What is an online farmers’ market? It’s a brilliant blend of farmers’ market, community supported agriculture groups and electronic communication. It’s one more avenue to bring locally grown food to eager consumers.
The idea is not even a decade old, but is catching on all over the world. The concept is the brainchild of Eric Wagoner, a farmer and software developer in Athens, Georgia. He and a few fellow farmers started a collective in 2002 to sell quality food to area chefs. The idea of selling to chefs never succeeded, but he took his small core of a dozen or so household customers and focused on selling to families. Over the next five years, his dozen customers grew to 3,000. The LocallyGrown network is now in Canada, the United States and the Virgin Islands. What began and failed as an online food market to restaurants succeeded as an online food market to families.
How online farmers’ markets work
In 2007, Wagoner made the LocallyGrown.net software available to other markets, charging a fee to cover software and hosting costs. The philosophy still centers on local farmers and local pickup points. The concept to make it convenient for buyers to find locally grown produce and artisan foods is appealing to urban and rural communities. Additionally, the buyers support local farms with a guaranteed outlet for the farm’s products and fresh, sustainably grown food.
How does it work? Let’s use the Cumberland (Tennessee) Sustainable Farmers’ Market as an example. The subsite is Crossville.LocallyGrown.net. To become a member, you create an account on the sign-up page, and you then receive emails letting you know when the market is open and what products are available. You are free to order from any or all of the farmers and bakers.
Growers who would like to sell on Crossville.LocallyGrown.net fill out an application online to give the manager an idea of the producers’ growing or baking practices.
For now, the market only accepts farmers practicing sustainable farming and providing chemical-free products.
Producers prepare a short biography of themselves and their farming practices. They list their products, prices, photographs, recipes, and/or some type of description of the product. They also list amounts available. If an item sells out, it is posted as “Sold Out.”
All products are organized into categories. For example, the category of vegetables contains some 40 to 50 varieties (depending on the time of year). The buyer finds the vegetable she wants, clicks on the name, reads about it, fills in the quantity, and then clicks “add to cart.” She may then proceed to another selection or stop shopping. There are no minimum requirements.
The Crossville market opens at 3 p.m. Sunday and closes at 8 p.m. Tuesday. Customers are sent an email containing the products, prices and amounts available for sale. Buyers may log in to their accounts and make their selections. They do not pay for their items until pickup day on Thursdays. Every Wednesday, growers get a packing list showing them what they’ve “sold,” days before they have picked any produce. Buyers also receive a printout of their order.
Come Thursday, the designated pickup day, the market manager has the drop-off boxes ready and properly labeled at the designated “drop-off” point, which is in a parking lot near the new library. The sellers drop their orders into the correct box, and from 3 to 3:30, the customers arrive to pick up and pay for their orders.
When the online customers have paid for their orders, the market manager hands the grower a check. There are no membership fees. Buyers are charged an additional 7 percent to their total; sellers are charged a 3-percent fee. Any extra from these fees goes toward operation and management of the market.
The producers also set up a table on Thursdays to display their goods for the general public and to meet their customers. The double online and “on-site” farmers’ market is a great opportunity for customers to get to know their farmers.
Different from a CSA
How does this differ from a CSA (community supported agriculture)? The principal differences are:
- No required advance money for customer food shares.
- Customers are able to choose which foods they receive each week.
- No required weekly orders.
One of the obvious advantages of an online market is that the market is not affected by weather or time. Rain is a “market killer” for an actual farmers’ market, and farmers end up wasting a trip, and time. Some customers cannot go to a live farmers’ market until after work, and many times the selections have been picked over or sold out. Online ordering can eliminate some of that problem. Customers can order from the comfort of their homes, and farmers can sell from the comfort of theirs. Time and fuel are not wasted for either party. The farmer sets out with guaranteed sales, and the buyer travels to pick up a guaranteed order. In addition, customers and farmers may email each other if they have any questions.
A disadvantage of the online market is the loss of an on-site market’s festive mood — seeing, smelling and touching unknown foods, tasting samples, and impromptu cooking lessons.
The variety of products sold on an online market varies from market to market. The Crossville online market consists of about a half-dozen different producers: retired people growing small backyard gardens, active produce farms, artisan bakers, and one large certified-organic grassfed meat, cheese, milk and egg farm. The quality and variety of the products is excellent.
Conscientious farmers and bakers provide excellent fruits, vegetables, bedding plants, flowers, organic meats, cheese, milk products, eggs, jellies and jams, and artisan baked goods.
Farmers have always taken advantage of technological advancements, so for a farmers’ market to go virtual is consistent with their entrepreneurial spirit. It is a benefit to have another market to sell to, especially one that is so advantageous to both farmer and customer.
The additional venue for independent entrepreneurs increases their chances to sell their own products directly to consumers, a key component of a sustainable economy, particularly in economically challenged rural areas. Hopefully, both online and on-site farmers’ markets will continue to expand.