Building a Virtual On-Line Food Hub for Small Scale Sustainable Farms in Rural Areas

Final report for FNC17-1107

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2017: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2019
Grant Recipient: Women's Environmental Institute
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Jacquelyn Zita
Women's Environmental Institute
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Project Information

Description of operation:

The Women’s Environmental Institute (WEI) is located on the western edge of East Central Minnesota near Almelund, Minnesota. WEI is a 501(c) 3 and Chisago County Charity Organization focusing on environmental, farming and food justice. For the past 10 years,WEI has managed the Amador Hill Farm and Orchard, an organically-certified farm which works in tandem with WEI's education program and community services. With the 2017-18 NCR-SARE grant WEI launched its idea of creating an online local and regional food hub --the North Circle Food Hub -- for small-scale farms in Chisago and Isanti Counties in Minnesota. We have created a very promising beginning in the first two years for a new online "virtual farmers market" where local customers can buy weekly from our North Circle member farms.
North Circle farmers make a notable difference to the local food community by their exclusive commitment to organic and/or sustainable farming practices. In many ways, our region could be considered an organic produce food desert, given what is NOT offered in our grocery stores (if there is one) and what is sparsely offered at small farmers markets and in the only food coop serving our region from Cambridge.
WEI explored the idea that the best way to get organic produce from our smaller farms to our communities was through an online farmers market. The purpose of the North Circle is to create a local farm-to-family food economy, increase consumer access to a wide array of healthy sustainably grown food, increase levels of food consciousness through expanded consumer choice and education, provide time-saving convenience to the consumer and the farmer, promote and build community with local food dollars circulating to small family farms in our area, and by all means, help save our small family farms in order to build a healthy eating community.
Currently at the end of this grant period, we have 18 local farms and a local flour mill involved with North Circle plus additional farms applying to join our project in 2019.

Summary:

Problem Addressed:

The specific problem we wanted to address in our two-year grant period was how to put in place a foundation for building an online regional food system with local customers and small scale local farms committed to organic and/or sustainable growing practices. This required an effective increase in rural consumer motivation to buy organic or sustainably grown produce from local farmers through an online service. We were up against some obstacles in our rural communities:  a lack of local interest (if not actual bias against) organic or sustainably grown produce; the invisibility of some smaller farms already committed to organic and sustainably grown produce; the lack of knowledge about organic farming, food and the global food system; and the unfamiliar challenge of using online shopping to buy groceries. We identified five objectives we wanted to pursue: (1) how to internally motivate interested local  “consumers” to become active customers of North Circle produce (i.e. to go online and actually select and order produce); (2) how to do better reach and communicate to our different communities and find “community messengers” who have good social capital to spread the word about the food hub (e.g. churches, businesses, food venues, offices, medical communities, etc.);  (3) how to find EBT/SNAP customers and provide them more effective and equitable access to our food hub; (4) how to educate our consumers to the point-of-purchase (i.e. to grow consumer food and farming consciousness and the desire to buy for ethical reasons as well as  for the great taste, quality and affordability of our North Circle produce); (5) how to find farms willing to participate with only the promise of a small amount of supplemental income and yet remain committed to consistency in quality and quantity of produce on a weekly basis.

All of these objectives are still guiding our work as we enter the third and upcoming year of North Circle.

Solution:  The results of our work after two years.  WEI now coordinates a June-October online farmers market which offers weekly online ordering from Saturday to Wednesday, listing the week’s available produce from our farmers who identify and describe their produce for the consumer. On Wednesday at noon, the online sales close and we notify our farmers about what they have sold. We then collect the produce at the WEI packing barn.  Each Friday the North Circle coordinator orchestrates deliveries of customized boxes to drop-sites in North Branch, Cambridge, Isanti, Wyoming, Center City, Taylors Falls, Stark and Almelund, Minnesota. By the end of 2018 we were working with 18 active farms and one flour mill: Amador Hill Farm and Orchard, Beulah Land Farm, Bone Lake Apiary, Cherry Tree House Mushroom Farm, Cloverbee Farm, Eichten’s Hidden Acres Farm, Evermore Forest Farm, Ferris Family Farm, For the Love of Dandelions, Garden Magic, Heirloomistra, Love Thy Neighbor, Naples Acres, Nelson Grass Farm, Shoua Lee’s Garden, Sunnyside Farm, Tim’s Timber, White Pine Berry Farm and Sunrise Flour Mill. One clear and gratifying mark of our success, considering that we started as a North Circle booth at a local farmers market in 2016 which yielded very little revenue, was amassing the cooperation and dedication of all of these farms working together as North Circle farmers – this resulted in the creation of a new kind of local farming community.

 

 

Project Objectives:

The Project Objectives Revised.

In the course of first two years, we altered the original budget to invest most of our funding into a one-person management system needing only minimal help from WEI’s staff.  This allowed WEI staff some relief from micro-managing the project as we hired a really good North Circle Coordinator. This person streamlined the weekly tasks and protocol so that the work could be condensed to 12+ hours per week.  This job included loading the website with weekly farmer availability lists; notifying and reminding customers that the on-line farmers’ market was open; notifying farmers what produce had been sold; collecting produce at pass-through locations and collecting what farms delivered to WEI; evaluating the total produce collected; packing customized boxes for delivery; organizing all deliveries and assisting with deliveries; approving credit card purchases; and working with the WEI staff on trouble-shooting and financial reports. Each Friday reliable volunteers made deliveries to the designated dropsites.  Because the new coordinator and the new streamlining were really making it work, we sought and received permission to shift priorities in our NCR-SARE budget to invest more in our coordinator. What was accomplished in the first two years was sufficient to get the envisioned North Circle Food Hub up and running.  To make this happen, we did the following:

  1. Altered and streamlined the operations to one highly skilled person – the Food Hub Coordinator – with some additional admin and delivery support from our WEI staff and volunteers.
  2. Convened North Circle farm member’s meetings in early spring (2017) and winter (2018) to develop trust, communications and support for and with our farmers; convened a well-attended and highly successful meet-your-farmer community meal in 2017 to bring the farmers and their potential customers together.
  3. Worked closely with the Farmweb developer to simplify and customize the ordering process in order to eliminate confusing steps for customers unfamiliar with on-line ordering and to create software better able to facilitate individual purchase. This was critical because the original design of Farmweb was strictly for wholesale orders.
  4. Increased our outreach and public presence in North Branch through energetic, consistent and high quality social media, flyers, ads and reminder texting to our repeat customers.
  5. Secured a grant from SHIP to create photo-story boards for each farm to be displayed in 2019 in medical buildings, public libraries and other community spaces
  6. Advertised (and interviewed) with KBEK Radio and advertised on the North Branch Electronic Bill Board, in flyers and signs at drop sites, at local tabling events, and in local small town parades.
  7. Simplified the North Circle website (northcirclefoodhub.com) to be more user-friendly with a faster gateway to creating a personal account connected to the Farmweb platform 
  8. Modified the world “food hub” which did not have clear meaning in our rural area to “online farmers market” which helped clarify the concept for our customers.
  9. Expanded the diversity of our produce, the number of North Circle farms, and the number of drop-sites over a two year period.
  10. Promoted more effective outreach that emphasized local community with our farmers; the convenience of online grocery shopping for the customer; the virtues and values of local, healthy organic (or sustainably grown) food; the wide diversity of 18 farms offering a one-stop shopping cart; and, above all, the real pleasure consumers expressed in the presentation and taste of our North Circle produce.

 

 

 

 

 

Research

Materials and methods:

 

In the course of first two years, we altered the original budget to invest most of our funding into a one-person management system needing only minimal help from WEI’s staff.  This allowed WEI staff some relief from micro-managing the project as we hired a really good North Circle Coordinator. This person streamlined the weekly tasks and protocol so that the work could be condensed to 12+ hours per week.  To see the new direction we took, see the 10 goals listed in Revised Objectives (above).

Research results and discussion:

What we learned from this project is that it really did take two years in combination with NCR-SARE funding ($7,500 per year) to establish a solid working order for the North Circle Online Farmers Market. All of the 10 goals (listed in Project Objectives section above) were essential to or required for the functioning of this kind of regional model. Our success is measured by the completion of these specific goals which have prepared us for the upcoming year (2019).

As an overview of our success in the first three years, we have more than doubled the revenue generated by and for the North Circle farmers and vastly increased our sales since 2016, when North Circle was trying to operate as a booth in a local farmers market.  This indicates that the online model is much better in reaching customers than a one-booth-for-all at a weekly farmers market. 

Comparing 2018 to 2017, we showed a approximately 50% increase in the number of sales from 2017.  Sales per week were higher for each week compared to the 2017 year.   Our repeat customer base was very steady and their sales volume was more than 90 % higher on some repeat customer’s orders.  While the number of orders per week increased slightly less than 50% in 2018, all customers (unique and repeat) increased their order volume to bring in more revenue in 2018.  Overall we had an increase of sales of over $ 6,500 compared to 2017 calendar year.

What this told us is that once we have a customers as repeat customers, the volume of their later order increases (a sign of customer satisfaction). The lower number of unique customers may have been due partially to the lack of funding and labor we had for wider outreach and advertising to reach a larger customer base. We had only one person hired to do most of the North Circle work.  In 2018, we focused most of social media advertising in North Branch with some advertising to our other drop sites areas.  North Branch customers increased significantly. The other drop site areas were just beginning to show some results at the end of the 2018 season, providing some promise for a wider markets in 2019. By the end of 2018 we had an increase of sales of over $ 6,500 compared to 2017 calendar year. 

North-Circle-AVG.-Orders-per-week

North-Circle-of-Sales-by-Year1

North-Circle-Revenue-Sales-Per-year

NC-of-Unique-Customers-by-year

In 2018, we recruited 18 returning farmers willing to continue their commitment to the North Circle Online Farmers Market in 2019 along with our nine drop sites ready and available for 2019. Our customer base in North Branch has never been stronger and people are excited about the 2019 market. Much needed funding from a recently awarded SHIP grant (2018) will be used to widen our advertising and promotion in 2019, thereby reaching more low-income and racially diverse potential customers.

 

Participation Summary
18 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

50 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Webinars / talks / presentations

Participation Summary

18 Farmers
Education/outreach description:

Information about the our project was shared primarily with participating farmers, community stakeholders, and repeat customers, NCR-SARE field visit and reports. 

Learning Outcomes

18 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Lessons Learned:

What we learned is that the creation and success of a regional online farmers market in our rural area will take time.  The problem that remains unresolved is that WEI earned about half of what is needed to hire our North Circle Coordinator, support the project’s administrative work and purchase supplies for North Circle. What WEI made from Amador Hill Farm sales as a North Circle farm, plus the 15% admin service use fee, and North Circle farmer membership fees ($10 per farm) was not yet enough to sustain the project for WEI’s administration.  As a Chisago County nonprofit charity organization, WEI can seek donor support to make up the difference and can consider North Circle as one of our charity community services until receive additional funding.  A better solution to this requires future work in integrating North Circle operations into programs that foster healthy eating in more diverse local populations and in finding stronger investments from other resources in our community to support our work. The success in our first two years lends itself to these opportunities.

In the happy update a few years from now, we want North Circle to become a financially viable program of the Women’s Environmental Institute and a significant resource for a lively community-based regional farming and food economy. We will revisit our initial objectives, some of which we could not get to, as set forth in this grant to continue our food justice work  At this point we give many thanks to NCR-SARE for helping us conceptualize and make possible the birth of the North Circle Online Farmers Market.

 

Women’s Environmental Institute 2017 Year End Report features North Circle Food Hub

Project Outcomes

18 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant received that built upon this project
9 New working collaborations
Success stories:

North-Circle-Sales-Per-year

The enthusiasm we have for one another is captured by Marissa Harder-Chapman, our 2018 North Circle Food Hub Coordinator who speaks as a consumer and as a skillful manager:

From the 2018 North Circle Coordinator:

As the coordinator of the program, I had the honor of meeting these farmers each week and seeing the pride they took in growing such beautiful, healthy produce. Also as a customer, I was able to feed my family with incredibly fresh produce that is unlike any we can find in our regional grocery stores. Celery that could compete with a bouquet of flowers for beauty from Beulah Land Farm, the sweetest sweet corn around from Naples Acres, giant bell peppers from Outstanding in Our Field, huge bunches of basil perfect for pesto from Love Thy Neighbor Farm, and the apples from WEI, (oh, the apples!) I could go on and on, but you’d just lament winter.

From one of our customers:

The North Circle Food Hub is magical!  I can pick up and chose what I need when I want it.  Everything is beautiful, fresh and filled with local vibrant life energy. Yum?

 

 

Recommendations:

We sincerely need and recommend another year of funding for the North Circle Online Farmers Market and with extra funds to have the North Circle Coordinator work with a group of local stakeholders to create a strategic plan for developing community connections, other sources city funding and investments, and expanded markets. This would included a renewed focus on EBT/SNAP customers.

 

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.