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When Farm Fresh Rhode Island wanted to find a way to connect local restaurants and farmers, they came up with Market Mobile, a program using the power of the Web to help connect farmers to the chefs and grocers who utilize their crops.
Utilizing the Market Mobile software, contributing farmers can take photos of their crops and post them on the online ordering form. Online, farmers set their own prices and everything is listed by the farm. “Farmers … are able to sell pretty much directly to their customers,” said Mellion. “We help with the delivery and the billing and the back-end sort of stuff, but farmers are able to end up with a lot more control over their prices and their product. They know exactly where things are ending up.”
Using the forms, restaurants can order from up to 63 different producers currently utilizing the program.
This way, customers can order from many different producers at one time and get it all in one order, one delivery. And farmers, instead of traveling and making 10 to 20 deliveries of week, only need to make one – to the Farm Fresh Rhode Island warehouse, where the nonprofit’s team combines orders from different farms and deliver them around the state.
“We use what we call the hub and spoke model. All the food comes into one place and then travels around the state,” said Mellion.
“You have all these little farms before like ourselves, and we might have literally six bunches of … something really unique. But how do you get something that’s worth maybe literally a $20 or $10 bill and … get that to Westerly, or how to do you get that to Boston or Providence? It’s just not economical whatsoever,” said Richard Schartner, owner of Exeter’s Schartner Farms, which participates in the program.
Unlike traditional wholesale environments, which buy in bulk and a set price, Market Mobile allows farmers to sell small amounts of products and to set their own prices. “If you don’t want to sell to Market Mobile for what you think you can get, then you don’t. You let the customer decide whether they want to pay $10 a pound for your baby organic spinach or not.”
Of Rhode Island’s roughly 1,200 farms, 700 produce food. The other farms are things like turf, horse or Christmas tree farms. Last year the program, which started in 2009 with six farms and three restaurants, delivered to more than 275 customers around the Rhode Island and Boston area. Since its 2009 inception, the Market Mobile program has moved more than $2.5 million worth of merchandise through its system – $1.5 million in 2012 alone.
There’s no delivery fee, but 18 percent of all sales go to cover administrative costs. The Farm Fresh team asks farmers to factor that into their price lists.
“The great thing is really being able to have that excitement on Sunday night or Monday morning,” said Jonathan Cambra, executive chef at the Boathouse restaurant in Tiverton. “It’s like building your Christmas list and building your toy catalog from the Sunday paper.”
Matthew Varga, executive chef at Providence-based Gracie’s restaurant, said it just makes sense to order from local farmers whenever possible.
“You’re not just supporting the local agriculture movement but you’re also supporting your community,” he said. “As a New England native, a lot of these things I grew up with so it’s a good feeling that you’re helping out a neighbor.”
With the standard wholesale system, wholesalers buy a crop for a fee and the farms have no idea where their food ends up, whereas under Market Mobile, buyers search by the farm rather than by the crop. “I think it helps create closer relationships between farmers and customers in a way that a wholesale system normally doesn’t,” said Mellion.
“I think a lot of people also understand that supporting local farms is about economic development. It’s about supporting businesses in the state, keeping the money flowing in the community and that if you want the farm down the street to be there, you’ve got to go shop there,” said Mellion.
Market Mobile is what is termed a “food hub,” which, traditionally, is a center in charge of the aggregation and distribution of food.
Around the country, there are a few dozen other programs listed as food hubs by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Market Mobile was chosen as a case study for the National Good Food Network and participates in Wholesome Wave’s Healthy Food Commerce Initiative, a group of organizations across the country working together and learning from each other.
Despite its success, popularity and recent growth, Market Mobile isn’t anyone’s main supplier. Farmers in Rhode Island have what Mellion calls “multiprong business models,” that include farmers markets, farm stands and wholesalers. Schartner said the percentage of sales Market Mobile accounts for on his farm is “not huge,” but added that the general profitability of it was definitely “worth doing. The profit isn’t as good as retail, but it’s far superior to wholesale,” he said.
“I wouldn’t doubt in the next couple of years it’ll be 5 to 10 percent of my business, maybe even more,” Schartner said.