Online farmers markets go viral

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Since the beginning of commerce, food distribution has been a strictly regional process. Farmers, butchers, bakers and what-have-you would come together at an established place and time, and consumers would meet them there. That’s the way it was, anyway, until innovations like interstate highways and refrigerated tractor-trailers and airplanes brought the world’s delicacies to us, vastly improving our lives in some ways but also disconnecting us from our land and neighbors in others.

So it’s ironic that consumers and sellers interested in local food find themselves reinventing an ancient practice. They must find ways to bypass the mainstream global food supply system.

Appetite, however, is a great motivator. And thanks to Eric Wagoner of Athens, local-food fans have yet another way to connect—in addition to the popular urban farmers markets and awkwardly named CSAs (for “community supported agriculture,” aka “weekly farm subscriptions”). It’s called LocallyGrown.net, and it’s catching on around the world. Yet it remains inherently local.

Here’s how it works. A farmer, a market manager or some other entrepreneurial sort logs on to the website and, in just a few clicks, launches a subsite—say, Athens.locallygrown.net or Augusta.locallygrown.net. The manager sets the terms—for example, orders can be placed Fridays through Tuesdays for a Thursday pickup at the corner of Main and Elm. Sellers post available products and prices. Then shoppers shop. They reserve the goods they want, and then they pick them up and pay for them at the established spot. The system is a clever blend of farmers market, CSA and modern communication technology.

As a farmer and software developer, Wagoner may have been uniquely qualified to build and run LocallyGrown.net. He was one of the original growers (and the webmaster) of a collective founded in 2002 by Athens farmers Dan and Kristen Miller to sell to area chefs. That idea never really took off, unfortunately. After a couple of years, Wagoner took over the group and reworked it as a retail business.

“We had a core group of households who were with us from the beginning, even though that wasn’t the focus,” Wagoner says. “I decided to make them the core of the business.”

Athens.locallygrown.net started small, with a “handful” of growers and customers, Wagoner says. Over the years, a dozen customers slowly grew to 25, and then to 50. Now the site has 3,000 people on the mail list and 100 participating sellers. Just this week, Athens.locallygrown.net offered 1,100 separate items and grossed just shy of $10,000.

“Just in terms of variety and reach and the number of households that get the mailings and the number of growers, we’re one of the largest farmers markets in the United States,” Wagoner says.  

In January 2007, Wagoner made the software available to other markets, charging a 3 percent consignment on each market’s total sales to pay for his hosting costs and development time. On Election Day, the site hit $1.5 million in sales this year. The LocallyGrown network extends as far as Ontario, Alaska, Washington State and the U.S. Virgin Islands—with each market centered on local farmers and local pickup points. A market is even set to open in the Netherlands.

But does it satisfy? Part of the pleasure of the local food movement is to know the people who grow your food, and part of the purpose is to confirm for yourself that those people meet your expectations for food quality. Wagoner says his model addresses both points.

“We give the customers as many tools as possible to let them educate themselves and the growers as many tools as possible to get their story out,” he says.

On the site, each market can tell its history, spotlight growers, explain its rules and grower standards. Growers can post photos and write descriptions of each product. The Athens group organizes regular farm visits, and it features a special area at the weekly pickup spot where growers are invited to set up displays and answer visitors’ questions. “They’re able to get that face time with the customer without having to sell anything,” Wagoner says. “All of that put together, I think, gives the customer more of an opportunity to get to know their growers than they would going booth to booth at a traditional market.” Just like anywhere else, consumers have to decide for themselves whether the model meets their needs and standards.

The proof is in the (local and seasonal, may we suggest persimmon?) pudding. Locally Grown is suddenly taking off. The network already boasts about 10 markets operating in the Atlanta area; in just the past couple of months, another dozen or so have signed up. There might even be one convenient to you.

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