Virtual Farmers Markets?

By Steph Larsen
(Note: A similar post first appeared on

The trend towards local food can be a great opportunity for farmers - both new and experienced - to rediscover growing food that people eat. Farmers gain the largest share of the food dollar this way, but it also forces them to be marketers -- something they may not have the skills, let alone the time, to be successful. Farmers already have to put in the hard work to grow what people want to buy. Where will they find time to located customers too?

There is another way.

Nebraska, like several other states in the Midwest, has an online statewide farmers’ market modeled after the successful and innovative Oklahoma Food Co-op. Both create a central location for producers and consumers to find each other. The original idea was the brainchild of Robert Waldrop, who still serves as the president of the Oklahoma Food Co-op. From the looks of their website, they, like many food co-ops, rely on their board and volunteers to keep things running smoothly. Our Nebraska version, on the other hand, does employ at least one person part time.

Once or twice a month depending on the season, dozens of producer members of the Nebraska Food Co-op go online and list what products they have available and in what quantities. This time of year, it’s bursting with all the fresh veggies that make summer so grand. There’s always a wide variety of meat available, and you can find eggs, home-canned goods, natural beauty products, and honey year-round. There’s even an organic miller that provides me with breakfast cereal, whole-wheat flour, hulled barley, and other grain products I’ve never heard of.

I’ve been a member of the Nebraska Food Co-op for 2 years, so I’ve gotten to know the consumer side of the operation. The co-op allows me access to producers and products I wouldn’t have known about otherwise, with the convenient bonus of not having to travel to each one individually.

Consumer members, who pay an annual membership fee, have a set period of time to shop, selecting a “drop site” where they’ll pick up their order. The inventory decreases in real time, so when that last bunch of Swiss chard is gone, it’s gone. On the appointed day, producers relay their products in to a central location, via drop points, where orders are put together and sent back out to the drop points. When my order gets to me, every item has my name, the farm it came from, and what’s inside the brown paper or plastic package.

Our drop point is a small family farm about 7 miles from the CFRA office. They have freezer space for the meat we order, and I always have a nice chat with the farmers as I write out the check.

This method offers a lot of advantages for producers who are just getting started. The first is time: the producer don’t have to commit to being at a market stall several hours a week for the duration of the growing season, and thanks to the relayed distribution system, the drive is ideally less than it would be to Omaha or Lincoln. The second is scale -- because the entry cost is low, a producer can start with putting just a few items up to test the market and grow from there.

And of course, because someone else is responsible for the marketing, it leaves producers a lot more time to do things like contemplate a high tunnel to extend their growing season or figure out a more efficient watering system for their vegetables. The co-op prints and distributes promotional materials, plus members spread the word: based on the steadily increasing number of products in the last few years, it seems to be working. Consumers still can build a relationship with the producers they buy from by reading the profiles of each producer, which detail their individual practices and philosophy.

Other states and regions are starting to use similar online farmers market models, or create even bigger-scale ones like Ecotrust’s Foodhub. The Oklahoma Food Co-op does their best to help by providing their software free and sharing a long list of lessons they’ve learned.

The Nebraska Food Co-op gives producers an opportunity to experiment with things and expand  production slowly, making the innovation the Midwest is known for a little less risky.