Online Shopping Attracts New Customers to Local Farm Markets

02/08/2022

A visit to any farmers market is, by its very nature, social. The mingling with other shoppers. The chit-chatting with the vendors. You get to know your neighbors and the folks who grow your food on a deeper level. So what happens when the “social” part of just about everything is stripped away and the world moves much of its interactions online? According to Happy Valley’s farmers markets and farmers, you move online, too — and discover you can fill a void in the process that you never even knew existed. 

Making Things Easier, From Field to Fork

How often does a business solution not only make things more convenient for producers and service providers, but also for the end consumer? That’s exactly what happened when farmers markets around the region began moving their offerings online. They discovered that both farmers/producers and customers found the system more convenient, which, in part, opened up local foods to an entirely new customer base that didn’t have the time or ability to get out to their local farmers market during its limited hours. 

Sabine Carey is the director at Centre Markets, which offers an online market that’s open to orders Wednesday through Friday. Shoppers can choose options from more than 35 local farmers and producers and then can choose to pick up their order on Saturdays or get it delivered. 

“By quickly pivoting to an online market system, we were able to make it safer and more convenient for our loyal shopper base to access their familiar farmers that they already knew and trusted,” Carey says. “There was much gratitude from both the community and our producers, and we quickly outgrew our space and sales system. Through financial support from our amazing shoppers, our GoFundMe actually enabled us to purchase a dedicated delivery van and add local delivery as a popular service.”

And, two years later, the online ordering option is still popular, regardless of loosened pandemic restrictions. In fact, beyond the growth that required the addition of the delivery van, growth also spurred Centre Markets to establish a permanent pick-up location in collaboration with Nature’s Pantry, and Centre Markets continues to expand its producer network, also including offerings from local chefs and caterers. The online market additionally plans to begin accepting SNAP EBT this year, which will improve local food access in the community. 

“We continue to see a strong demand for our service, both from our farmers and shoppers. Our farmers comment on the convenience of harvesting to order and dropping the items off, rather than harvesting, standing at market all day and risking waste as they return home with any unsold produce,” says Carey. “And our shoppers enjoy the fact that they can shop from multiple local farmers and food producers from the comfort of the couch.  At a time when quarantining and social distancing is part of our daily lives, this is a huge benefit for those at increased health risks.”

Tony Musso, founder at State College On-Line Market tells a similar story. 

“COVID hit and we said, ‘What the heck? Let's try this. Let's do everything online.’ We would create an online shopping cart, and all the vendors would have to do is bring their products after they're ordered and paid for, on a Friday morning, to a location, and I would set up all the orders with a name on a bag. The vendors would just walk down the aisle, dropping the items in the bag,” Musso explains. “From the customer side, we created it as a total drive-thru. You never have to get out of your car. There's no shopping. There's no interaction with people. You just pull up, we open your car door, we put your bags in and you may drive on.”

Once the online market was up and running, he says it “continued to grow and grow, and the customer got to the point where they just absolutely love the whole idea.” And, much like Centre Markets, the State College On-Line Market has continued using the same pandemic-friendly business model even as restrictions have lessened, because, as Musso notes, the customers love the convenience.

The number of vendors who sell through the online market differs according to season, but Musso also says the online system receives rave reviews on the vendor side, as vendors have seen increased sales — though there could be more to credit than simply the convenience of online shopping.

“[The producers] are more in tune with marketing in general than they were, say, 10 years ago, before all of the online [offerings] and COVID,” Musso says. “If I asked an Amish farmer, ‘What are you doing on Saturday?’ His answer would basically be, ‘I'm bringing my stuff and I'm putting it out.’ But now they ask how they can sell more and, on the same token, they're more receptive to suggestions.”

See a Need, Fill a Need

Along those same lines, the markets aren’t the only ones identifying voids that they can fill. On a more individual level, the farmers and producers around Happy Valley are doing it, too. Musso recounts his experience with one vendor, Daniel Hostetler of Hostetler Farm, who previously focused only on produce. 

“He noticed, during the summer, we had a period where the market was changing meat vendors … There was a two or three-week delay where we had no meat vendor, so he was asking me about it … and, son of a gun, five weeks later, he comes to me and says, ‘Hey, guess what! I’m butchering four cows’,” says Musso. The change not only helped the market as a whole, but gave Hostetler Farm expanded income during the produce-light winter months — and it’s a trend Hostetler is continuing, expanding to offer other products through the market, such as veal and chicken.

Agriculture By App

Happy Valley nonprofit Appalachian Food Works’s entire mission is to support farmers and producers by connecting them with restaurants and locals who want and need their products, bolstering the agricultural economy while also expanding access to local foods. The nonprofit similarly found a new avenue of distribution online when the pandemic began. 

“We had been working with a platform in development from a Penn State hospitality professor, called Dezi,” explains Travis Lesser, founder and executive director at Appalachian Food Works. “We had just had a whole beef processed, so we had inventory we needed to move. Luckily, people were focusing on supporting local businesses and buying beef in bulk at that time, so we were able to offer some items for retail sale and home delivery [through the app]. Not only did this give us a bit of cash flow during an otherwise slow time, it was a great way for us to get our name out to the community, especially to those who were looking to source their food locally. Had we not been able to start offering retail sales like this, I’m not sure we would be talking about Appalachian Food Works in the way we are now.”

Over the pandemic, Lesser says that the organization was able to remain nimble and adjust to changes in both supply and demand as needed, which allowed Appalachian Food Works to incrementally scale up and address community needs that lie within its resources and capabilities, namely “ensuring that people are getting fed, and that they are getting fed food that is grown and produced from our own area so that our food producers can continue to do just that.”

Today, Appalachian Food Works continues to offer products via an online format, The Market @ App Food Works, and Lesser and team even managed to scale up to the point that the organization needed a new home, which it found at Titan Energy Park in Bellefonte

Looking further toward the future, Lesser says, “We’re going to be offering cold, frozen and dry storage rental for our food producers, giving us an additional means of support for them. Additionally, we’ll be starting some of the programming that we were conceptualizing in early 2020, like the next iteration of our Farmer Buyer Meetup. Our first event for 2022 is coming up, Feb. 12 with the 7-Course Valentine’s Fundraiser Dinner. This programming helps us with our mission to provide support to Central Pennsylvania food producers, and also increases our visibility in the community so that people can understand better what it is we’re here to do.” 

How have you noticed Happy Valley’s farmers and producers evolving to stay successful? Drop a comment below and let us know or email us at greg@affinityconnection.com

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