Farmers harness the web to market their products

Project Overview

CNE08-038
Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2008: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Allen Arnold
Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Animal Products: eggs, meat

Practices

  • Education and Training: technical assistance
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, marketing management, e-commerce, farm-to-institution
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, new business opportunities, social networks, sustainability measures, community development

    Proposal abstract:

    There is money to be made in farming (over 60% of U.S. farms ended 1998 with a profit), but not for most small farmers. “In the same year, most small farm groups did not report adequate income to cover expenses and subsidized the costs of their farming activities with income from off-farm sources.” (Source: U.S Department of Agriculture report, Bulletin No. 768. The problem put simply is that the owners of small farms cannot charge the prices they need to for their goods to allow them to sustain themselves and their families and also remain competitive in most commodity markets. Where farmers could command higher prices is with direct sales to restaurants, but in West Virginia restaurants import over 95% of their food items from other states and countries even though they could be grown in state. There are over a dozen high end restaurants in the State that serve such wild-life items as quail, pheasant and rabbit, but all these items are coming from outside the state. The Greenbrier Resort alone spends well over a million dollars annually purchasing game. Game is one example, but not the most glaring one. Virtually every restaurant in the state buys its gourmet salad greens from outside the state, even during the growing season. With all of these products, when you include transportation costs, they are commanding prices which would allow local farmers to compete if they knew how. One important contributing factor to this situation is that owners of small West Virginia farms (1 to 99 acres) have little experience customizing their production and then pricing their goods so that they can sustain their farm. Nearly half of West Virginia’s 20,000 farmers grow their crops on less than 100 acres, but with the kind of customized growing suggested through this initiative that is enough land to make a living. Collaborative 21C has begun dealing with these issues for the past two years with some success. In fact, through support from multiple funders, Collaborative 21C has very recently created a website that provides farmers the opportunity to market their farm stand or their pick-your-own products or the community farmers’ market. Another part of the site provides for the selling of specialty products to chefs. Some farmers know how to take advantage of this opportunity and have already signed on, but others will need assistance to be able to use the website. The activities of the earlier grants consisted of setting up meetings of chefs with farmers to discuss how to build a cadre of customized growers for high end restaurants. This proposal specifically builds on that work by providing the training that is necessary to allow farmers to take advantage of this new communication infrastructure built by Collaborative for the 21Century Appalachia—a statewide website–available to them to market their farm products. In fact, this proposal specifically responds to evaluation feedback in those dialogue sessions where: (a) 85% of the farmers attending requested greater familiarity with the computer and e-marketing, (b) 90% said they could use some guidance in pricing and crop/product selection, and (c) of that group 100% said they thought this information would be likely to have a positive impact on their bottom line.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    This 2008 SARE Sustainable Community proposal focuses on building farmers’ capacity to harness the communication infrastructure of a statewide marketing website to achieve economic growth. The program activities of the grant are carried out by a collaboration team comprised of Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia, West Virginia University Extension Service, and a West Virginia farmer–with ongoing input from farmers around the state. This project has evolved because of needs identified in two pair of grants. These grants were bookend grants—meaning that by laying them side by side geographically, they covered the entire state, i.e., WV Development Office funds may be used only with distressed WV counties, so SARE Sustainable Community grants were then used for the non-distressed. This SARE proposal is the third such bookend—the West Virginia Development Office counterpart has recently been funded. The initial grant activities involved grass-roots dialogues which brought a handful of chefs to farmers/food producers with the expectation that these sessions could create an awareness of and stimulate an interest in farmers doing customized growing for high-end restaurants and resorts. The approach throughout has been to work with the state’s farmers through their county extension agent to build their capacity to supply the quantity and quality of product expected by that new market. Those efforts bore some fruit. Data shared by Brian Wickline, Extension Agent for Monroe County at a statewide meeting with his fellow Extension Agents describes the result of his and the Monroe county farmers’ work. Brian’s then latest report illustrated that their calf pool grossed just under $400,000 with a differential of about $40,000 (or about 10 percent). That same report showed results for the egg and produce farmers who have been working with Collaborative 21C and selling to chefs. Their gross sales were $78,000–but the differential or premium for selling their specialty products to high end restaurants and resorts was $28,000 (or 36 percent)—on a percentage basis approximately three and a half times more than the calf pool and virtually the same dollar figure overall. These positive results spurred us on and our current efforts are designed to increase the farmers’ ability to direct market as well as to increase the number of chefs who purchase in-state produced specialty foodstuffs. Collaborative 21C has constructed a new e-market agricultural website which provides a bulletin board available to the public where farmers can publicize their roadside stands and their pick-your-owns, etc., as well as sell their value added farm and artisan products. The site also provides a separate component where farmers can list their specialty products in order to sell to chefs. Some farmers have already been savvy enough to register on the website and list their wares, but many of the 10,000 small farms in WV are going to need training and/or more assistance than these early adopters. This SARE proposal joins WVU Extension service in working with Collaborative 21C to identify and then provide necessary training on how to harness the potential of this new statewide website for the farm community– thereby creating a long-term boost to their and West Virginia’s economy.

    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.