Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Twelve months of Social media

I have been trying for weeks to get a short post done to give my experience of using social media. The purpose of me looking at social media was for information gathering, promotion of my business and to learn how people around the world are using plants. I hoped also to generally understand trends and broaden my knowlege of day to day horticulture in other countries. This at least was my original motivation. So here is my post its not professionally written , its just my ramblings and in no way meant to be a tutorial so feel free to tell me where I am wrong please.
Gone are the days when the phone is your fastest and only sales tool.


Over the last ten years I have worked to develop our business from predominantly a Ireland UK sales based business to now selling our plants in 18 countries.
During these years I have been developing selecting and breeding some great plants to bring into our nursery business. In addition to these plants I am lucky enough to have some fantastic friends and colleagues in the industry around the world. Having great plants growing them well bulding all the resources we have built in the business has taken a lot of stress time energy and cost. As we all know working ones butt off doing ones best and what one feels is the right thing doesnt always feel good while observing the mayhem and ridiculous behavoir of established wiseguys and so called establishment over the last number of years. All of us in the horticulture world who try to make a living from it must compete with these pretty slick industries selling profitible non perisable products giving sometimes short lived instant but obvious gratification. Of course ours is not the only industry producing great products and not all products with very big marketing budgets are bad. So we have serious competiton for that dollar or euro. Year by year over the decades the bar has risen higher and its become more difficult for small businesses to access publicity and advertizing as good advertizing became more and more expensive.
So how on earth is some guy in the middle of nowhere Ireland going to tell people about these great plants. Now that we have done all the work getting them into production and physically out to far flung places such as Fresno and Watsonville California Angers in France various places in UK Germany Holland Japan Australia etc to be produced locally. Well the short answer is that we just had to hope it happened that people liked the plants and found out about them thorough some of the great people we deal with. Like our nursery these nurseries have to grow lots of varieties these days to stay in business and provide variety for the customer. Its not fair to expect our customers to be thinking of our plants every day. Advertizing isnt a possibility we simply right now dont have the budget for this but its chicken and egg, if we dont make the sales we will never have the budget. We have already spent money in our established markets on advertizing but no way can we do it in countries where we have no sales already as our industry does not give us that much profit that quickly and plants for some reason are not valued for longevity. Ahem maybe a pay by view system? In additon to these issues how do we know we are offereing what people in these countries like or want without a big budget to do market surveys using professional firms. For a small business like ours we just have to do our trade shows, try to put budgets aside for advertizing and hope for the best. In 2008 I travelled from San Diego to Bellingham Washington doing 2008 Pack trials on the way. I learned a lot but I didnt meet any of the retailers, landscape designers or got to chew over what they like or dislike with the very people who might use my plants. Well I guess this is why big companies get bigger and small companies take a lot of time unless they get some lucky breaks noting wrong with that we just got to work harder at it.

While reading the Sunday Business Post newspaper in January 2009 I saw an article about Social media. It described Twitter, Facebook, blogging and a few other platforms. I logged online took a look and reckoned yep it's for people with plenty of time on their hands who like to talk about what they ate for breakfast and liked to say 'yay' a lot. However being a nosey git I still signed up for Twitter account 'cos its free' I cant remember exact date but around the end of January 2009. Over the following weeks and months I checked in on it regularly looked at what was going on used it to post up pictures after a while. The main thing was information and seeing what others were doing. I found Facebook and did the same, started a blog connected them all together as its very simple and no course needed but in hindsight a course probably would have saved a lot of time. I already had and our brand website so at least there was some window people could look into to see what we do.
I have to say without intent to portray it as a virtue, Horticulture is more than a business to me, to put it simply, I like what I do when I am working and that is not nescessarily a virtue. This is an important point when interacting with people in horticulture as I believe most other people in the horticulture business are the same. Myself my wife Noirin and all our nursery and laboratory staff do really good work and thats what I tweet about and put up on Facebook. Its real its honest and its good so why hide it and its not as if millions are interested anyway but some like what we do and like our plants. As owner of the business I have responsiblility to the 35 staff we have and if I dont promote our plants every day then who will! So it was not so much a optional choice but a responsibility to use this medium where the alternatives were not an option.

So what is this stuff about. Two heads are better than one or do we need five?

Not having had marketing training i know one thing is certain. I am making hundreds of mistakes and possibly wasting a lot of time doing things on the cheap and the hard way. For me social media is about being 'sociable' like the local pub or golf course where you get to chat sometimes sort out problems or tell someone youre looking for a second hand forklift, or I need to find someone to landscape the garden or that guy I got the second hand forklift wouldnt know a donkeys tail from a Toyota so dont go near him or other such gems of wisdom. There is no point in trying to manipulate or be selfish with our actions just the same as it isnt good to use your friends without being available to give back if needed or if you see the opportunity without any obligation! If I do do that its by accident so I apologise in advance if thats not believed then I am doing something very wrong. Most of us dont expect anything back when we do a favour and like all giving it can feel better for the giver than the receiver. There are life long givers who simply love doing good are superhuman and are impossible to return kindness to in kind. I dont like to dwell on this part of the whole social media thing as it should be simply common sense to us all and its not measureable in any case as to some a small gesture is gold. I feel its just right to be concious and prepared to share, if you cant invest the time in interacting in this spirit then think about another way of telling people about your work or products.

Keeping up to date with all the tweets, posts and updates is not always easy brrrrrrrrr it makes me dizzy a lot of the time and in fact its impossible. This time of year for me its especially very hard to spend time checking out trends, whats happening and telling people about our business, pushing out other peoples information, shouting out what we are doing and what plants are going out now. This is where the iPhone came in it is in my opinion revoloutionary, some times on Sundays I take pictures of articles in the newspaper Tweet them or email them. This picture below from the farmers journal was just fun didnt take but a click and a tweet. Once I started using the IPhone in July 09 it became so easy to share stuff and thats simply what I do on Twtitter and facebook. Using IPhone I can upload visideso so go to here if tou want to know what I do there. Its not rocket science.

Over the months that followed using Twitter, Blogger and Facebook, things started happening. There are some amazing people on my Twitter followers list and they know who they are. Without singling out anyone I can assure you there are some very generous and good spirited people with genuine good will. This is my Twitter profile I want to take this opportunity to thank them all for the last 12 months education. I am a bit hit and miss at times right now but the gardening, designer and nursery community on Twitter and Facebook are exceptional and know no borders in the continent of Social Media. You can see some of their generous posts here.
Can I tell you what has been acheived to date for the business from my social media efforts. I cannot tell. Yet! I do know many hundreds of good horticulture people know more about our plants and our business than could ever have been possible.
Has this added to our bottom line? I havent a clue, right now we are having a very good sales season but cant tell if this would have been the case anyhow and has more to do with the hard work of staff and the things that have to be in a business with or without social media. I have not figured out a way for people to pay us just for a picture, tweet of our plants or talking about them :-).
Am I glad I use social medai as a buiness tool? Yes.
Do I feel it is a worthwhile investment in time? Yes but I probably should have done more formal training and analysis and maybe I will.
What advice would I give to someone new to social media trying to use it for their business? Keep the day job! Dont listen to me talk to a professional! The product must be the key and unless youre some real Einstien nobody is probably going to pay you for your opinions, most of the old rules apply. At least thats what I think.
Its a whole new area, I am not sure even the gurus know what they are talking about but I suspect its not such a new phenomenon just more public. The Sandwich board man or the guy holding the arrow to a shop down a back street or the blimp may be just simplified versions of social media.
Maybe if you just make a good product people will seek you out. However these days there are lots of people making products just as good as yours or on the high street making lesser products but much more accessible or better known and trusted. Tune in next year and if I am around I might know more.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Sweet Potato Planting 2010

Sweet Potato Planting 2010.
Kildalton College of Horticulture, Piltown Co, Kilkenny.

After our successful trial of Sweet Potato at Kildalton College in 2009 organised by Mr Jim Kelliher Senior Nursery Advisor with Teagasc we have gone back for a much larger trial this year. Unfortunately this time Jim was not with us to do the planting. I am very sure however Jim will be with us to harvest the resulting crop and myself and Dermot Callaghan on left in the picture here look forward to this event. Without the input and drive of Jim the 2010 trials on sweet potato growing would not have gone ahead. I wish to take this opportunity to thank Jim for getting the trials to this stage.

Today we planted 5 rows at 1 metre centres with 30 cm between plants so 400 plants in total have gone into the trial. This trial will give us a fair indication of the value and return from Sweet potato growing in greenhouse conditions in Ireland. The purpose of this further trial is to asses the viability of this crop commercially and promote this wonderful healthy vegetable as an alternative commercial crop for organic and amateur gardeners. This crop will be grown using organic methods therefore no fungicides, insecticides or herbicides will be used in the production. The trial will continue until September / October 2010 at which point we hope to harvest a wonderful crop of sweet potato. In addition to my last blog piece please see here information on our trial in 2009
During the planting I overheard a student in the greenhouse next door say something about the first time he came into the greenhouse. This sparked my memory back to when I came into the greenhouse as a student at Kildalton. I suddenly realized to my shock, it had been almost exactly 30 years since I first set foot in this greenhouse. Michael Minihan RIP and Michael Conlon RIP were part of the lecurer team there at the time, both wonderful guys but both sadly passed away before their time. The glasshouse where so many hundreds of students have learned their first lessons in Horticulture took on a slightly different meaning bringing memories and echos of past afternoons into the mix of humans and plants. Myself and Dermot "perspried" in the heat of the greenhouse on a wonderful May day. I couldnt help remebering 30 yr old trickling beads of sweat on Michael Minihans red complexion as he tried to explain some salient Chrysanthemum growing tip. During that period in the early eighties it seems to me there was more experimentation hope and expectation from horticulture even though the economy was even worse than it is today. Hopefully the powers that fund Horticulture in Ireland can take a step back and ask should we have drifted away. Maybe we can go some way back to those times and invest more in the real skills of Horticulture and plant science which have serious economic and social values that may have been forgottten for a while. I do believe we have lost some of our hunger and drive from those times and we need to direct resources back towards skills like Horticulture before it becomes more difficult to do so.
Finally back to the sweet potato. Just as myself and Dermot had finished planting the very last cutting Mr Jim Mahoney Head of Horticulture with Teagasc dropped in. Jim on left with Mr Brian Lyons Glasshouse section Manager at Kildalton as you can imagine was dissapointed having missed helping with the planting. We however were delighted to assure Jim that we will not forget him when the spuds need to be harvested in the Autumn. We expect to have plenty of help on hand for that occasion when the proof of the pudding will be in the eating!