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Jan 28, 2011 11:14AM

The digital farmer: Small-scale growers connect with others online

Sharon Wren
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Gary Krambeck / staff
Aprillynn Weber of Davenport reads local farmer blogs on the web.
More photos from this shoot
When she found out both her daughters would be moving to the Quad-Cities, Aprillynn Weber decided it was time for her to move, too. Her son-in-law and future son-in-law had both been transferred to the Arsenal. From her home in New Jersey, she began an Internet search to find a place to live and turned up a whole lot more.

"I'm a farmers' market kind of person, I shop from the farmers' market whenever I can so I wanted to keep doing that," she explains. Her search led her to the Davenport Freight House Farmers' Market blog and she followed links to other blogs from there. "I Googled 'Quad-Cities' and got into sites from downtown Davenport. We were looking for apartments and that led in different directions, too. You see the lists of friends and comments on a site and you go 'Oh, they do goat cheese,' and go from there. It's like putting a pebble in the water and following the ripples."

She began corresponding with some of the farmers she found online, who eventually turned into friends. "It was a nice way to find my way around before I got here. I've been to the farmers market and met a few of them already. I walked up to Corinne (Champainle Rasso, from Crosswind Farms; crosswindsfarm.blogspot.com) and said, 'Hello, Sheepie neighbor, I'm April!' They hug me like they've known me for years."

One of the blogs Weber first found was "Miss Effie's Diary," a chronicle kept by Cathy Lafrenz of life on her flower farm outside of Donahue, Iowa. Lafrenz describes her blog as "a way of writing a diary or journaling, a way of venting frustrations, sharing the fears and celebrating the victories that we all have in farming. I have extended it to areas that are more personal than just farming -- my faith, health and insurance concerns, once in a while politics. But that is what homesteading is all about, a well-rounded life."

Soon after starting her blog, Lafrenz had many regular readers, and not all of them from the Quad-Cities. "I have a regular reader from Portugal, one from Brazil and several followers from Canada. I have to laugh when we talk 'nearly-naked canning' in the summer, Southeast Asia lights up!"The blogging isn't just a way to vent and brag; it's also a way to interact with her customers and share her experience with others."I really love the relationship they have with the farm; it is part of their family, too," says Lafrenz. "Many farm bloggers have found that our readers have a vested interest in the success or failure of our farm. It has been a way to educate people on growing food, raising livestock, baking bread or canning."

Lafrenz is part of a growing trend among small-scale farmers who are turning to the Internet to connect with their customers. According to the most recent census conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 57 percent of farmers now have Internet access, a significant increase from the last time such data was collected. This coincides with another notable agricultural trend. For the first time in more than a century, the number of farms on American soil is growing. More people are getting into farming than getting out of it.

Of course, starting a farm is no easy feat, and many of these new farmers face unique challenges. The census data reveals the new farms -- nearly 300,000 strong -- tend to be smaller, grow a wider range of crops and have lower sales volume.Unlike their larger, more established counterparts growing corn or soybeans, these farms may need to develop a customer base for the specialty crops they raise. Through their own blogs and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, these farmers are able to reach out to customers interested in knowing how their food was raised and share with them the farm experience.

Lafrenz runs into her fans occasionally while traveling and is still surprised by their reactions. "I think it's thrilling, humbling and embarrassing all at the same time. I know I share too much with my readers, so literal strangers know everything that is happening in downtown Donahue. But I also know that I have built a family of strangers, friends that I connect within seconds of actually meeting. My husband (Cliff) is known as Honey in the blog. And when we go somewhere, he is regularly called Honey by all sorts of people!

"One of my favorite stories is when I called a fiber mill and explained that I needed some brightly colored roving (fiber to spin into yarn) for my little on-farm retail store and they asked, 'Is this Miss Effie?' You could have knocked me down with a feather on that one!"Blogging has become more than just sharing stories of Miss Effie's; it's a way to reach out to the world and find others who are doing the same thing. "Sometimes you can feel extremely isolated when you live a homesteading-based lifestyle," says Lafrenz. "The lifestyle is considered odd by many. It is different than just farming; homesteading is based on total self-sufficiency and sustainability. The connection across states' borders and across the country makes me feel like I fit in, at least somewhere."It also inspires me. My friend Maggie made mozzarella cheese once. I thought if Maggie can make cheese I should be able to. So I researched it, tried it, failed, tried again, got better and finally made really good cheese. So now I teach cheese making classes. All from a little note on Maggie's blog (girlwithasword.blogspot.com) that she had made cheese."These days, many of Lafrenz's readers who want to live a similar lifestyle find inspiration in her blog. "Occasionally I'll get questions through the blog, but more often those that really want to get started will come out to the farm. Through the blog, it's more specific questions. 'My chickens quit laying, why?' or 'My mozzarella was a failure, what did I do wrong?' "

When Weber finally arrived at the Quad-Cities, both she and Lafrenz were eager to meet after months of online correspondence. Did the Lafrenz in real life match what Weber had imagined while reading Miss Effie's Diary?

"She was even better in person," says Weber. "There was no feeling of not having known her. All the farmers' market people I met online were that way, like people I already knew."

Blogs worth reading

Want to start reading farm blogs? Aprilynn Weber and Cathy Lafrenz suggest their favorites:
  • Crosswinds Farm: crosswindsfarm.blogspot.com
  • Miss Effie's Diary: misseffiesdiary.blogspot.com
  • Beyond the Blue Gate (Blue Gate Farm): beyondthebluegate.blogspot.com
  • Brazy Creek Farm: brazycreekfarm.blogspot.com
  • The Renegade Farmer: therenegadefarmer.com
  • Adventures in Wonderland: girlwithasword.blogspot.com
  • Antiquity Oaks: antiquityoaks.blogspot.com
  • Farm Genevieve: farmgenevieve.blogspot.com
  • Front Porch Indiana: frontporchindiana.blogspot.com

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