Online Tool Gives Sustainable Farmers Competitive Advantage
July 27, 2011 | Marissa Lee
WesMar Farms is one of two licensed goat dairies in Louisiana. Marketing their fresh goat milk, cheese and seasonal produce can be an obstacle for this sustainable family farm, Marguerite Constantine said.
“I am not a large company. I don’t have a big advertising budget. I can’t afford an ad agency or a PR person,” she explained. “My resources are limited not only by time, but money.”
When MarketMaker, a free online tool designed to link agricultural supply chain players, came to Louisiana in 2010, Constantine was quick to create an account. She said that it was “tailor-made” for her small farm’s market research and advertising needs.
Constantine is one of thousands of local and sustainable small farmers who use MarketMaker. The tool gives small and midsize producers access to geographic and demographic information that allows them to connect with buyers and find new markets for goods.
Sustainable farmers have a “competitive advantage” on MarketMaker because buyers can single out growers based on specific agricultural practices, Darlene Knipe, one of the founders of MarketMaker, explained.
MarketMaker, which was created by the University of Illinois Extension, launched in Illinois in 2004 with support from the USDA. It was originally developed as an online marketing tool to provide farmers in the state with increased access to regional markets by connecting them with retailers, consumers, processors and other food supply chain participants. MarketMaker has since expanded and been adopted by additional states, including Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and the District of Columbia.
Farmers, food businesses, the federal government, land-grant institutions and other public and private sources provide the information that goes into MarketMaker’s database, Knipe said. The database is extensive and contains nearly 500,000 profiles of farmers and other food related enterprises as well as a vast collection of searchable food industry related data.
State funding, grants from the USDA and grants and contributions from other organizations fund MarketMaker, Knipe explained. Any business in the food industry within a MarketMaker state can create a page and post in the buy and sell forum for free.
How it works
Each state’s MarketMaker website contains a business directory that allows anyone from large businesses to consumers to search for farms based on the type of food produced, including grains, meat, poultry and vegetables. They can narrow their searches to focus, for example, on farms that engage in sustainable agriculture, do not grow genetically modified crops or are pesticide free. Pinpoints on a map of the state identify the location of each farm.
Farmers in turn use the same business directory to search for buyers, or any business related to food, including, grocery stores, bakeries, caterers and wineries. Farmers can then narrow their search to buyers who prefer locally grown or organic food.
MarketMaker gives farmers with unique products the chance to “get noticed,” Knipe said. “Our goal is to provide democratic access to markets,” she added.
It also gives small farms that target local farmers markets the ability to access regional buyers, if circumstances do not permit selling goods near home, University of Illinois professor Richard Weinzierl explained.
“Not everything ripens on Thursday, picks on Friday and sells on Saturday,” Weinzierl said. “MarketMaker allows a buyer to identify a group of small growers, each of whom might not be big enough to meet his needs, but together they do.”
Buyers and sellers can also use the data that MarketMaker provides to make important business decisions. The tool allows users to overlay census data and other demographic information on state maps containing the locations of farms and food businesses. Maps might show areas of a state that have a large population under the age of 18 or numerous households with high income. Users can look at a specific county’s food preferences to see which neighborhoods have populations that spend a lot of money on baked goods or buying lunches.
Constantine explained that she used these tools to identify neighborhoods in the New Orleans area that had a high number of convenience stores, but no supermarkets. A neighborhood with a low income population unable to travel to far to grocery stores might welcome a farmer’s market selling her fresh figs and Feta cheese.
Each state website also has a link to a national buy and sell forum. Farmers can post ads for products that they wish to sell and buyers can search for specific goods. There are also listings for agricultural equipment and transportation services.
“If you’ve got a field full of bell peppers, instead of just calling people, post it,” Constantine said. “Someone will be looking for bell peppers.”
Sustainable farmer Dennis Knutson of Knutson Country Farms in Newark, Illinois said that he has posted ads on the buy and sell forum, but did not get the number of responses he expected. Still, he will continue to use MarketMaker and said it was a “good tool.”
Knipe noted that they are looking into several fee based revenue models for the future, but do not ever intend to charge individuals to find one another.
MarketMaker efforts to expand into sectors like horticulture and timber are already underway, Knipe said. It could eventually go international.
Weinzierl said he saw MarketMaker playing a role in future efforts to get locally grown foods to move beyond the farmers markets visited by elites and into low income communities. Constantine said MarketMaker has the potential to create a more knowledgeable customer base.
“Right now, Louisiana does not have the culture or mindset of buy local or buy fresh,” she said. “I see MarketMaker as one of the tools to educate a lot of the consumers, to inform them about what’s actually available.”