Old School New School
This is the year you’ll visit an online farmers market (at least you should).
I know; it seems counterintuitive. Farmers markets are as old school as it get. They’re quaint and homespun, all about time-honored tradition and sensual, earthy pleasures. Could anything be more IRL?
Here come the
corporate interlopers online distributors.
Virtual markets promise organic produce, heirloom varieties, and artisan-made foods delivered to your doorstep. Small startups like Backyard Produce, Good Eggs, Farmigo, and Full Circle have been aiming for their own regional footholds, and now the e-commerce giant Overstock wants to take it nationwide. Famous for peddling marked down closeout home goods and last year’s model electronics, Overstock is launching an online farmers’ marketplace and aiming to take it national.
The farmers market movement could stagnate without an online marketplace.
Industry watchers speculate that we might have reached ‘peak farmers market.’ Farmers markets blew up beginning in the 1990’s when fewer than 2,000 of them were scattered across the country. The number of markets doubled and then doubled again, now standing at 8,268, and farmers have seen double and triple-digit growth in lucrative direct-to-consumer sales. Today, even though consumer demand remains high, sales have stalled in recent years. New outlets like farm-to-table restaurants and specialty grocers have picked off some of the sales, but some think that the farmers market boom may be leveling off because of mismatched supply and demand.
Key urban markets have run out of farmers.
Urban farmers markets used to be a weekend morning phenomenon where farmers would set up once a week in an out of the way parking lot. Now there are weekday markets, night markets, winter markets, downtown markets, and pop-up markets. While city residents can support the concentration of markets, the high-priced farmland of regional ecosystems can’t support enough producers. The problem is especially acute in cities in the Northeast and on the West Coast, while in the less densely populated regions of the Midwest and Southwest, there are plenty of farmers but fewer urban outlets within their reach.
Overstock just might be a good thing for local farmers.
There’s a tendency to be reflexively dismissive toward Overstock, but you shouldn’t. The company has other community-focused ventures under its belt like Worldstock, a fair trade world artisans’ division, Main Street Revolution, an Etsy-like business selling American-made products from individuals and small businesses, and the Pet Adoption feature, which lets animal shelters across the country to piggyback on the shopping site as a free service to connect consumers to adoptable pets.
It’s a national network, but the goal is to ship locally.
Overstock has taken a grass roots approach to the enterprise and is building a national network of growers and producers. Ahead of this season’s launch, they started the process by cold-calling small farms listed in the US Department of Agriculture’s local foods directory, focusing on small and family-owned operations and avoiding those practicing larger-scale organic production in which farms win a label by adhering to minimally-required organic standards. So far they’ve signed up enough farms to serve about a third of the country’s zip codes with truly fresh, local shipments, and hope to achieve national coverage within a season or two. Customers outside of a locally-served range can select certain non-local seasonal produce and less fragile foods like grains, cheese, jam, and meats.
You might wonder, “Why buy from a national, online retailer if it’s coming from my own zip code?”
Farmers and consumers both enjoy the sense of community and connection found at farmers markets, but too many small growers are lacking nearby consumer options while others are spread too thinly by the explosive growth of outlets in their regions. For the farmers, marketing their wares, trucking produce in and out, and staffing the booths is an expensive, gas-guzzling, time-consuming process; shipping through an intermediary can actually be more profitable. Online shopping can also be a cost-effective choice for consumers. Obviously it’s a time saver, and shipping is at most a few dollars and nearly always free.
An online farmers market is also surprisingly green.
It’s true that a huge, fuel-burning truck will be bringing the produce to you, but a giant retailer like Overstock is probably already cruising your block, bringing a set of deeply-discounted 480-thread count sheets to someone in the neighborhood. The incremental energy consumption and emissions created by one more shopping order and one more delivery stop added to the route is less significant than if you get into your own car and make the drive to the market. A study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University’s Green Design Institute found that an online purchase with home delivery can save 35 percent in energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions over a traditional market outing.
Online shopping can never take the place of stroll around the outdoor stalls of fresh produce on a sunny day.
But it can be a source of fresh, seasonal, and local produce. It can sustain local food systems and keep consumer spending in local economies. And it just might open up the marketplace to provide the opportunities and support that small farmers need to survive in today’s globalized economy.