For decades or even centuries, farmers’ markets have been the bedrock of the local food movement. They are a place for community at least as much as they are a place for commerce. People mingle and linger. Smell and taste. It’s a place to slow down.
When a new farmer starts up, getting into the right farmers’ market is essential.
But farmers’ markets often don’t have space for new farms.
Limited parking and stall space means most top tier farmers’ markets are full and have wait lists of a few years or more.
Online farmers’ markets were developed to merge good ideas developed by CSAs and farmers’ markets.
What’s an Online Farmers’ Market?
Basically it’s a farmers’ market where everything in sold in advance. On a website. Like a regular farmers’ market, farmers deliver to a central location. And customers pick up from that location.
Because products are pre-sold, farmers and eaters don’t have to be there at the same time. Farmers can drop off and head home. Eaters can pick up and head home. It’s a very efficient system. Athens Locally Grown has been doing this since 2001 and now helps around 200 farmers connect with 4,000 customers, often selling more than $10,000/week. You can check out their software here. I ran a market using the concept in 2013, goMarket (aka Durham Locally Grown). Our pickup was at a local bar on their slow Tuesday night right after work.
By selling in advance and packing customers orders into a la carte CSA boxes, you can solve a lot of problems:
- They shift a lot of the space needed for a market into the virtual realm.
- Only about 10% as much space as a traditional market is needed.
- They can be opened faster than traditional farmers’ markets.
- Online markets also make it easier to match supply and demand.
- It’s easy to get data on what percent of product is being sold. Higher percent sales means it’s time to recruit more farms.
- Products aren’t picked or packed until they’ve already been sold, eliminating food waste.
One problem we ran into at goMarket is that Durham’s foodshed is very differently shaped from Athens’. Athens, GA is a college town surrounded by fairly inexpensive farmland. It makes sense for people to do business there. Durham, NC is part of the “Research Triangle”, which is a complex mosaic of living and working spaces. Finding an optimal place to build a market like this is tricky.
Enter the Open Food Network:
Open Food Network(s)
The Open Food Network is an exciting new platform being built in Australia. It’s designed for complex foodsheds. Farmers (and other food makers) can use it to sell to many different types of buyers and locations. The products are linked to the farmers’ profiles and eaters can browse multiple pickup locations.
Practically, here in the Triangle, this would mean a Raleigh-Durham commuter could browse farmers’ markets in both towns to decide where the better offerings were. Or which pickups fit better with her schedule.
Open source software licensing shifts the balance of power from the developers of the software to the community at large. If the team hosting the software isn’t providing enough value, people can start their own servers. Though this would practically require a total revolt, this balance of power is important in a food system where the current infrastructure is owned by a few companies. If we want a fair food system, collective management and ownership of infrastructure (as a “commons”) is a quite radical and important concept. When a few companies control the middle, neither farmers nor consumers win.
So here’s the plan:
- Find backing institutions to support the early stages of the project. Crowdfunding or crowd equity may supplement this support.
- Partner with “anchor” farms and buyers. Possibly a foodhub that wants to build a retail business. Give away software and services as a beta-test (thus the need for institutional backing).
- Expand to include vulnerable farmers and food vendors.
- Open up to community-directed efforts.
A lot of the connections virtual foodhubs already facilitate are already happening. But it can take weeks or months of networking for a farmer to get connected with an interested restaurant. This cuts that time down to minutes.