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

Project Overview

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


Not commodity specific


  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development
  • Sustainable Communities: food hubs, local and regional food systems


    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 ( 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.






    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.