Internet-based farmers market serves Champaign County customers
URBANA – Like any other consumer market, farmers’ markets require some degree of guesswork. Vendors assess which crops and how many will sell, hoping to avoid carrying extras or under supplying the market.
Customers have a similar dilemma.
A new medium is removing the guesswork for users of an Internet-based market in Champaign County. For any one person, the selling or buying experience takes five minutes, enough time to drop off a batch of baked breads or pick up a pre-ordered supply of bulk hamburger.
The products are fresh and homemade. Most are competitively priced, while a few are pricier than pr
“But you can meet the man who milks the cow,” manager and volunteer Heather Tiefenthaler said of the program she helped launched in May 2012. “This food has a very short shelf life, only a three-day shelf life for the bread … but they’re just so good.”
Urbana’s digital market is among hundreds across the country residing at LocallyGrown.Net, but was the first to appear in Ohio, say organizers. The Urbana page is at champaignoh.locallygrown.net. It now boasts 216 active customers and 30 vendors, who in the program’s first seven months racked up a combined $12,400 in sales.
“Some of our vendors have grossed $2,000,” Tiefenthaler said in early January. “Our dairy guy receives a $100 check every week.”
Three percent of the total sales are paid to the creator of LocallyGrown.Net, Eric Wagoner of Georgia.
With more than 20 product categories displayed on an interactive webpage, Urbana’s site allows users to buy directly from producers in their area.
“I think this is the future of how to reach more customers,” said Tiefenthaler, also a member of the Community Improvement Corporation (CIC) and the Champaign Family YMCA board. “It’s a different niche. It’s not just a farmer’s market.”
Offered year-round, market goers can choose from baked goods including basil bread, angel food cake and brownies; spices such as Cajun seasoning and pepper powder; dairy products such as Greek yogurt and whole milk; and meats served in a variety of ways including beef sirloin steak and pork patties.
The list is ongoing.
Apple butter, blackberry jam and candy apple jelly top the list of jams and jellies.
Garlic products are a category unto themselves, offering gourmet garlic flakes and Susanville softneck garlic.
Look inside the “Farm Crafts” tab to find handmade wallets and cell phone sleeves delivered from Mechanicsburg.
There are processed foods, prepared foods, flower bouquets, fruits, gourds, pies, eggs, honey, syrup, popcorn, grains and milled products, and the list continues.
The summer months bring a variety of tomatoes, peppers, squash, radishes, onions, blackberries, raspberries and spinach, to name a few.
“Right before Christmas, we were still having $700 weeks,” Tiefenthaler said, adding local residents still are learning about the year-round options. The average order is about $20.
Strip away the catchy medium and the products stand by themselves, says Tiefenthaler. Buyers can trace their produce to farmers, bakers and craftsmen from Urbana, Springfield, New Carlisle, Mechanicsburg, Rosewood, Cable, Bellefontaine, Zanesfield and other areas in the tri-county area. The food is fresh, lacks preservatives and is inspected thoroughly by volunteers upon arrival.
Volunteers include Pam Bowshier, an artisan bread baker who sells Cosmic Charlie Bread, frozen pizza dough and rolls at the market. Mark Runyan, owner of Oakview Farm Fresh Meats, south of Urbana, raises breeding animals to sell across the country and sells a variety of frozen meats at the market with the help of his son, Myer.
Both Bowsher and Runyan, as well as volunteer Charlene Stapleton of Urbana, have helped Tiefenthaler set up tables at the Champaign Family Y and handle the operations. Tiefenthaler hopes to turn over the market to them in the near future.
“Pam does a great job,” Tiefenthaler said. “She does all the sales reports and invoice operations.”
“This is going to be something that’s invaluable,” Stapleton said of the market. “I think it’s a great asset for people.”
Site users must create a login account, but are not required to pay a registration fee. That may change, however, after the program’s $20,000 grant awarded by the YMCA of the USA runs its course. Even then, said Tiefenthaler, any fee would be minimal due to the program’s low costs.
Sought competitively by local YMCAs nationwide, the grant was one of 23 awarded in the United States. It is expected to last another six months before the Urbana market will need to find another revenue source. Tiefenthaler is conducting a study to determine the best and cheapest way of assessing membership fees.
The goal is to build a self-sufficient market. The big attractions, she said, are reduced work for vendors, convenience for customers and no more guesswork for either side. Vendors regularly update the quantities of each item available on the webpage, and buyers can leave requests or concerns in a comments section.
“The customers enjoy it this way and I think they would be OK with a membership fee,” she said.
Organizers say the challenge will be growing the vendor and customer bases hand-in-hand. A Facebook page and weblog can be accessed on the website, as social media has played a key role in its publicity.
“Someone will like us on Facebook,” said Tiefenthaler, “and they’ll
have five friends that say, ‘Yes, I believe in buying locally.’”
“We just network all over the place,” added Bowshier.
The idea started with Tiefenthaler. With her pressing the issue and electing to lead the program, former YMCA director Kathy Finney worked toward obtaining the grant. Today, Tiefenthaler oversees the webpage, deliveries, collections and transactions, but has yet to take any of the grant money directed toward work compensations.
On Thursdays, the consumer pick-up point is located in the lobby of the Champaign Y, 191 Community Drive. Before arriving, members can select from a drop-down menu of available items on the website accompanied by pictures, prices and vendor information.
When an order is placed, transactions aren’t finalized until buyers collect their orders and make payments between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on site. Vendors are expected to drop off their items within an hour of the market’s opening.
If either a vendor or customer fails to appear on any given Thursday, deductions are made from the weekly order placements and earnings.
Tiefenthaler is hopeful the future holds more products and capabilities. She also hopes the virtual market will complement traditional markets in St. Paris, Mechanicsburg, North Lewisburg and Urbana. The new program is a community service, not a competitor, and easily can be implemented at any market, she said.
Craig Shirk writes for the
Urbana Daily Citizen