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

Information Products


Not commodity specific


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

    Proposal summary:


    This past year (2016) Tacy and I launched the pilot year for the North Circle Food Hub -- recruiting farms for the project, bringing local stakeholders and farmers together in a community meal, developing a website for the food hub (, and while nurturing a good working relationship with Farmer’s Web which provided the platform for our ordering services. This first project year was supported by a grant from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet. We received more than 1,000 hits on our website and over 127 “subscribers”,who stated an interest in receiving our weekly availability list, but we had little more than 60 customer sales in the first year, while still having a large base of verbalized community support and enthusiasm at the end of the season.

    The specific problem we want to solve in the second and third year of the North Circle Food Hub is how to effectively increase rural consumer motivation to buy organic or sustainably grown produce from local farmers through an on-line service. We have four components under consideration: (1) how to motivate interested “subscribers” to become active consumers (i.e. go on line and actually select and order produce), (2) how to do better outreach to our “community messengers” who have good social capital to spread the word about the food hub (eg. 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 as well as crops). Our “virtual food hub” clearly has the potential to provide a life-line of supplementary and sustaining income for our small-scale rural farmers and of building community with/between farmers and our local community.


    Our modest short term goal is to reach an average of 40-80 sales per week in the next two years, with a minimum $20 purchase. Our long term goal is to create a solid beginning of an alternative organically-minded local food system at the end of 23 months which will be self sustaining and well known in the area. We think the challenge here is a rural one, as on-line produce services, CSAs and consumer consciousness do seem more likely to flourish in larger cities. Our strategy is to provide a modified CSA guided by convenience, health and consumer preference and the ideas of buy local. While commercial organic produce in our town is mostly flown in from California or Mexico, the North Circle Food Hub will demonstrate how to build a virtual food hub in a rural area and how to educate and develop a rural customer base for our farmers.

    We propose to accomplish these goals by: one-on-one outreach to community messengers, a film series at the local library on food/farming/climate change, a lecture on “Finding Food in Farm Country”, a focus group with North Circle farmers to ask what might motivate our consumers, five smaller focus groups with different consumer subgroups to ask what might motivate this type of consumption, a third party service for SNAP/EBT customers, several trips of the North Circle SNAP Truck (WEI vehicle) to lower income areas, regular press releases, vignettes/photo stories/ testimonials from North Circle farmers and consumers, intensified social media and local media outreach and communications. We believe one of the major solutions to the economic crisis of small scale rural sustainable/organic growers is finding/motivating local consumers – we will test this by our anticipated increase in sales and careful tracking and measurement of the signs of success.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    1. Develop in North Branch, Minnesota (and surrounding area) a rural customer base and consumer motivation to buy organic or sustainably grown produce from small scale local farmers through an on-line virtual food hub service.
    2. Promote organic farming practices, educating about how these practices match an ethic of planetary care for soil, water, plants, microbes, waste management, and recycling.
    3. Increase farmers' income without the burden of marketing and farmers’ market time spent away from the field by creating an on-line virtual food hub service.
    4. Create social benefits such as helping farmers receive more public media attention on their farms and become known to the community as a valuable asset, and informing consumers about local food options, hopefully catalyzing a shift in consumer ethics and demand that exists outside of industrial large scale commodity food production systems.
    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.