When Gary Carmichael moved from dairying to commercial hay growing more than a decade ago, he quickly figured he'd need more than traditional marketing methods to be a success.

“We could see that, as a society, we were gradually moving to a new generation of people who go to the Web first for their communication needs. We decided that having our own Web site was the way to go,” says Carmichael, Evart, MI. He markets alfalfa and alfalfa-grass hay from 2,000 acres to dairies, beef producers and horse owners in Michigan and neighboring states.

Last year, www.carmichaelfarms.com had more than 4,000 visits and 11,000 page views. Carmichael's son, Kevin, developed the Web site, which carries general business information, a description of the types of hay produced, pages devoted to photos and videos of the farm, contact information, links to other hay and agriculture sites and more.

“In just an average year, we'll end up getting a lot of calls, especially at the height of the growing season,” says Gary. “Two years ago, when there was a hay shortage in many areas, we were getting 10-15 calls a day.” Some sales are made to customers as far away as Missouri, New Jersey and Florida.

Part of Carmichael's Web-site success was having a son with computer and business savvy. Kevin Carmichael now runs a Web application consulting firm, KCTechnologies, Inc., in Lansdale, PA (KC-Web.com) and is the founder of AgriHayExchange.com, an online hay-listing service. He and several other professional site developers who've built Web sites for hay-growing clients agreed to share their thoughts on how to get the most from a business Web site. Even if you opt to hire development duties, their tips will give you working knowledge of the process:

Make the site easy to find

Having the best hay-marketing Web site ever won't do much good if people can't find it, says Kevin Carmichael.

“If someone goes to a search engine like Google and types in ‘hay for sale,’ or ‘hay wanted,’ you want to make sure your site is on the first two or three pages that come up,” he says. “If you're not, chances are people will never get to your page because they've already found what they were looking for on another site.”

A good Web developer will know how to use tools like key words, reciprocal links and sponsored ads to make sure your site can be found.

Make a good first impression

“Once you get people to your site, you want to keep them there,” says Kevin Carmichael. The Carmichael Farms site starts with a Flash Media slideshow highlighting haying, raking, etc. The farm business phone number is also prominently displayed.

“The whole idea with the home page is to let people get to know you a little better. If you can make them comfortable there, they'll be more likely to click on to the other pages.”

Keep things simple

Don't pack too much into your Web site, advises Danielle Reith, Hadley, MN. Reith, a graphics designer for a communications company, develops Web sites for local businesses in her spare time. Her first client was her dad, Kevin Nelson, owner of Nelson Hay Company in Hadley, MN (www.nelsonhayco.com).

“If you have too much text or too many pictures on the front page, it can get overwhelming for someone visiting the site,” says Reith. “If the front page isn't quick loading or easy to navigate, visitors will lose interest quickly.”

She also favors using traditional typefaces for text. “Remember that people of all different ages will be coming to your site,” she notes. “A font that's too fancy can be difficult to read, especially for older people.”

Be straightforward

“If your customer base is mostly other farmers, you probably don't want or need to load the site up with a lot of glitz and glitter,” says Jordan McGowen, a Beaver Crossing, NE, farmer who does Web-site development as a sideline business called McGowen Computer Services.

He works on about two sites a month. One of his clients is Stock Hay Company (stockhay.com) in Murdock, NE.

“Most farmers don't have a lot of extra time to spend at computers sorting through a lot of extras on your site. Go with a straightforward approach. Tell them enough about yourself and your business to make them feel comfortable with you. Then make sure that they can find your contact information quickly and easily.”

Project a professional image

Incorporating photographs and videos to show your farming operation is good strategy. But be selective, says Jennifer Reinford, founder of LocalEquineServices.com, a Web site geared toward helping horse owners find hay, bedding material and other products within specific geographic locations. She also does Web-site design work for other businesses.

“You see a lot of sites where the photos and videos look like an afterthought or a last-minute project,” says Reinford, of Boyertown, PA. “High-quality photos will project an image of professionalism.”

For more tips on developing a Web site, check out “Internet Strategies To Improve Farm Business Management,” an online learning tool developed by USDA's Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service. You'll find it at tinyurl.com/InternetTool.

A Classified Option To Web-Site Marketing

For years, Davis, IL, hay grower Don Brown relied on traditional print advertising to reach customers in northern Illinois and Wisconsin.

A year ago, he placed an ad on the Rockford, IL, edition of Craigslist.org. “I didn't really know what to expect,” Brown says. “But about 20 minutes after the ad appeared, I had sold two semi loads of hay. Both of the sales were within an hour of home.”

As part of an overall marketing strategy, Brown combines his use of Craigslist ads with listings on the Illinois Department of Agriculture's online Hay and Straw Directory (www.agr.state.il.us/markets/hay) and the University of Wisconsin's Farmer-To-Farmer crops marketing Web site (farmertofarmer.uwex.edu).

“Like everybody else, we're trying to watch what we're spending on advertising more closely. These sites give us a way to reach a few more people at no cost.”

He also continues to run print ads in regional farm newspapers and magazines. He's just more selective about when and where he places the ads. “We try to do some more research up front to target areas where there's likely to be more demand for what we have.”

For other Internet marketing options, see Internet Marketing Resources.