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A visit to any farmers market is, by its very nature, social. Mixing with other buyers. Chatting with vendors. You get to know your neighbors and the people who grow your food on a deeper level. So what happens when the “social” part of almost everything is removed and the world moves much of its interaction online? According to Happy Valley Farmers Markets and Farmers, you’re also moving online — and finding you can fill a gap in the process you didn’t even know existed.
Making it easy, from field to fork
How often does a commercial solution not only make things more convenient for producers and service providers, but also for the end consumer? That’s exactly what happened when farmers’ markets in the region started offering their offerings online. They discovered that farmers/producers and customers found the system more convenient, which, in part, opened up local foods to a whole new clientele who had neither the time nor the ability to travel to the local farmers’ market during its limited hours.
Sabine Carey is the Director of Center Markets, which offers an online marketplace open for orders Wednesday through Friday. Shoppers can choose options from more than 35 local farmers and producers, then choose to pick up their order on Saturday or have it delivered.
“By quickly moving to an online marketplace system, we were able to make it safer and more convenient for our loyal buyer base to access their familiar farmers who they already knew and trusted,” said Carey. “There was a lot of gratitude from the community and our growers, and we quickly outgrew our space and sales system. Thanks to the financial support of our amazing buyers, our GoFundMe actually allowed us to purchase a dedicated delivery van and add local delivery as a popular service.
And, two years later, the online ordering option is still popular, despite the easing of pandemic restrictions. In fact, beyond the growth that necessitated the addition of the delivery van, the growth also prompted Center Markets to establish a permanent pickup location in conjunction with Nature’s Pantry, and Center Markets continues to expand its network. from producers, also including offers from local chefs. and caterers. The online marketplace also plans to start accepting SNAP EBT this year, which will improve access to local foods in the community.
“We continue to see strong demand for our service from both our farmers and our buyers. Our farmers comment on the convenience of harvesting to order and dropping off the items, rather than harvesting, staying in the market all day and risking wastage when they return home with unsold produce,” Carey said. “And our customers appreciate the fact that they can shop from multiple local farmers and food producers from the comfort of their sofa. At a time when quarantine and social distancing are part of our daily lives, this is a huge benefit for those at increased health risk.
Tony Musso, founder of the State College On-Line Market tells a similar story.
“COVID hit and we said, ‘What is this? Let’s try this. Let’s do everything online.’ We would create an online shopping cart, and all sellers would have to do was bring in their products once they were ordered and paid for, on a Friday morning, to one location, and I would set up all orders with a name on a bag. Vendors were just walking down the aisle, dropping items into the bag,” Musso said. “On the customer side, we’ve created it as a total drive-thru. You never have to get out of your car. There’s no shopping. There’s no interaction with people. You stop, we open the door of your car, we put your luggage and you can go on your way.
Once the online marketplace was up and running, he said it “continued to grow and expand, and the customer got to the point where they love the idea.” And, much like Center Markets, State College On-Line Market continued to use the same pandemic-friendly business model even as restrictions eased because, as Musso said, customers like convenience.
The number of vendors selling in the online marketplace differs by season, but Musso also said the online system is getting rave reviews from the vendor side as vendors have seen their sales increase – although there may be have more to credit than simply the convenience of online shopping.
“(Producers) are more in tune with marketing in general than they were, say, 10 years ago, before all the online (deals) and COVID,” Musso said. “If I asked an Amish farmer, ‘What are you doing on Saturday?’ His answer would basically be, “I bring my things and I take them out.” But now they are asking how they can sell more, and at the same time they are more receptive to suggestions.
See a need, fill a need
Similarly, markets are not alone in identifying gaps they can fill. On a more individual level, the farmers and producers around Happy Valley do it too. Musso recounts his experience with a salesperson, Daniel Hostetler of Hostetler Farm, who previously focused solely on produce.
“He noticed during the summer that we had a period when the market changed meat vendors… There was a two or three week delay where we didn’t have a meat vendor, so he told me was asking about it…and son of a gunslinger, five weeks later he comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, guess what! I’m slaughtering four cows,'” Musso said. The change has not only helped the market as a whole, but has also allowed Hostetler Farm to increase its revenue during the winter months when produce is light – and it’s a trend that Hostetler is continuing, expanding to offer other products on the market, such as veal and chicken.
Agriculture by application
The entire mission of Happy Valley, non-profit, Appalachian Food Works is to support farmers and producers by connecting them to restaurants and locals who want and need their products, building the agricultural economy while expanding access to local foods. The nonprofit organization also found a new distribution channel online when the pandemic began.
“We had been working with a developing platform from a Penn State hospitality professor called Dezi,” said Travis Lesser, founder and executive director of Appalachian Food Works. “We had just processed a whole beef, so we had inventory that we needed to move. Luckily, people were focused on supporting local businesses and buying beef in bulk at this time, so we were able to offer some items for retail and home delivery (via app). Not only did this give us some cash flow during an otherwise slow time, but it was a great way for us to get our name out there in the community, especially those looking to source locally. If we hadn’t been able to start offering retail sales like this, I’m not sure we would be talking about Appalachian Food Works like we do now.
During the pandemic, Lesser said the organization was able to stay nimble and adapt to changes in supply and demand as needed, which allowed Appalachian Food Works to grow gradually and to meet the needs of the community that fall within its resources and abilities, namely “to ensure that people are fed and that they receive food grown and produced in our own region so that our food producers can continue to do so.
Today, Appalachian Food Works continues to offer products through an online format, The Market @ App Food Works, and Lesser and the team have even managed to scale to the point that the organization needed a new home. , which she found at Titan Energy Park in Bellefonte. .
Looking further ahead, Lesser said, “We will be offering cold, frozen and dry warehouse rentals to our food producers, which will give us an additional way to support them. Additionally, we will be launching some of the programming we were conceptualizing in early 2020, such as the next iteration of our Farmer Buyer Meetup. Our first event for 2022 is approaching, February 12 with the 7-course Valentine’s Day Fundraiser Dinner. This programming helps us in our mission to provide support to food producers in Central Pennsylvania and also increases our visibility in the community so people can better understand what we are here to do.