Delvin Farms: The Business

September 1, 2010

Until about 10 years ago, the Delvins sold most of their vegetables to produce warehouses. “They didn’t care if it was organic or not,” Cindy tells me, speaking of the distributors who would then sell their produce to grocery stores and restaurants around the country. “They just wanted food.” So after receiving their organic certification, it was time, they thought, for a more hands-on approach.

Around 2000, they started a CSA as a way to sell directly to people. The only problem: they didn’t really know what they were doing. “We didn’t know how to do it and we didn’t know what to do because nobody would share information,” Cindy explains. The Delvins and Jeff Poppen were the first CSAs in Tennessee, so needless to say, there weren’t all that many people from which to learn. And those around the country who did have the knowledge, were skeptical to share it. Farming, in certain ways, is a business just like any other, everyone constantly aware of the competition.

So with a fair amount of online research and a bit of blind faith, the Delvins figured it out. The first year they started out with 25 members and ended the season with 125, all through word of mouth advertising. Now, they have more than 800 participants. And learning from their own struggles of trying to do it alone, they have since trained nearly every CSA in town on the logistics of such an undertaking.

There is a lot that goes into a CSA box. Most importantly is knowing how much to plant so as not to come up short halfway through the season. “Keep planting,” Cindy says. “If you plant one patch of squash, you’ve got to have another one coming behind that in two weeks.” Also part of the concept: the varieties of vegetables, how much to pick each day to avoid having too much or too little, pricing, locations for customer pick up, and ultimately, how to make that box look beautiful for existing members, as well as enticing for those who’ve not yet signed up.

Word of mouth advertising has definitely played a key role in the growth of Delvin Farms. The restaurants, grocery stores, schools; nearly all of that business has been generated through the grapevine. But that form of advertising is usually the result of all the little things added up; the details that might skirt the edges of your periphery and sometimes even go unnoticed. Yet those are the things that stick with a person over time; the cheery tablecloths, bountiful baskets of produce, an open and inviting booth, great customer service; each a key ingredient in customer satisfaction, and something technology can never replace.

Yet technology, for all its pluses and minuses, has been an incredibly important tool for generating new business, especially at the farmers markets. “Social networking is the new word-of-mouth and can happen in seconds instead of days and weeks,” says Amy Delvin. Amy regularly updates the Delvin Farms Facebook page, which has 1710 fans, with reminders of upcoming markets or their featured products for the day. Her posts are good-humored and personable, giving the reader a small glimpse into day-to-day farm life. At the moment, she only has 17 followers on Twitter, a bit of a difference from Facebook, but has recently linked Twitter to her phone so she can easily update via text, “Even as I’m harvesting!”

Last week, while out in the apple orchard, Amy “tweeted” that she was picking apples for the East Nashville Farmers Market. Soon after, she noticed on Facebook that East Nashville Local had written this entry: “Our Twitter sources tell us that Delvin Farms is picking Liberty and Gala apples for today’s East Nashville Farmers Market.” Later that day at the market, “In a very short time I was sold out of the apples I picked because people saw my tweet and came specifically for them!” That is a remarkable return on the 10 second investment it took to write a couple sentences.

That’s the thing about social networking, the larger the online community, the more people you have helping get the word out there. If people support your business, they’re going to tell their friends, it’s just that nowadays, that number could hover around 500. The Delvins use this marketing tool to expand their customer base, but it will never replace that which ultimately got them to this point: great customer service and a high quality, consistent product; two things they have cared deeply about since day one and will continue to be their top priorities for years to come.

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