Virtual Farmers Markets – The Future

Reader Contribution by Maura White

A Farmers Market of Another Kind:  The Virtual Kind!

Americans are flocking to farmers markets for locally grown food
because of the concern for and awareness of the origin of our food, as
well as the concern for chemicals in our food chain.  And the next
evolution of the local farmers market is the VIRTUAL FARMERS MARKET. It
gives the buyer the ultimate convenience of ordering from home.  While
the buyer might think that it would limit the choices, the opposite is
actually true.  The ability to shop different farms and producers from
home and see what is actually in season within a 50 mile radius of your
home ensures that you are eating fruits and vegetables grown right in
your community.  Within those growers, you can choose the level of
chemicals you are comfortable having in your foods, from certified
organic to modern conventional levels for pest and weed control.

Over the past 60 years, Americans have embraced the post-World War II
boom of advancements which led to conveniences like big box grocery
stores, inventions like chemical sprayers and new irrigation systems,
and chemicals that are too numerous to list, along with all their side
effects.  But now they are showing a desire and willingness to move back
to pre-World-War II growing practices that assure that the food they
are eating and feeding their families is as chemical-free as possible.

While farmers markets and CSAs (community supported agriculture) are an excellent source for local
goods, the virtual farmers market has become an even more convenient and
easy buying and selling option for both farmers and their customers.  As a customer, you
don’t have to be at the farmers market first thing in the morning to get
the best produce.  You don’t have to brave the hot summer sun to browse
the foods that you want for the coming week. Unlike with CSA’s, which
give you whatever produce has been grown for the week, the buyer is
fully in charge of the food they will be receiving.  For the farmers,
there will be no more midnight picking the night before the market to
ensure having enough product, because with this virtual farmers market
program, since everything is pre-ordered, you know exactly how much to harvest.  One farmer sang the praises of his local virtual farmers market: 
he picks, washes and dries, packs and labels all at once according to
the printout that is sent to him, so that when he comes in from the
field, he is ready to load and deliver to the market.

How does it work, exactly?  Farmers list their items in the virtual
market, even being able to say how many of an item he has on hand.  The
market manager opens the market on Sunday by sending out an e-mail to
the clients, and buyers can purchase goods from Sunday through Tuesday,
at which time the market ‘closes.’  On Tuesday night the market manager
sends an e-mail to the farmers, showing the number goods that have been
sold, listed by item and quantity, with the purchasers name listed.  The
grower can then print labels to attach to the package of goods.  The
goods are delivered to the market at an appointed delivery time.  And
the buyers come and pick up their items!

Getting to know the farmers that actually produce the food can be one
benefit of physical farmers markets.  Virtual markets offer that also: 
a customer can order directly from a specific farmer that they prefer. 
The virtual farmers markets can weed out peddlers that sometimes
infiltrate the physical farmers markets and push the boundaries of the
rules of farmers markets just as well as physical farmers markets, which
was a concern for some customers.  Since sellers cannot list their
products without the market manager’s approval, there is still total
control.

Eric Wagoner of Athens, Georgia, came up with the idea a few years
ago.  An astrophysicist by education and software developer by trade, he
became frustrated with the selling process when he started selling his
own produce at the local farmers market.  He wrote the program, called
locallygrown.net, perfected it through several changes, and opened his
virtual farmers market in Athens, Georgia in 2002.

Eric Wagoner, founder of LocallyGrown.net

He started with approximately 6 growers and now has over 100 farmers selling at the market.

Eric says of his market, Athens.locallygrown.net, “My Athens market
has combined weekly sales of $8,000 to $12,000 (depending on the
season). The growers chip in 10% as their “table fee” to sell through
the market, and the largest chunk of that goes to cover food allowances
for our volunteers. We need eight to twelve volunteers each week,
working for five+ hours. The volunteers come from the entire market
membership, growers and customers included. We were able to offer the
food credit from day one, but it did take a few years to grow to the
point where we needed labor beyond my wife and I. Being the first
internet farmers market (as far as I know), we didn’t have a model to
follow, so we initially grew very slowly. Most new markets now grow much
more quickly than we did, since they generally don’t have to make
things up as they go.”

John Erdmann of Christiana, Tennessee, is the market manager of
Stones River Virtual Farmers Market (stonesriver.locallygrown.net) who
uses the Locally Grown Virtual Market software.  He started his market 4
years ago and it has grown now to over 700 customers.

John Erdmann of StonesRiverLocallyGrown.net

He works a ‘real’ job in Information Technology all week long, but
says that the ease of use of the program makes it possible for him to
run the market and make two deliveries a week, one in Murfreesboro, TN
and one in Nashville TN.  He says his customers are extremely happy with
their purchases and that he’s never had a customer complain about the
produce, the grower, or the prices.  If anything, he’s been told by many
customers that the 5% table fee that he charges the customer is not
enough.

John gives some advice on how to get started:  “First, you need to
have farmers who BELIEVE that it is the thing of the future.  Next,
start small.  And lastly, be aware of and encourage the relationships
between the growers, the customers, and the manager.  If you don’t have a
relationship, then it is just a grocery-store mentality purchase.”

Eric Wagoner says that the growth of a market is limited only by the
space needed for customer pick-up.  He has over 100 growers right now,
and has turned some away due to space limitations.

Will this make traditional farmers markets obsolete?  Absolutely
not.  However, does this open a new venue for farmers to sell their
goods and give buyers even more options than the traditional farmers
markets and CSA’s?  Absolutely!  Is this the future of farmers markets? 
It is definitely part of our future as farmers and consumers, and a
welcome part.

The Virtual Farmers Market has evolved out of Eric Wagoner’s imagination, stepped out of cyberspace, and is here to stay.

– Maura White grew up on the Pacific Coast in a sleepy beach town and
has lived all over the country, as well as in Asia.  What a change it
was for her to move to the country and she uses humor to help her make the adjustment.  She and her
husband are working to make their farm, Double Star Bar Farms, a
successful family farm. She keeps busy with her stained glass business,
which you can check out at
www.southernstainedglass.com.  You can read more of her stories at whitem4.wordpress.com. She keeps saying “You can take the girl away from
the ocean, but you can’t take the ocean out of the girl!”

Copyright © 2011, Maura White. All rights reserved.

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