Farmers embrace new technology to market and sell products

Farmers and food entrepreneurs across the country have developed innovative ways to connect producers and purchasers through online farmers market and food co-op models.

There are many challenges associated with shopping locally and supporting local food. Many people’s busy work schedules and other commitments make it hard to visit the farmers market on a weekly basis. As a society, we have also become much more connected through technology and the World Wide Web. A solution was needed to bridge the gap in an innovative way that would allow people a easy access to local food through an online system.

One of the first online food purchasing models was developed right here in Michigan, with the West Michigan Co-op (WMC). The seeds for the WMC were planted in 2006 when four Grand Rapids community members – Jerry Adams, Tom Cary, Gail Philbin and Paul DeLeeuw – asked the question, “How can we help local, small farmers sell their products directly to consumers year-round?” The answer became an online farmers market that allows community members to browse a database of products and pick and choose what they want to purchase for a particular month.

The co-op members pick up their online purchases on a designated monthly pick-up night. This particular feature allows members the opportunity to get to know the farmers and producers from whom they are purchasing and helps to strengthen the bonds between producer and consumer. Forming these bonds creates a stronger and more vibrant local food economy. The WMC has grown significantly since these humble beginnings and now sells more than 1,200 products from 50 different farmers and producers to the 500 WMC members.

An important selling point for the WMC is its availability during all months of the year. While many farmers markets across the region are in the process of closing down for the season, the WMC is still going strong through the winter months. This helps drive interest in locally produced goods and products beyond the typical Michigan growing season and turns eating locally produced food into a year-round activity. WMC memberships are available for a yearly membership fee of $35, but new members receive a two-month free trial period to make sure the co-op is the right fit for them.

For more information on farmers markets across the state, both real and virtual, visit the Michigan Farmers Markets Association website. To learn more about the community food systems in your area, contact your local Michigan State University Extension expert; use the site’s “Find an Expert” toll using the search words “community food.”

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