On-Line Farm to Workplace System

Final Report for CNE13-107

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2013: $14,985.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Tara Kelly
Rutland Area Farm and Food Link
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Project Information

Summary:

Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL) tested the implementation of an on-line farmers market as a means of reaching new customers at their place of work. Piloted in the summer of 2012 at one worksite, over the past year and half funding from NESARE allowed RAFFL to expand the online market. The market now features 22 farmers and producers, serves 416 customers and includes 8 additional work sites. From September 2012 to May 2014 weekly individual purchases have steadily averaged between $24-42.00. Since the market’s inception in 2012 the market has generated over $46,000 in sales. In, addition, since December 2012 the number of market customers has grown from 144 to 416.

Project Objectives:

  1. At least 7 worksites will participate in the program.
  2. 20% of employees per worksite will register to participate in the program.
  3. At least 500 employees will make at least one purchase through the program.
  4. At least $60,000 of product will be sold June 1 – December 31, 2013.
  5. 250 employees will actively order throughout the season.
  6. A minimum of 12 farmers / producers will participate in the program.
  7. 100% of farmers will express satisfaction with program operation.
  8. 75% of farmers will commit to participating beyond December 31, 2013.
  9. 75% of customers indicate they will continue to participate beyond December 31, 2013.

RAFFL set out to further develop and expand a piloted model of an online farmer’s market and workplace delivery system that could serve a wider customer base. Over the term of the grant RAFFL was able to expand the customer base from its original 144 members to 416. We now have 8 work sites participating in the market and 22 farmers and producers supplying the market with over 34 types of vegetables, 6 types of meat and many additional value added and seasonal products. Initially RAFFL had anticipated needing to purchase materials for delivery such as, coolers and packaging and to pay for delivery costs. However, based on our existing partnership with the Vermont Country Store they offered to supply the program with those items and we built a relationship with Green Mountain Power to make deliveries using their electric van. As a result of these shifts, RAFFL requested to reallocate those funds for marketing and communication among the new work sites. We feel this was essential to the success of expanding the program. In order to reach new customers we first needed to generate a demand through outreach and education about the market. We developed brochures, posters, a page on our website, and a weekly newsletter. These materials help to convey the story of the unique local products being offered on the market and our convenient delivery service.

Introduction:

Rutland Area Farm and Food Link (RAFFL) has operated a farm to workplace program each summer for the past four years. We have implemented two types of programs: a CSA-style model and an on-line farmer’s market model. The CSA model (in its 4th season) has reached new customers, but marketing and retention have been challenging as this model asks people to completely change the way they think about food purchases. This model reaches 5% of the employees at each worksite. Surveys of participants consistently state that more choice, more variety of products, and the ability to spread cost across the season are desired.

The CSA model also limited participation by farmers to only three farms – and only those large enough to guarantee they would be able to provide the number of shares ordered. As a non-profit we are concerned about providing benefit to such a small number of producers. And yet, area employers have not wanted to work directly with farmers. Having RAFFL involved to manage the program provided a legitimate way for the program to tout it as a wellness program versus promotion of a particular vendor, something that would have made the program untenable.

In April 2012 a tenth area employer, Vermont Country Store, contacted RAFFL. As an employer, they shared an interest in the farm to workplace program for the same reasons as the other nine employers. They view it as a wellness benefit to their employees to provide a system that incentivizes consumption of more nutritious foods by arranging for convenient delivery to the worksite. VCS asked RAFFL to pilot a new type of model that allowed greater flexibility and choice for the customers. RAFFL and VCS concluded that a web-based ordering system would provide the platform for launching a new approach.

RAFFL reviewed a couple of on-line ordering systems and chose yourfarmstand.com as an appropriate system to help streamline the administrative burden of managing the orders between many customers to many farmers. This interface has a low cost and many advantages from the perspective of streamlining administrative aspects of the program. RAFFL’s challenge was to create a system attractive to the greatest number of workplace customers, beneficial to the farmers, and responsive to worksite needs. In order to accomplish this RAFFL proposed to play a coordinating role that balances these interests and concerns while developing an aggregation and distribution system with existing infrastructure.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand

Research

Materials and methods:

RAFFL worked with worksite coordinators and participating farms to build a system that uses an on-line ordering system to supply local farm products to employees at area worksites.

Yourfarmstand web-ordering system has proven to substantially reduce administrative duties and the risk of human error. Farmers have a fairly easy way to post their offerings. They control their own postings, can remove things at any point, and inventory is posted up until the night before delivery. On the ordering side the on-line system handles payments, generates clearly labeled order reports for farmers and worksite coordinators, and manages information flow (such as automatic reminders). There is no charge for farmers to post inventory or for buyers to register with the site. There is a 6% charge to farmers for each purchase that is taken out directly from the money paid by customers. Farmers are paid by yourfarmstand.

The following is a timeline and outline of the process we used to expand and develop our existing market to 7 additional worksites and more than double our customer base.

 Dec 2012 – Jan 2013 (prior to grant funding)          

  • RAFFL reached out to potential worksites to assess interest in new model, discussed logistical issues, and gathered other info that would influence project design.
  • RAFFL met with collaborating farms (plus others that have participated in the CSA model as well as the on-line pilot) to outline needs, concerns and ideas for serving multiple worksites.

Feb 2013 (prior to grant funding)

  • RAFFL met with yourfarmstand.com to review how that system could be manipulated to serve the function needed to expand the program to multiple sites under one umbrella

March 2013

  • RAFFL and worksite coordinators surveyed employees to assess strength of demand for new model at each worksite.

April 2013

  • RAFFL work with local partner VCS to identify space within available infrastructure (the North Clarendon distribution center)
  • VCS obtained materials needed for managing drop-offs (boxes, bags, coolers)
  • RAFFL worked with Green Mountain Power (GMP) and farmers to identify delivery mechanism / partnership

May – June 2013

  • RAFFL communicated market potential to area farmers
  • RAFFL recruited farms with a variety of products
  • RAFFL and yourfarmstand trained farmers on use of yourfarmstand.com
  • RAFFL and farmers created marketing materials for the program

July – September 2013

  • Farmers maintained updated listings and committed to delivery of purchased items
  • Farmers dropped-off to common location, RAFFL and farmers ensured orders are complete, deliveries made to worksites
  • RAFFL relied worksites to conduct ongoing marketing to employees / potential and existing customers
  • RAFFL and worksite coordinators managed customer-relations / problem-solving / responsiveness
  • RAFFL tracked progress; problem-solve issues
  • RAFFL sought out new farms to keep inventory well-stocked, seasonally appropriate and interesting
  • RAFFL and yourfarmstand oriented and trained these new farms on use of the system

 September -October 2013

  • RAFFL evaluated overall program against projected outcomes
  • RAFFL and worksite coordinators gathered input about customer experience and satisfaction
  • RAFFL gathered input about farmer experience and satisfaction
  • RAFFL and farmers incorporate needed improvements
  • RAFFL and farmers refreshed offerings for fall/winter
  • RAFFL developed a more proactive role in marketing

 October – December 2013

  • same as July – Sept except RAFFL began weekly emails to customers about featured products for sale, developed posters and brochures to recruit new participants, and found opportunities to market directly to participants at the worksites.

 January – March 2014

  • RAFFL and yourfarmstand documented results
  • RAFFL , farmers and worksite coordinators examined lessons learned

Research results and discussion:

We e-mailed an online survey to all customers who had created an account for our online market. Forty-eight customers responded to the survey. We found that we are reaching a new customer who is not currently shopping at the farmers market or participating in CSA shares.

  • 47.9% customers said they went to a farmers market only a few times a year.
  • 58.3% said they had never participated in a CSA.
  • The #1 reason people listed as why they joined the market was to support local farms (35%).
  • 96.5% of customer’s report they “could not have been more satisfied” or were “happy with the product” they ordered.
  • 55.2% of customers say the market “exceeds my expectations”.
  • Customers reported the best part of the market was quality, taste of products and convenience.
  • Their least favorite was the high prices.

Eight of our respondents reported only ordering once or twice. This feedback was particularly helpful as we try to make improvement to the program and expand our reach to new customers and develop more repeat customers.

  • These customers reported the best part of the market was the delivery and convenience.
  • Their least favorite was the lack of availability sometimes and variety and poor quality at times.
  • Lack of a place on the website to ask questions and get more information.
  • 66.7% reported that they found the prices too high.
  • 50% reported either forgetting to order or being too busy to order.

Suggestions they offered:

  • Offer a bulk buying option that offers good deals
  • Provide more variety
  • Improve website to include more photos to help customer see quantities and products.

Our overall impressions from customer’s feedback were as follows:

  • Common barriers for customers were:

o   Not being familiar with how to use the online market

o   Forgetting to order

o   Their perception that if they have a garden or CSA share they don’t need the market

The online purchasing tool we are using also has some distinct limitations:

o   Limited space for producers to describe their product and explain their farming practices

o   Customers have no way to directly ask the producers questions about their products

o   The site has limited ability to place photos with products

However, yourfarmstand.com does allow the producer to manage posting their products and compared to other site hosts charges a very low fee of only 6% to the farmer. This low fee has allowed us to keep prices down, however customers still list price as one of the main barriers to ordering. We could potentially address this price barrier by sourcing more bulk/wholesale items, as well as, seconds (slightly damaged or superficially irregular product). Also with additional support and encouragement more worksites might be interested in providing incentives to their employees therefore reducing the price.

As a result of collaborating with so many partners our customer service system has been fairly disjointed. Because Vermont Country Store manages the aggregation of product and delivery we direct customers to contact them in the case of a delivery or packaging issue. Any problems that are a result of the farmer’s mistake are directed to RAFFL and in many cases these complaints first have to go through the individual work site coordinator. As we continue to expand it will be imperative that we develop a clear and straightforward process for customers to share feedback or complaints.

Lastly, it was clear from customer feedback that customers continue to need education and marketing around what the market has to offer, why the products are unique, their health value, and impact on the agricultural and broader community.

RAFFL has hosted 3 producer planning meetings and gained verbal feedback from those sessions. We regularly communicate with producers and worksite managers about issues and challenges, as well as successes of the program.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

With our expansion to other worksites came a need for more intensive program coordination and marketing. During the fall of 2013 RAFFL began a broad marketing campaign to 5 worksites who had expressed interest in the program. This included a monthly series of posters highlighting seasonal items available on the market that were circulated to each worksite. In addition, a weekly e-newsletter was sent out to all customers highlighting a weekly product and included some educational information about local food and nutrition. RAFFL also worked with VCS to organize two “farmers market” days where farmers listed on the market set up tables at Vermont Country Store in their Manchester and North Clarendon sites. Producers provided samples, tastings and information about their product. RAFFL also provided information sessions to worksites. We would set up a table with informational brochures on the program, samples of products found on the market, producer’s information and often samples of recipes made with products found on the market. In addition, RAFFL developed a page on our website that explains in detail the online market, how it works and provides a link to join the market. This summer a student from Burr and Burton Academy has agreed to create a short film including interviews with customers, farmers and worksites to be posted on our website and used as a marketing tool. We would be happy to share this video once it is completed.

Although we have not collected surveys yet from farmers and producers on the market, RAFFL hosted three producer meetings where we received valuable feedback. Currently we do not require customers to purchase a minimum dollar amount. However, farms guarantee to deliver product every week regardless of the size of orders. In some cases, that can result in a farmer needing to harvest, prep and deliver a small order which raises concerns. Farmers have been able to organize among themselves to share deliveries, which has helped with this challenge. Medium size farm businesses with established and reliable markets typically view the online market as a great additional market to their existing business model. As one farmer recently wrote to us “We would like to continue [on the online market] as it has integrated seamlessly into our marketing.” What we have found helpful is for farms to do a cost analysis on their delivery so they have a clear minimum order. This can then be used as a target for weekly sales but also as an indicator to measure if it is truly sustainable and profitable for them to be on the market. Overall as the market grows and weekly sale amounts stabilize this market should become more of a reliable source of sales for smaller and medium farms.

Other online farmer market models require the costumer to make a financial commitment to the market requiring a minimum weekly order. This solution would allow the risk to be shared more equally between the farmer and customer and encourage smaller farms to experiment with online sales without such a high financial risk.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

  1. 8 sites have enrolled in the program (including the original pilot site)
  2. The participation rate has varied widely among worksites. The highest percentage in any worksite is 48% in a 450 person worksite and 30% in a 40 person worksite.
  3. 248 people have made at least one purchase.
  4. $38,000 of product was sold through the market since January 2013.
  5. 175 people actively ordered throughout the season.
  6. 20 farmers (meat, eggs and vegetables), 1 baker and 1 specialty foods producer participated in the program.
  7. There were some complaints from farmers about low sales. We’ve worked closely with them to resolve issues – including putting a much greater effort into marketing. The resulting improvements have helped and farmers and producers have committed to staying with the market.
  8. All farmers and producers are currently committed to participating in 2014.
  9. Customer surveys were conducted but were not conclusive on this particular point. Survey results are below.

Through our expansion process we found worksites were initially very interested in offering the program to their employees. However, it took a level of commitment on the part of the worksite to ensure that the program was well adopted amongst employees and the services were actually used. Because we are asking people in many cases to change their shopping habits by purchasing their weekly groceries online we found people were more likely to change their habits with consistent reminders. Some work site coordinators were able and willing to send out weekly e-mail reminders. Other locations had internal policies that prevented companywide e-mails from being sent out so this approach was not possible.

Additionally, each work place’s culture appeared to have a large influence on how well the program was received and utilized. In certain cases where the worksite created financial incentives for their employees such as, raffles, prize baskets, and events around local food we found much higher participation rates among employees. In work places where the employer treated the online market as more of a side offering, using little promotion or encouragement for employees we saw very little participation. In addition, due to RAFFL being an “outsider” to the unique work culture of each location, we had to heavily rely on the worksite coordinator to guide us on how best to reach the customer at their site. In addition, without the coordinator’s involvement we found it difficult to disseminate our marketing materials to the customers. Even when we increased our marketing strategies we saw little change in participation at these particular sites, where coordinators chose to be less involved. Overall what this seems to tell us is that in order for the market to be truly successful in a work place, it relies heavily on the internal culture of the workplace or its willingness to change that culture.

The key factors we found to ensure a successful workplace adoption of the online market were as follows: Incorporating the local foods market into a workplaces “wellness plan”. Business leaders and decision makers believe in the value of offering this service to their employees as a mean of improving their employees’ health, quality of life and wellbeing. Lastly, a key to success is an internal champion at the workplace; most likely a site coordinator who creates an internal excitement and interest in the market.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

We believe the online farmers market is creating new market demand and a new customer base that was not previously accessible for our area farmers. As indicated in our customers’ surveys 47.9% of customers said they went to a farmers market only a few times a year and 58.3% said they had never participated in a CSA. Therefore the $38,000 in sales since 2013 are sales that otherwise would not have been grossed by those same farms had they not been a part of this program.

Future Recommendations

Some areas that would benefit from additional study would be adapting this model to schools and to the general public, specifically in communities that have less access to traditional grocery stores and farmers markets. This model would allow us to directly market to customers without the intermediary of the workplace.

In addition, creating a wholesale or bulk version of the existing market would allow us to address the current price barrier that many customers reported as a deterrent. A bulk/ wholesale online market could also have the potential of simultaneously serving larger institutions and schools.

Lastly, the current website interface presents many challenges for creating an interactive, engaging and positive customer experience. We think that with another interface there is a strong possibility that the market would attract more customers by, providing pictures of the products, a more intuitive layout, attractive design, and space for direct customer feedback.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.