Through this SARE Sustainable Community grant, Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia has been able to identify and also to provide requisite training and help desk support to interested West Virginia farmers who have previously lacked the confidence or skill sets necessary to take advantage of the state’s new communication infrastructure—the agricultural website wvfarm2u.org.
As a virtual marketplace the wvfarm2u.org site provides indirect marketing opportunities for farms to publicize their roadside stands and their pick-your-owns, etc., as well as to sell their value added farm and artisan products. Communities can list their Farmers Market and broadcast events such as a fire hall fund raiser.
To increase by 20% the network of agricultural producers who understand the financial advantage of marketing their farm products to both the public and chefs on the statewide agricultural website wvfarm2u.org.
To increase by 20% the network of agricultural producers who actually list their products on the “public side” of the site their on-the-farm or pick-your-own stands, etc. or who register to sell on the “farmer-to-chef e-market”.
To employ this model of direct marketing to increase the bottom line to small farmers.
In addition to the public virtual marketplace, the site also provides a separate e-market where farms can list their specialty products in order to sell to chefs allowing them to increase their potential for sales with specialty crops. This aspect of the site is another of C21C’s ongoing efforts to establish a cadre of agricultural producers to supply an enhanced level of quality product to high-end restaurants as well as to sell directly to the public.
The net result of the initiative was an increase of the number of dollars spent by the public, as well as by high end restaurants, in buying West Virginia farm products especially from small farm owners.
This current initiative builds on these observations. When the website was launched mid-morning at the State Fair in mid-August 2007 by West Virginia’s Governor, First Lady, and Secretary of Agriculture with statewide TV news coverage replayed throughout the day, 55 farmers had already registered by 5:00 that evening. Obviously these were the early adopters—people who knew about this kind of website and were simply waiting for one to be built for West Virginia.
Registrations continued at a good pace for 2-3 months and then tapered off, and we came to realize that there were also in the state a whole group of other farms who would need to be convinced that the benefit is worth the effort. Beyond being convinced, they were going to need training and/or assistance to get their farm registered.
The actual strategies of this initiative included:
Phase 1 Help Desk
A technical consultant was available by phone to walk farmers through how to register on any part of the website–either the public or the e-market chef-to-farmer. WVU county extension agents, a public relations consultant, and C21C staff presenting at meetings like the WVY Small Farm Center, helped get the word out to farmers. Our intent was to get them to understand the benefit of signing up and to prompt them to call in to our help desk to actually register.
Phase 2 Training Materials for Extension Agents and the Public
Training materials were developed that demonstrated how to use this site. These materials were then tested to determine if they sufficiently met the needs of Extension agents, who we were looking to in helping recruit farmers. In order to make sure these materials were adequate we polled the agents and incorporated their feedback into revised materials.
Extension Agent Kelly Quinn from Tyler County and Collaborative 21C Help Desk consultant, Annie Seay, presented how this site can help farmers and also how these training materials are available for the agents themselves.
Phase 3 Learning Video Modules
This phase is on-going and continues beyond the grant. A series of learning video modules are being constructed as part of a separate USDA-CSREES grant that is a partnership between Collaborative 21C and Pierpont Community & Technical College. One such module: “What Will We Eat? And Who Will Grow It?” was recently completed and provided to interested Extension Agents to be shared with farmers. It was also provided (through the West Virginia Department of Education post secondary Agricultural Division) to high school Ag teachers to be used with their students.
- Exhibit booths, presentations, and other forms of outreach have alerted farmers to the economic potential of their using wvfarm2u.org as a direct marketing tool. These have led to new registrations signing onto the website. Specifically these include:
Small Farm Conference presentation and exhibit booth for 3 days
Value Added Fair presentation and exhibit booth for 1 day
Master Gardner Presentations
Telephone help desk with dedicated phone line open every day for a 6 month period
Telephone survey of Extension agents
Email campaigns to extension agents
Phone calls to extension agents to offer help to farmers and artisans
Visiting farmers’ markets and handing out information cards.
Most significant among the above was the major presentation and booth as part of statewide meeting for farmers–WVU Extension Small Farm Conference at the end of February (approximately 250 people).
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
A survey administered to West Virginia University Extension agents across the state provided both interesting and significant data for informing our future projects. An Information Sheet by way of support and training—The Nuts and Bolts of the Website—was sent to Extension Agents for their use in being better prepared for working with the public. C21C also created an Information Sheet that Extension Agents can print off for farmers explaining the relative benefits of direct marketing in this current buy local national craze. There is also a Media Information Sheet that provides information to all media outlets about the website and this initiative’s outreach to farmers to sign up on the website. A DVD training module was shared with Extension Agents and high school Ag teachers
There are still a number of small sessions to go on in the southern coal regions of West Virginia, but to this time we have 87 new entries on the site. Equally important to having new people signing up, there has been significant coaching with farmers of not only how to make the site work better for them but also what other marketing strategies can be employed to increase their bottom line.
Economists at West Virginia University have repeatedly described (both in writings and in presentations) that West Virginia is losing a tremendous number of dollars to other states because we are not growing enough farm products at home. This data suggests that literally billions are lost that could be recaptured, if West Virginia farmers began to meet this demand. C21C has continuously shared the financial import of this data in its presentations.
During the past year we have seen specific examples of how farmers in West Virginia have become increasingly aware of this potential for increased agricultural sales. There has been a 40% increase in the number of farmers markets across the state and a significant percentage of farms have registered on our website. A handful of farms have started selling CSA’s—some in Charleston, another ships across the entire state. The revenues from those CSA’s alone are estimated to be approximately $100 thousand new agricultural dollars for this year. These CSA’s also use our website to direct marketing and capture new sales.
Last year, one farmer in north central West Virginia decided to plant 15 acres and try out supplying farm products to seven farm stands and 2 grocery stores. He was so successful that this year he has 45 acres planted and has widened the scope of his enterprise tremendously, demonstrating that the message we are attempting to get out is beginning to take hold.
There are truly significant dollars being generated in new agricultural ventures that we believe are attributable to our on-going efforts to disseminate this information.
The conclusion is that the kinds of efforts carried out through this grant can have real economic impact in the state and that based on the results of our data collection it seems fairly clear that this SARE grant legitimately and actually builds capacity in rural areas for increasing economic productivity. It does this by introducing West Virginia farmers to the concept of specialty farm products and training them how to compete in a specialty product market and meet the same quality grade as quality producers from around the country.
The activities of this grant have alerted us that some farmers have an interest in much more information and coaching on e-marketing and other forms of direct marketing.
Information gleaned in the many interviews with farmers and Extension agents, points to the need for further support in the area of marketing and branding, as well as other forms of training for farmers interested in the type of specialty crop production that best fits with high-end restaurant needs. More importantly those interviews also demonstrate that there is interest among farmers in getting that training. This data will provide strong support for further proposals that seek funding to provide that capacity building.