The Farm to Fork Exchange is designed to achieve these objectives:
1. Increase sales for individual producers
2. Provide producers with information on the demand for the different types of products
3. Increase interest in cooperative marketing, which will allow access to new markets, including schools, restaurants and retail outlets
The Farm to Fork Exchange planned to promote locally produced products through a Web site that featured local producers and their products along with a brochure promoting the local-purchase idea. Seven small farmers, a farmers market and a community supported agriculture project began with the goal of diversifying marketing opportunities and improving profitability. The created Web site, www.farmtoforkexchange.com, consists of a home page, several supporting pages and profiles on four producers, who have reported a modest number of contacts. Other producers have expressed interest in participating but have yet to be featured on the site.
Neither the planned brochure nor the promotional activities materialized, and project coordinator Nate Jones reports that project was “not a great success.” He cites three problems: 1) many of the original participants weren’t ready for the project, 2) the original pool of participants was too small and 3) the Web designers were difficult to work with and did a poor job. Jones remains undaunted.
“We are continuing the project and hope to remedy the current problems by expanding the pool of participants and redesigning the Web site ourselves,” says Jones.
The Farmer Network, the core group underpinning this project, comprised growers, grower groups and interested consumers working together to find creative solutions to the challenges facing local farmers. The network included full- and part-time farmers and ranchers with a diversity of products ranging from lamb, beef and poultry to grains, vegetables, baked goods and preserves. They had planned to use a variety of marketing strategies, but anticipated that a presence on the Internet would foster increased exposure and sales.
The project fell far short of reaching its original goals, says Jones, but participants have learned valuable lessons that will improve current and future projects. Jones lists accomplishments as well as the lessons learned.
The site includes information on Farm to Fork, a message encouraging visitors to buy locally, a thank you to Western SARE and the Idaho Rural Council for their sponsorship, links to related sites and buttons to each of the four producers featured – Jeff and Carol Rast of Prairie Sun Farm in the Wood River Valley sell certified organic vegetables; Fred and Judy Brossy of Ernie’s Organics in Shoshone sell organic produce; Ray and Sherry Hoem of the Hoemstead in Buhl sell vegetables and specialize in lamb sales directly to restaurants; and the Harvest from Harmony CSA and farmers market in Twin Falls, which handles produce from the farmers featured on the site.
Few of the queries on the Web site, most from out of state and one from Japan, yielded direct sales. It appeared that local consumers are not accustomed to buying local products over the Internet.
The Web experiences taught producers that the Internet is no substitute for a good business plan that includes a well-thought-out marketing plan. Even before the Web site is designed, producers planning to sell on the Internet should know their target market, what products they will sell over the Internet, how e-consumers will contact them and how they will deliver their products. Once the site is designed and built, producers need to inform targeted consumers that fresh, high quality and locally produced products can be purchased through an identified Web site.
The project team also learned that finding qualified Web designers can be a challenge. Despite an extensive search, they ended up with people who were rarely available, charged high rates and worked poorly with the SARE project participants. The result, says the project’s final report, was a lackluster site with little to catch and hold the eye of site visitors. Project members also learned the importance of getting an explicit contract in writing that details what the designers will do and what the site will look like. They learned that few so-called web site designers have any real design experience, so they advise hiring a site designer separate from the Web site builder. They offer the following tips for making a successful Web site:
• Each page on the site should be linked back to the home page.
• Use white space judiciously. Don’t make the pages too busy. Less is more.
• Make sure that it is immediately obvious what you’re trying to get across.
• Avoid large pictures and fancy graphics that slow site loading. Instead, use a smaller picture that can be clicked on for a larger view.
• Double check all site information, then have someone outside the project double check it again.
• Have people outside the project review and critique the site.
• Avoid fancy backgrounds. Different computers display them differently, and they can make the site difficult to read or unappealing.
• Avoid fancy plug-ins or graphics that require the ‘latest’ browsers.
• Check the site frequently to make sure it’s running well.
• Ask the designer to include a tracking mechanism to count site visitors.
• Avoid a message that says when the site was last updated unless you update it frequently.
Given the disappointing quality of the Web site and the lack of enough participating producers, the project members decided it would not produce a brochure or conduct the project’s planned promotional activities. The site was featured in the Idaho Rural Council newsletter, at its 2000 and 2002 annual meetings, at its 2000 Harvest Dinner and during sustainable agriculture meetings. But participating producers chose not to give presentations to local service clubs, and the local promotional radio program was canceled.
“The participating producers did not have enough product or capacity to merit the large promotional campaign we had planned,” says the project report. “We have worked to recruit other producers in the area with limited success.”
The largest problem the project encountered was the lack of enough participants. The original pool of nine was too small and several were unprepared to take advantage of the project. Few had a marketing plan or even enough produce or capacity for additional sales, and several lacked familiarity with computers.
“A successful Internet cooperative marketing project needs a critical mass of producers willing to make the investment in time and effort to develop a new market,” says the final report.
While the benefits of selling produce over the Internet have been borne out by several successful operations around the West, this project highlighted many of the pitfalls that can be encountered. Others who are interested in launching a Web-based marketing plan will gain the benefits of the Farm to Fork Exchanges experiences.