FAIRFIELD, Maine — “I am first and foremost a farmer,” Abby Holm of New Hampshire told farmers, backyard gardeners and community organizers gathered in Fairfield on Saturday for a fall agricultural marketing conference.
But Holm realized that business skills could be applied to her organic farm to make it more profitable. For six years, she has farmed in the Plymouth area, and for the past two years has been the outreach coordinator for an online farmers market, one of many tools discussed Saturday.
The online option is not only successful in New Hampshire, but is spreading to Maine. Western Maine Alliance is planning two online ventures next spring, one in Farmington and a second in Skowhegan.
Holm explained to more than 60 interested farmers how to operate such a venture, and the great success it had.
In the first year, the online market had 12 participating farmers and 75 customers. “This year we easily doubled that,” she said.
The Plymouth project opts for a Wednesday shopping day and a Thursday delivery day. On Monday and Tuesday, the farmers within the group’s area send in lists of what is available. Shoppers receive an e-mail on Wednesday telling them the “store” is open and all deliveries are paid for online and delivered to the local farmers market the next day.
“Our goal was to increase sales, eliminate food waste and reduce transportation expenses,” Holm said. “We succeeded.”
The online store offers a spread sheet of farm-by-farm offerings for each week — such as produce, eggs, dairy, meat, flowers and baked goods — farm biographies, educational pages and a disclaimer that if a customer fails to pick up an order, it will be donated to the local shelter.
Volunteers are used to distribute the goods and all coolers and other items are donated. Customers bring their own bags.
Holm said that since the pickup site is at the Plymouth Farmers’ Market, that market has also seen a large increase in volume.
“What our customers told us is that they wanted to keep the money local, reduce the food miles of the food they consume and keep local land in agriculture,” Holm said. It was a bonus, she said, when it was discovered that 61 percent of the online shoppers visited the farmers market for the first time because of the project.
“That is what we are really promoting here,” Holm said. “The farmers market is fundamental in a community. It is where people meet each other, talk to each other and begin to understand each other.”
Tonya Swain of the Western Mountains Alliance, one of the co-sponsors of Saturday’s workshop, said that an online market should be ready for Skowhegan and Farmington by next spring. Details are still being worked out, she said, but area farmers are buying into the idea and getting excited about the growth possibility.
Workshops and sessions were also held on word-of-mouth marketing and the success of buying clubs. The workshop was also sponsored by Heart of Maine RC&D.