Creating demand side of the marketing equation for locally produced foods

william Melver's picture

 This locavores thing is really catching on but at the same time, most farmers don't have the luxury of time to spend hours at a Farmers market, peddling their products.  What's needed are smarter ways to connect the suppliers/producers with their customers.  Casey Hoy's ant colony study keeps coming to my mind and with all these new technologies/softwares for communicating with each other, there must be a way.  My wife and I have become connected to Tina Wagner and Brad Masi's City Fresh program this year.  We've been experimenting - one week a single share, another week a family share, sometimes, we just collect few items from our volunteer share.  Conclusion - family share is way too much food and even a single share, we have to really plan hard to consume a week's worth.  I compared notes with my daughter and her family - they have three small children - and she concurs - lots of planning or the food goes bad.  This surfaces two key points - a need to facilitate the planning and a need to communicate the availability of food so the consumers come to collect them in lieu of  a "per chance" buying patterns that most retailers rely on.  We already know from past experience and growing patterns, what vegetables become available during the season.  We should be able to develop recommended buying patterns, based on availability of products and educate the consumers to plan on what to buy and eat for the coming week, coming months..  This may be way too structured for most folks but I think we have to begin thinking about how to capitalize on things that are readily available to improve our life styles as well as our health and well being.  Geologically, we know that Ohio is blessed with one of the richest soils for agriculture.  We need to couple that to the available technologies and softwares - like twitter, facebook, etc. to communicate, network and create new ways to bring the demand (consumers) much closer and in synch to the suppliers (the farmers).  We've already started the paradym shift to begin eating locally produced foods.  Now the challenge is how to make it efficient enough to support the suppliers (farmers) so that they can shift away from producing for the mega buyers and cater more to the small markets and local consumers. 

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Farmer to consumer

Neal Bluel's picture

This comment is affirmation that what we are working on is so important. We are currently working on the development of a process of getting information from local communities on what the food needs are. This is an interdisciplinary project with Anthropology and Horticulture. It is our hope to have this process empower producers to be able to gather information quickly and effectively from the locavores meitoned above. We also need to provide them with information on new producrts the consumer might be requesting, such as specfic ethnic foods for minority populations. This information will help the producer's farm planning, food production, and efficient distribution.

Solving this problem was my

ewagoner's picture

Solving this problem was my main reason for developing my online farmers market system at

After eight years, my market in Athens, GA, (Athens Locally Grown) has grown to become one of the largest farmers markets in the southeast, with nearly 100 area growers, ranging in size from full-time farmers to backyard gardeners, selling each week to a couple thousand households. The customers get the convenience of online shopping conbined with the flexibility of farmers market buying (that is, there are no CSA-style boxes). The growers get the peace of mind of harvesting to order (there's no speculative harvest) and don't have to devote all those hours to peddling their items to passers by at the market.

The system is self-hosted and extremely simple, so an IT expert isn't required. There are no start-up costs, so communities can get going with the system with no outlay of capital. There are about 100 markets around the country now using the system. There aren't any yet in Ohio, but there are operating markets in all the surrounding states. You can see them all at

You can also see slides from a presentation I've given at a number of sustainable farming conferences here:



RStewart's picture

I think part of the problem discussed here is that A) People do not cook, or cook enough, even people who actively participate in CSAs and B) CSAs are at a best a poor method to distribute food to paying customers.

The other problem I see here is that you are discussing small scale growers, local markets, and creating a local food culture but suggest we need technology to help bring big scale farming (in mind mind this means 1000s of acres) into the fold to supply such cultures.  Yet, these farms would be unable to actually do this.  They NEED to have a large scale production.  That is where they save money not in small runs of specialty produce that a majority of people being sold to do not know what to do with.  You are also suggesting they go outside the crops they are being subsidized to grow (this changes State to State, in Ohio if I recall correctly, this is wheat, corn, and beans).   Nor do they want to be bothered by delivering 15 pounds of yellow wax beans to customer A and 12 beets to customer B.  They want to bulk harvest 12 acres and get the crop onto a truck (most likely trucks) and into the hands of distributor, one of possibly many in a long line to a place they could care less about.

You want the ecentric 4 acre land owner that grows and sells to his neighbors and spends time in the community and chances are is not in need of a high tech system, but good weather and no competition. 

There are a whole lot of independent issues floating around here.

Some farms, especially those selling high end products such as meat, eggs, and cheeses do especially well at markets compared to produce suppliers who have much more competition. Like it or not, almost anyone can grow a tomato or lettuce, but fruit, livestock, honey, and poultry are a different thing entirely.  Lots of skill, note taking, documentation, insurance, and often times federal and state inspections.

Part of the problem is that we assume the producer needs to actually sell direct to consumer.  For example: restaurant, especially smaller, high end, locally owned ones, are a perfect option.  They become the primary buyer of the producer and the farmer's markets become the secondary income source. The producer's main income (and diversity of crops) comes from the chef's needs and what is left over goes to market for general sale to the public.

I've seen lots of producers make use of technology, but it does not always work.  Sometimes, simply showing up, at the first market day, not missing a market day, listening to the cutomers needs, and slowly getting to part of the public's awareness is the key.  Sometimes, the KISS method works much better than coming up with a better mouse trap.  A rrestaurant emails me or calls me, asks what I have, I let them know they order.  I fill the order, they pick-up or I deliver.  Super simple.

In some ways I think we are actually making it more difficult.

In the end I tink the single most important thing for a community to do is to develop a food culture.  That does not mean actually knowing how to cook the food produced in season, but knowing what is in season when they buy or go to a resteraunt using local foods.  You get past that hurdle and supply and demand becomes easier.


future of local food

karen goodheil's picture

This is a great summary.  Everything that I'm trying to express at  The supply and demand equation and keeping it balanced while drastic changes are made from within; i.e.  labor, cost of supplies, related imputs such as the availability of organic chicken feed, small lot processing and paid workers over the extensive use of volunteers who burn out or just aren't totally committed to a long term goal senario.  So many details for putting a $3 plate of food in front of someone at home or the local restaurant.

People do not cook

Chester Bowling's picture

How often do people eat out? An average of one out of five meals consumed by Americans — 4.2 meals per week — is prepared in a commercial setting, according to Meal Consumption Behavior — 2000,* a new National Restaurant Association report. An average of 14.4 meals per week are privately prepared, and the remaining 2.4 meals are skipped.

That means that 77.4% of meals Americans eat are prepared at home.  It sure seems like a lot of opportunity to me.  If that food was local fresh beef, chicken, veggies, fruits, honey, baked goods, cheese, yogurt, etc. instead of processed meals imagine the improved quality of life (health, environment, and economy).  If every one of the 11 million Ohioans consumed one cup (4.5 oz) of fresh vegetables at every one of their 14.4 privately prepared meals per week that would amount to 2,332,687,500 pounds of vegetables per year.  If each serving of vegetables cost $.25 the total market for vegetables in Ohio would be $2,059,200,200.  If 80% of that revenue was spent on wages and the average person producing vegetables made $30,000/year that would be 54,912 good paying jobs.

The research shows that people do cook.  The question is how and what they cook.  The opportunity is to help the consumer understand that there is a world of difference between local fresh produce and prepared produce and that sustainable value (better health, better environment, better economy) is created through the purchase, preparation, and consumption of fresh local foods.

More options

Heather Hilleren's picture

Don't give up! More people are cooking now that the economy is down.

One no-risk solution is to start Buying Clubs for local food.  It works like a virtual farmers' market, or a CSA with ordering.  People order once a week, then pick it up from a central location such as a school or church.  Usually there is an organizer monitoring the exchange.

We received funding from the National Science Foundation to set up the online ordering system for buying clubs (  It is completely free to start and use, and rediculously easy to set up.

This solution balances the demand with supply much better than trying to play matchmaker for farmers- we've also tried that here with less successful results.  It also puts the nonprofit in the position of a broker.