On Oct. 18, Susan Knight Dunn learned why there are no outdoor farmers markets in northern Maine once summer is over.
“Three of us were set up outside at the farmers market in Island Falls that day,” Dunn said. “It was so cold we took turns sitting in each other’s cars, [and] the only people who stopped just wanted to see who was nuts enough to be out there.”
But thanks to Roxanne Bruce, the brains behind an online virtual farmers market, for Dunn, who runs Blue Raven Farm in Island Falls, the cold weather has not put the brakes on her selling fresh baked breads, herbs and homemade soaps over the winter.
Bruce is the founder of Shop Small Farms, an online virtual farmers market that allows growers and crafters like Dunn to connect with shoppers wanting to purchase goods from small farms year round. The two met at a local fiber spinners’ gathering in May.
“Roxanne asked me if there was anything I could sell through her market,” Dunn said. “I told her, ‘Yes, soap and bread,’ so she put into her online farmers market.”
Connecting farmers and shoppers
“We connect farmers with shoppers and shoppers with farmers,” Bruce said. “We do that through social media, fielding questions from shoppers over the phone and helping farmers with community outreach.”
Bruce said she got the idea for an online presence for a group of small farmers while working toward her doctorate in business administration in 2014.
“I was told I had to choose a small business for a project,” she said. “I said I was going to look at farming, and I was told that [farming] is not a business.”
Bruce ignored that observation and went ahead researching small farms in Maine, eventually making contact with 322 in the state.
“I discovered those small farmers were either using social media badly to promote their farms or did not know it existed at all,” she said. “I said, ‘well, I know how I can help them.’”
After earning her Ph.D. in 2017, that is exactly what she did.
“I started all by myself working with farms here and there,” Bruce said. “But pretty soon I had other people from around the country interested in helping out.”
Bruce now works with nine other fans of small farms from around the country, each bringing their own expertise to Shop Small Farms, from distribution to marketing to budgets.
“I’m the social media person,” Bruce said. “I help the farms set up a social media presence.”
There is a $10 monthly fee for a farm to join the Shop Small Farms virtual farmers market. Bruce said those funds are used to boost social media promotions, research customer bases and develop marketing strategies.
There is no fee to shop on the site.
“None of us who work with the Shop Small Farms site earn a penny from it,” she said. “We are all giving our time.”
Opening online markets to farmers
Thirty-two small farms in Maine have joined the online market.
“We are working to help small farmers realize they have these markets available to them, often within 100 miles of their farms,” Bruce said. “It’s just a matter of helping them brand their products and making them accessible online.”
A lot of people don’t have the time to go to a farmers market every week, Bruce said, or simply don’t have a market within a reasonable distance from their home.
Shop Small Farms helps with that.
“The site helps connect the shoppers directly to the farmers,” Bruce said. “Or, if someone does not know where to find a specific product, they contact me through social media or by phone, and I can research it for them.”
Recently, Bruce was contacted by a potential customer wanting to know about the quality of Christmas cookies and other baked goods listed on the Shop Small Farms site.
At an actual farmers market, shoppers could sample the goodies, but since her market is virtual, Bruce did the next best thing.
“I took trays of cookies up to [The Aroostook Medical Center] in Presque Isle,” she said. “I had the staff try them and rank them for me, and then I could call that shopper back and let her know what cookies were rated outstanding and what comments people had.”
For farmers who are members of northern Maine’s Amish community, Bruce will make farm calls to gather information or deliver order forms submitted to her online.
“It’s all just loads of fun,” she said. “And we also offer home deliveries in southern Aroostook with some farms banding together to offer a variety of things, and then one farmer doing the pick up and deliveries.”
In the future, Bruce said she hopes to offer a similar service in other parts of Maine.
“It really helped me and what she is doing is just darn cool,” Dunn said. “With the holidays coming, people can order my breads through her [and] people can look at what I have without my having a storefront.”
People will have the chance to meet some of the Shop Small Farms members at the upcoming indoor Micmac Farms Harvest Festival Market on Nov. 17 in Presque Isle.
“There are so many great products being grown and made by our small farmers,” Bruce said. “I love that people can call or message me with questions about what they are looking for and I can reach out to the farmers to find that product [and] then connect shoppers with farmers.”