Bringing the farmers market to the internet
The goal: Get more locals to eat local food
By J.M. HIRSCH
Concord Sunday Monitor
July 23, 2006 10:00AM
A blend of bandwidth and nature’s bounty is pulling one New Hampshire farmers market into the digital age.
It’s an effort by a small group of tech-savvy conservationists to make it easier for more people to eat more locally produced foods, and it may well indicate the future of the burgeoning farmers market industry.
"We decided if we want to strengthen our local agriculture, we have to buy from our local agricultural community, and we need to make that easier for people," says Sandra Jones, a coordinator of so-called Local Foods Plymouth.
To do that, the program borrowed the business model of online grocers such as FreshDirect.com and mixed it with the support-your-neighbor ethos of farmers markets.
How it works
Here’s how it works: Once a week, participating farmers tell the program’s coordinators what’s available - from baked goods and produce to maple syrup and dairy products - and how much they want to charge.
Consumers go online to place orders with a credit card. Farmers then deliver the items to Local Foods Plymouth’s booth at the town’s weekly farmers market, where shoppers pick them up packed and ready-to-go.
Not even two months old, the program already has several hundred members from nearby rural communities.
"Instead of buying a head of lettuce from California, you can buy it from a local farmer," says Ron Reynolds, a resident of Campton who has used the service since it was launched.
"And because of the technology, you can do your grocery shopping in your underwear," he says.
Farmers markets have proliferated during the past decade, more than doubling in number to 3,800. That is due in part to a growing national obsession with food and the oft-heard mantra to eat local and seasonal.
Not surprisingly, many farmers and markets are going online to extend their reach and give consumers more information about local producers and products. But online sales - especially from multiple farms - remain an anomaly.
Federal and industry officials who monitor farmers markets say they know of nothing similar to Local Foods Plymouth, though a Minnesota farmers market considered running an almost identical program three years ago.
In Madison, Wis., the soon-to-be launched GreenLeaf Market will allow consumers to shop local farmers online, but producers will still need to arrange deliveries to the buyers.
The idea for Local Foods Plymouth was born in January during a meeting of the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative, whose members gather monthly to discuss energy conservation.
When that month’s discussion came around to home energy use, members noted that food - as in trucking tomatoes from California and shipping grapes from Chile -consumes more energy than anything else.
Abby Holm, one of the project’s coordinators, says the obvious solution was to eat more locally produced foods.
A few months later, the group had secured $5,000 in state and federal grants and by June the project was live with more than 120 shoppers and a dozen farmers (all within a 30-mile radius of Plymouth) signed on.
Some of the farmers, including Carol Friedrich of Currier Brook Farm in Wentworth, also have booths at the town’s farmers market. But Friedrich says participation in the project has translated into more sales.
"We’re already doing better than our best days last year," says Friedrich, who sells eggs and baked goods. She also hopes the Web site will allow her to continue selling through the winter, long after the traditional market has closed.
Others, such as Brenda Caswell of McCrillis Hill Farm in Center Harbor, appreciate the program because it lets them sell at the market without having to stock and maintain a booth for several hours every week.
And that gives her more time to focus on her vegetables.
"The consumer is getting a fresher product," she says, indicating the scallions she was dropping off. "I just pulled these out of my garden and brought them over here. You can’t get fresher than that."
Local Foods, which is run by volunteers from the Energy Initiative and D Acres Farm, an educational farm in nearby Dorchester, doesn’t charge farmers for participation. The only fee is by PayPal for the credit-card transaction.
And for shoppers like Lindsey Santaniello, a Bridgewater resident who has used the service from the start, making sure her money goes to her neighbors matters.
"I’d rather spend my money here than Shop ’n Save," she says.