GROWN Locally is a cooperative of eleven vegetable producers. We sell primarily to local hospitals and nursing homes in our five county area. Currently we market vegetables, fruit, herbs and flowers, but we hope to add meat, cheese and eggs.
The primary element in GROWN Locally is to provide fresh, healthy, nutritious goods directly form locally operated farms to local institutions. Each producer is an integral part of this plan. Not only is the food delivered, it is delivered by those who grow it. Each week two of the GROWN Locally farmers make the bi-weekly delivery, each week the delivery is rotated among all producers. By doing our own deliveries, we are assuming the institutions a direct link to the source of their food supply. Each institution knows all the GROWN Locally producers by name and can communicate with them directly.
Our producers are responsible for the day to day operations of the cooperative. From organizational and operational meetings, to contributing goods, to promoting and maintaining direct contact with institutional buyers and administrators, to working together on “co-op work days” where the members get together on different farms to accomplish tasks relevant to GROWN Locally business, all members of GROWN Locally are full participants in the operation of this cooperative venture.
Our original ordering system consisted of weekly faxes to growers, faxes to buyers, more phone calls and email to growers and confirmation faxes or phone calls to buyers – an inefficient, costly and inaccurate way of ordering products from us. We concluded that for us to be “a player” in the local institutional food market we would need to model ourselves on systems with which buyers are used to dealing and one in which we can be comfortable operating and maintaining. We addressed this need by designing a website ordering system.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
Our original project objective was:
We will make available to buyers of local goods raised and distributed by GROWN Locally a website which will facilitate the ordering process and be a storehouse of information relative to our cooperative and its growers. The site will be hosted by a local internet provider and will be maintained by the use of an integrated database. Buyers will be able to access the site from in house computers with internet access and order directly from the cooperative’s website each week. The process of coordinating orders on our end and facilitating ordering at the institutions becomes a fairly simple task that is controlled and predictable.
The objective of the GROWN Locally Grower’s Cooperative Website project is to be able to communicate more effectively with our customers, streamline the 2 times weekly ordering process from our institutional accounts and continue to be easily available and present for the buyers and administrators of these accounts.
Through discussions among members of GROWN Locally and with local institutional food service buyers and administrators, we were able to assess the current ordering systems used by these buyers and determine how our system should look and function. We found that there were no websites of this kind being used by small, locally based farming cooperatives, so our models needed to be formulated by our own group and our current set of institutional buyers. Surveys sent to these buyers as well as interviews determined all this information.
Our project was carried out according to the following steps:
– Design of basic system components – what was being used by buyers ordering from other, larger vendors and what our specific ordering needs were. This was very basic and in retrospect, quite primitive as we found many options not clear to us later in the project development.
– Formulate a list of equipment needs and expertise not available within our group – computer, digital camera, scanner, software for website development and – we thought – database software for website operation. We found that, although the database software is valuable as an on-site tool and is able to be used for in house records received from website, it is not as useful in running the website as the software being used by our web host, which is much better suited for what we need both in power and in functionality.
– Locate and develop relationship with web host/programmer who could provide services and expertise needed to create parts of website which were beyond abilities of myself and others in GROWN Locally and also to provide needed internet hosting – we located one individual who stated interest in the project and then failed to follow through so I met with Tracy Della Vecchia of DV Technologies and we established a relationship whereby I would design and develop the public access areas of the GROWN Locally website and DV Technologies would provide the “store” section.
– DV Technologies outlined potential formats and designs for commercial section of websites – DV Tech had developed a series of “store modules” which were already available to companies and individuals who needed access to e-commerce presence on the web. These modules became the basic structures of the GROWN Locally website.
– DV Tech and GROWN Locally test the site, first in house and then with selected clients – as the website took shape, the need to test it became important. We started with testing sections and areas on an in house copy of the site. Eventually, we uploaded the site and it was technically “on line” but not accessible to anyone without a password. In this way we were able to determine whether selected sections were actually operational and more importantly, that they operated as we needed them in a “real time” situation. This part of the development was a fairly long process and occupied much time both on my own end, making changes in how we wanted things to look and operate and also at DV Tech, where they were busy programming in functionality. It was much like developing a flowchart of how a business operates and how it interacts with its clients. And additionally, it was necessary that both I and DV Tech were synchronized relative to web files so that changes I made did not adversely affect ones they were working on and vice versa. As we continued to expand the scope and functionality of the site, it became necessary for others to test it. So we contacted a few of our clients and asked them to access the site through a password and try it under simulated conditions. We gained valuable feedback through this process and were able to incorporate many ideas into the site before we actually published it.
– DV Tech published the public area of our site and continued working on the “store” sections which were intended for buyers only – our site was put on line early in 2002 and remained accessible to the public. We only published the “public areas” which were intended for access without a password – the non-purchasing areas. DV Tech continued to work on programming for the limited access areas.
– GROWN Locally trains clients in how to use the site and gives password access to these clients – members of GROWN Locally visited buyers and administrators of current institutional accounts for the purpose of training them in the use of our website and to assign email accounts and passwords allowing them to begin ordering their weekly food purchases using this system
– GROWN Locally website on line late July 2002 – we initiated our on line ordering website in late July of 2002 with a limited number of clients using the site. We immediately found a number of items which either didn’t work as well as expected or that we needed to develop – none of which posed major problems. The clients who began using the site felt at home with it and were able to order needed food items in an efficient and accurate manner.
– We add new clients to web access during season – as the season progressed we were able to add more and more of our regular clients to the list of those who were actively using our web ordering system. The site was still under some adjustment but it did not seem to affect the operation.
– Surveys sent from GROWN Locally to clients for the purpose of receiving feedback as to the effectiveness of our site – we sent surveys to all our institutional accounts in mid November 2002 which allowed for feedback on how the institutions were using the site and the effectiveness of their interactions with it. Currently many of these surveys are still out and we have a timetable whereby we will contact all our clients for face to face meetings before mid January.
– Future planning includes Maintenance Contract and additional programming needs – we are interested in purchasing an ongoing Maintenance Contract from DV Technologies to aid in future development and for dealing with problems which might arise. We are also in need of additional programming relative to database record keeping potential and interfacing with clients in better ways.
Others who were influential in producing our website or who gave inspiration were:
– DV Technologies – Tracy and Luigi Della Vecchia
– Members of GROWN Locally – Matthew Maker, Wayne Wangsness, Merl Steines, Solveig Hanson, Mari and Kyle Holthaus, Jeremy Peake, Al and Sandy Peake, Joyce and Karel Rawson, Barb Horns, Dell McLaughlin, John and Francis Blake, Connie Burns
– Allamakee County, IA Extension Director – Teresa Wiemerslage
– Local Food Service Personnel – Karen Foster, Shelva Kohrs, Sam Kuhn, Joan Lubke, the chefs at Dayton House and Hotel Winnesheik
– Practical Farmers of Iowa – Gary Huber and Rick Hartmann
The results of our project were as follows:
– We achieved the development of an ordering system by which local food service buyers could access our products in an efficient manner
– We modeled this system on those already in use by these food service buyers thereby allowing them access to our products in a way similar to what they are used to and which fits their in-place ordering and billing systems.
– The result of our development is a website where not only ordering of our goods is possible, but where information about our cooperative, about the importance of locally based commerce and about how farmer to farmer and farmer to buyer collaboration aids farm and community sustainability. These areas, other than where orders are placed, are public access and can be updated and expanded as needed.
– We also achieved an accurate and easy way of recordkeeping as all our uploads and purchases are recorded on the server database for recall at any time. This allows us to formulate reports, check financial information and retrieve crop information at will.
– Our original ordering system was fax, email and telephone based which required time, expense and coordination far beyond the requirements of our new, web-based system from both farmers and buyers. Now, farmers can upload their own products without the help of a coordinator, buyers can order without locating a fax or waiting for a phone call and we all can monitor how much product is being uploaded or sold at any given time. In addition, we are not required to enter crop, purchase or other records in outside software for recordkeeping purposes except to download information and format it locally.
– A result which we are projecting based on buyer response is that our total sales will be up in the future because of the website system. Buyers are saying that because they find it easier to order, they will be inclined to use us as a vendor more in the future.
These results are what we expected, although we began this project, we were unsure to what extent we would be able to achieve them. We are pleased with the results and are looking forward to next season being able to begin our sales season using the website. We have a much better view of this process now and are able to project with more accuracy what we can expect to achieve from any upgrades and new components we might wish to add to the site.
From our work on this SARE project, we learned the following:
– We learned that development and implementation of a system such as ours takes time, effort and patience to make the results acceptable. If we had not been faced with starting from scratch on the system – in other words, using web modules already designed for a system such as this one – we would not have had such a steep development curve and things would have moved much quicker at the start.
– We also found that we needed to spend time with many of our clients in coaching them in the use of the web site, even though they were used to utilizing other vendor sites. We are not sure exactly why this occurred, but much of the reason is because they were used to our original method.
– We have found that the implementation of our web ordering system has had immediate impact on our farms. We find that we are spending much less time on organizing each ordering session compared to the original system. In fact, we have been able to make our products available 2 times weekly now as opposed to 1 time in the past.
– We have also found that coordination time is down and will likely continue to follow that trend next season as we become more adept at using our system
– We would recommend that anyone interested in implementing a system such as ours be realistic relative to time consideration in development and plan for enough development expertise. DV Technologies will be making these modules available in the future as they see farmer cooperatives request them.
– We used workshop and consulting sessions for most of our information dissemination. These sessions were, primarily, by invitation, however, we have been consistent from the beginning of the project in letting others know that we are available to speak on the topic.
– Of course, the other arena which is used for information dissemination is the website itself. We are constantly asked for the URL by others who, potentially, could utilize a system such as ours.
– Our plans include developing a tutorial site which will be available to anyone requesting it or by access through our main site. This tutorial would serve to allow others to view the system and learn how it works.