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The farmers’ market goes high tech

A small group of local food producers are taking their marketing efforts online

Squinting through blowing snow isn’t how most vendors travel to farmers’ markets across Manitoba — but that’s the sort of trip owners of Thousand Hills Ranch take once in a while.

Tiina and Dean Hildebrand, who raise grass-fed beef and lamb near Morden, keep a segment of the Morden summer farmers’ market going through the entire winter. They and a half-dozen other vendors aren’t making that trip merely hoping their customers will brave the weather to do the same, either.

Their load of frozen steak, ribs and other meat cuts are sold well ahead of setting up at the public library for their alternative Thursday afternoon sale.

The Hildebrands are part of the Pembina Valley Local Food Market, launched last fall through Local Line, a Kitchener-Waterloo-based company providing a software platform for local food producers to sell online and significantly extend their reach to customers beyond market days.

The Hildebrands and others in the Pembina Market opted to create both an individual online store for their own businesses, plus one for the entire farmers’ market, which they call their “hub.”

“We decided to be a vendor group and run a local food market this way,” said Tiina Hildebrand. They’d previously operated a buyers’ club for several years, with one of them administering customer orders.

Their own online store now has about 300 registered customers, and their hub has about that many again.

It enables them to keep in contact with customers who they might not otherwise see until the summer markets start up again, said Hildebrand.

“We all have a lot of customers in the summer,” she said. “This is a great way to keep in touch through the winter.”

The real gain is being able to sell product ahead of market days — a boon to planning for market days as well.

“It takes a lot of the guesswork out of it as a vendor,” she said. “Everything we bring is pre-ordered, so you’re not going to market with the hope people will come to your table, or not being sure how much to bring.”

Lynette Froese, who owns Wheat Song Bakery, has sold her organic breads at the local market, through the buying club, and direct to stores for nearly 20 years, using a variety of social media to keep in touch with her customers. She’s decided to keep one retail customer, but now sells all her product through the Pembina Valley Local Food Market, and during the summer months at the farmers’ market. She has many repeat customers, she said. Their online hub is good for additional product exposure.

“I’m using Local Line to be accessible to those people who don’t know me as well, and partnering with the rest of the people in that group. They have their own contacts. We can help each other out that way,” she said. “For most of us, we do want our business to increase and to get more customers.”

Other vendors in the Pembina Valley Local Food Market sell vegetables, honey, fancy baked goods, eggs and pastured poultry.

Local Line started up in 2015 to provide a range of e-Commerce services to local food producers and food makers, and now has customers in six provinces, 19 U.S. states, and an emerging customer base in Australia, said company CEO Cole Jones.

Local Line’s customers are farmers, wholesalers, and food producers looking for infrastructure that provides alternative and more reliable options to make sales than the traditional farmers’ markets. To remain confined to that narrow window to make sales, hoping weather co-operates and customers show up isn’t a long-term way to build a business, Jones said.

“What we’re trying to do is help the farmer find the channel that works best for them to get to market, whether that’s households, or to restaurants or retail locations. Our platform supports all these types of transactions,” he said.

The Pembina Valley Local Food Market is one example of a shift of entire farmers’ markets online that Local Line is seeing, Jones said.

He predicts more entire farmers’ markets will be online in the next decade, as more vendors recognize the benefit of having 24-7 connection with customers to their businesses. That won’t replace traditional markets altogether, but create a blend of options for vendors and enable them to extend their reach well beyond these single venues, he said.

“I just think we’ve overdone the farmers’ markets a little bit,” he said. As anyone whose risen at 4 a.m., hauled product to market, sold half and given the other half away knows “it’s not a long-term sustainable way to actually grow the business,” he said.

“And you’re starting to see a massive generational shift in farming with second or fourth or fifth generations taking over,” he said. It’s inevitable that they’ll adopt new forms of direct marketing beyond the traditional outdoor markets.

“They grew up differently, and the likelihood that they’ll do business differently, using things like e-commerce to find customers and be a more profitable sales channel, is pretty much guaranteed.”

The benefit to the customer tapping into an online farmers’ market, meanwhile, is having one site to see what’s on offer, from multiple vendors.

Hildebrand said in even just the few months they’ve been using Local Line’s services, she’s liked the way customers are now a click away any time of day, plus the software enables her to quickly update inventory, listed prices, send customers reminders, and track sales.

“For us it is definitely worth our while,” she said, adding about half their farm’s entire production is direct marketed.

More information about Local Line is found on the company’s website.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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