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 that 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 are an excellent source for local goods, the virtual farmers market has become an even more convenient and easy buying option for both farmers and buyers. 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 CSAs, 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 pick. 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 Wednesday, 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.
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.
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 the 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 CSAs? 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.
Copyright © 2011, Maura White. All rights reserved.