three area farmers markets, as well as their farm/orchard. What makes them stand out from the crowd is how they communicate with their customers – and broaden their reach – using social media. Their email newsletter offers coupons and provides recipes using in-season produce, and they use an app called FarmFan that lets customers get real-time updates on market days about produce availability, and also offers loyalty discounts. They’re also active on Facebook and Pinterest.

Photo Credit: Michael D. Tedesco

Wenzel’s Facebook ad strategy involves homing in on a geographic area – usually a 25- to 30-mile radius from the farm – as well as targeting people who have an interest in eating healthy and who are physically fit.

“This enables us to focus on specific customers who might be interested in what we’re doing,” says Wenzel, “and it really, really works.” It’s also an inexpensive tool; he usually runs a three-day ad for $5 a day and gets excellent “bang for his buck,” he says, noticing increased traffic to the orchard from the ads.

See more: Awesome Apple Recipes

SEO and Text-Messaging Apps

Another tool Wenzel relies on is Google. He says he bought into domain registrant site GoDaddy’s SEO program several years ago, which taught him how to incorporate keywords throughout his website to maximize Donnie Appleseed’s searchability.

“I always ask people, ‘How did you hear about us?’ and it’s always that they Googled it and we were the first one that came up, or they saw us on Facebook,” Wenzel says.

One more recent addition to Wenzel’s bag of tricks is a text-messaging system called FarmFan. If a customer opts in, they can receive text messages from the orchard letting them know what farmers’ markets they’ll be at that particular week and what produce will be available.

“It’s all automated, and more of a reminder than anything else,” Wenzel says. Through FarmFan, he says he’s experienced nearly a 100% open rate, compared to only about 20% open rates on email. He finds it to be a more efficient and effective method than sending out email newsletters or blogging on the orchard’s website.

Digital tools have allowed Wenzel’s business to reap big rewards with little investment and few resources.

“It takes less than a minute to manage each of these and really pays off in getting our name out there,” Wenzel says, “[yet] it really doesn’t get in the way of fieldwork.”

Digital Tools for Events and Labor

Photo credit: Michael D. Tedesco

About 300 miles directly south of Donnie Appleseed Orchard, in Alto Pass, lies another farm, Rendleman Orchards, that’s also growing by leaps and bounds, thanks to digital tools. Started in 1873, the now 800-acre farm is run today by the fifth generation. Traditionally, the family marketed its harvest – which includes peaches, nectarines, apples and a few vegetables like zucchini and cucumbers – through methods including newspaper and radio ads. Yet in the last few years, they’ve utilized a new set of tools that have made a dramatic impact on their business.

“Social media has completely changed our retail operation,” says Michelle Sirles, who runs the orchard with her husband, Wayne. The farm was handed down on his grandmother’s side. “What it’s allowed us to do is build a stronger brand and actual relationships with our customers, even those that are far away.”

Through platforms like Facebook and Instagram, Sirles says they are able to communicate not only what physical products they have for sale, but also who they are, what their family is about and the mission of their farm. In the past, they’ve done posts profiling team members and share daily photos of what’s happening on the farm, both with produce and people.

“People are hungry for what’s happening on the farm these days,” Sirles says. “Generations ago, everybody had a connection to a family farm, but in today’s society, very few people [do].”

In addition to creating a narrative about Rendleman Orchards, social media has also been critical to receiving feedback on what customers want and what they should do more of – and even things they should let go of – to stay as relevant as possible, she adds.

For example, last year, Sirles decided to organize a “blossom walk,” during which she’d lead a tour through the apple orchards. They planned it only two days in advance, yet thanks to creating an event on Facebook and sharing it through multiple social channels, they had about 40 people show up for the walk.

The Sirles family has also relied on technology for another aspect of their business: hiring help for hands-on production. Facing challenges finding local laborers, they are now in their fourth consecutive year participating in the government’s H-2A program for bringing in temporary agricultural workers from foreign nations. Though the regulations and red tape are cumbersome, and the program is expensive, Sirles says the positive aspects of the program have been enabling them to increase their production and the incredibly hard-working, nice people they’ve employed through H-2A.

“They add a lot to what we do here and fit in great,” she says.

See more: Apple Facts and Recipes for the Fall Harvest

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