To Help Small Farmers Meet City’s Demand, Online Startup Directly Connects Local Farms to Buyers
March 27, 2013 | Melonie Magruder
Farmers Web is an 18-month-old start-up that aims to link local farms with local buyers through a wholesale “management tool,” and vibrant online marketplace that allows you to “shop and sell local online, anytime.”
The brainchild of co-founder and CEO, Jennifer Goggin, Farmers Web was born in downtown Manhattan from decidedly non-bucolic roots.
“I went into finance after college (Columbia University – political science), but my heart just wasn’t in it,” Goggin said. “So we decided that promoting small agriculture was something we could grab hold of.”
What Farmers Web (Goggin and two colleagues who were long time friends) aims to do is connect small to mid-size farmers within 300 miles of New York City directly with buyers, obviating the need for a middleman wholesaler.
Suppliers outside of the city cannot always deal directly with the multitude of restaurants, institutions and small grocers that usually make their purchases from a wholesale market in lower Manhattan. And those buyers cannot always take the time to research local farmers within delivery distance.
Farmers Web connects suppliers and buyers through an online website that lets participating farmers show what produce is available and at what price, and buyers can shop from the ease of their desktop. Farmers Web provides the service for a five percent transaction commission and there is no signup or subscription fee.
Goggin said that contributing to a sustainable living zeitgeist was definitely part of their effort.
“No one was doing anything like this,” she said. “We were starting from scratch and it took more than a year to build the initial website. The coding is difficult.”
But she was acutely aware of the limited options Manhattan shops and restaurants had when it comes to “going green” by narrowing the carbon footprint of supplier to buyer. Most restaurants haven’t the time or manpower to track basic inventories and rely on wholesale centers in the city. Farmers Web allows them the luxury of shopping a multitude of suppliers, as well as exotic offerings and artisanal specialties, found through the site’s search engine.
Need some purple kohlrabi? A few clicks and it’s done. The website also provides smaller regional farmers, who might not have the means to take advantage of big city wholesalers, a link to buyers who might want smaller purchases. As long as the farmer can guarantee delivery, either through direct shipment or arranged pick -up at a nearby farmers market, he’s got a sale.
Goggin said that not all produce suppliers are certified organic (“Small farmers can’t always afford that,” she said), but that she tries to make sure they use sustainable practices as much as possible.
“We set up the site and started with eight pilot farms outside of the city,” Goggin said. “We marketed directly to restaurants and institutions, and as they found the site worked, word spread. If we don’t have a kind of produce available on the site that they need, we go out and find it. Sustainability is a big part of what we look for, so all our suppliers are 100 percent local.”
Current users of Farmers Web include New York restaurants like Nomad and Amali, private institutions like the Spence School, and corporate accounts like MetLife Stadium, home of the New York Giants and the Jets.
Farmers Web services even supplied local cheeses to President Obama’s recent inaugural lunch in Cooperstown.
The working process is engagingly simple. Users create an account online. If they are suppliers, they create a profile with pricing. If they are buyers, they just start to shop. Suppliers are responsible for arranging delivery and Farmers Web regularly tracks quality control.
“Our biggest challenge was convincing buyers that this could work,” Goggin said. “We’re only as good as our last order.”
Ken Migliorelli is a third generation farmer in Tivoli, New York, about 100 miles north of Manhattan. He raises about 200 varieties of fruits and vegetables on 500 acres and has been a Farmers Web supplier from the beginning.
“In the past, we sold our stuff through farmers markets, some roadside stands and directly to restaurants in the City,” Migliorelli said. “When Jenn proposed her website, we weren’t sure. Business with them started slow. But over a year, orders just picked up. She’s hooked us up with institutions we would probably never have worked with otherwise. I just see this as something that will grow more and more sales.”
Goggin said that they have an eye toward expansion, but will move prudently to maintain quality control of their suppliers. Their next moves are into Connecticut and other East Coast regions and eventually, she hopes, California. A privately funded company, they want to keep it that way, though they have not yet become profitable.
One plan on the drawing board is to provide a proprietary e-commerce software to farmers for opening their own private sites, publicizing their inventory for private buyers (the farmer will pay a monthly fee for this service).
“This will allow small farmers to put a link on their site that provides the same kind of service we do,” Goggin said. “But it will be their own site, not a Farmers Web site. We’ll be busy with our own stuff.”