The Future of Food: Farmers Markets Go Virtual
In the San Francisco Bay Area, we're pretty spoiled when it comes to farmers markets. There's a market within easy striking distance of most area residents six days a week year-round. But in most parts of the United States, that's not the case, which means it can be more challenging for those who really want to buy locally grown food and locally produced edible goods to get to a market in person.
Community-supported agriculture programs, or CSAs, are one option—CSA members get a box of produce (or, depending on the CSA, other goods like bread and eggs) each week during the growing season. But those boxes are not customized—each member gets the same selection of goods no matter what their particular preferences might be.
Virtual farmers markets are stepping in to the niche not quite filled by weekly markets and delivered produce boxes. They are providing opportunities to shop online for local food through an online catalog of goods provided by a variety of producers. Consumers can pick exactly the items and amount of those items they want, and can still support local farmers while hanging onto plenty of flexibility around their weekly buying habits.
One of the biggest virtual farmers market facilitators is LocallyGrown.net, a platform run by Eric Wagoner of Athens, Georgia. Approximately 350 markets across North America (including the USA, Canada and the Caribbean) use the platform to serve as a conduit for the goods of more than 3,800 growers and producers.
Wagoner sees a lot of advantages to a virtual farmers market. "For the growers, it takes a lot of overhead out of selling at market. No investing in tents and tables, no big block of time being at a stall, no speculation (guessing how much to harvest and then hoping it all sells), and so forth. They get the comforts of a CSA without the organizational hassles that go into it," Wagoner said. "Market managers get a ready-made system they can follow, with hundreds of other markets to model on. It works for full-time growers and backyard gardeners, so more food is available to the community. It works for rural areas that may be too small for a traditional market and for large cities with multiple markets running several times a week. Customers can pay once while still shopping with dozens of growers, buying exactly what they want. It seems to take many of the benefits of other models while minimizing the downsides of each."
Wagoner said online markets tend to be more diverse than traditional in-person markets, because growers are more willing to list items for sale that would not be cost-effective to bring to market and risk not selling. Also, since the growers prepackage their goods for customers, Wagoner said they tend to "up the game on quality…they package only the best of the best, and then take steps to produce more and more high-quality items."
Here's a peek into what goes into pickup day at Wagoner's Athens Locally Grown operation:
Ksenia of Saffron & Honey sees both the drawbacks and benefits of going virtual with one's farmers market:
You can’t touch or smell the produce or banter with your friendly neighborhood tomato seller (negative), but you still get to support local farmers who may not otherwise reach you (positive).
Though Avad Fan of Richmond, Virginia, tries to get to her weekly farmers market, she relies on Fall Line Farms, a local farm-to-family co-op program, to serve as her virtual market on weeks when she can't fit her trip to market into her schedule.
Fall Line Farms is a CSA without the commitment. It also provides a lot more choices than a CSA, which is usually just sourced from one farm. As part of bringing local food to local families, Fall Line Farms also sponsors community events throughout the area such as meet and greets with some of the growers and movie showings like Fresh.
Not everyone is a fan of taking the local market online. Nick Baines of Lost In the Larder worries about the isolating effect of moving to the virtual farmers market model:
Websites like this are contributing to the death of the grocer, the deli shop and one day the butchers. No more cheeky banter by the till or a little discount for being a regular. Those days could be on the way out.
Another reality of the virtual model is that they often require a nominal annual membership fee and/or a minimum purchase amount, which is very different from being able to run out to your local farmers market, pick up a couple of peppers, pay a few dollars, and head home without worrying about hitting a target purchase amount.
After Loudoun Flavor, a virtual market in Loudoun County, Virginia, launched, Lynne Adams of Blog Cabin found it, but decided to stick with in-person shopping at her local market because of the annual fee.
The downside for me is the $25 membership fee to shop. So yes, it might be more convenient than trying to track down all the individual producers yourself, but if you turn up to a real-life farmers market you are not charged $25 before you buy something. On the other hand, any site which supports local producers is a good thing as far as I am concerned and the fee may well be worth it to keep a resource like this going.
Reached last week by email, Adams said "I love the idea of the Loudoun Flavor Market and while I think virtual farmers markets could be a great resource, I have to admit I have never actually bought anything there" due to the membership fee.
But according to Wagoner, those who use his market also tend to open their wallets a little further than the average farmers market shopper. "My favorite statistic: several USDA studies show that, at an average, a customer spends $25 at a farmers market visit," Wagoner said. "The average purchase at my market is currently $38."
What do you think of the virtual farmers market concept? Have you ordered from one before, and if so, what was your experience? If you had one operating near you, would you take advantage of it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.