Online shopping becoming a new tool for local farmers markets to use

Candace Krebs
The Ag Journal
The Boulder County Farmers Market draws thousands of visitors every week to what is one of the largest and best-known farmers markets in the country. Last year the market moved some of its sales online in response to the pandemic. Online ordering options have become a critical outlet as consumers change their shopping habits and become more comfortable with buying fresh produce online.

Nathan Mudd farms at Brighton and runs what could be one of the earliest online farmers markets.

“When we started in 2012, the thing we heard from all over the country is people will never buy food online,” he recalled. “In fact, the timing really worked out for us with what happened in 2020.”

With the arrival of the pandemic, demand for local food increased, while consumers also started shopping differently. Online sales became critical.

“If anything has become clear about food marketing in the COVID-19 era, it’s how central online shopping has become for direct marketers,” he said.

All online

Mudd and his wife essentially created a marketing platform from scratch that now serves as an online sales hub for a wide range of sellers, some of which farm thousands of acres and others who make jams in their home kitchens.

“We work with lots of different farmers to bring it all together to sell into different channels,” Mudd said during the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Annual Conference. “We did a lot of trial and error over the years to figure out what worked for what marketing channels.”

EdibleMarket.co allows shoppers to buy from hundreds of vendors with the ease of a single transaction, retrieving those products through once-a-month pick-up or by delivery along the Front Range.

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While the format makes shopping local easy, it took a lot of experimentation to figure out how to run the concept on the back-end.

Mudd said they’ve learned over time how to make it as easy as possible for the vendors. Vendors pay a one-time set-up cost, and the market gets them set up on the site. “It takes about three hours to get them up and running,” Mudd said.

Vendors control their pricing while providing updates on inventory. The site takes 20 percent of gross sales, but also covers insurance and transportation. It can also collect taxes on their behalf, or it keeps a tally and allows them to pay the taxes themselves.

“Different vendors like to do it different ways,” he said. “It’s been an interesting process.”

An online farmers market is a huge undertaking, and Mudd said it would not be possible without strategic partnerships. Hiring a delivery company, for example, actually reduced costs and made the process run smoother, he said.

A long-time IT expert still runs the software end of it, he added.

“We have a 100-vendor waiting list,” he said. “I think online purchasing is just going to go up and up and up. I still don’t think the word’s out that you can buy local food online.”

“I’m really excited about 2021,” he added. “I think we’re going to have a great year.”

A market within a market

The largest farmers market in the state also moved more of its operations online in response to the pandemic last year.

Boulder County Farmers Market, which operates at five locations, now offers online ordering and pick-up options in Denver, Boulder, Lafayette and Longmont.

Director Brian Coppom called the past year “a strange journey” but one that ultimately pushed them to explore new marketing outlets.

“We use Local Food Marketplace (an e-commerce platform), and it’s been great for us,” he said. “We take online orders and do curbside delivery. We do the packing.”

The online market essentially operates as a store within the overall market and charges vendors a fee for the service.

“We ended up setting a 33% margin on it, but we committed to the producers if the platform shows earning money, we will refund excess money to producers based on what they sold,” he said. “We’re not in it to get rich but to cover our costs. And that margin turned out to be about right.”

The market manages the inventory, buying from individual farmers and making their items available for sale online.

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If a customer places an order but never picks it up — something that does happen — the farmers market takes on that risk and absorbs the cost.

The goal of having an online store is not to “poach” sales from the existing market but to reach new customers, including some who would otherwise have limited access to the market in its existing format, he said.

As a nonprofit organization, the farmers market operates solely to expand the sales reach of carefully vetted Colorado farms.

“One of the things we’d like to do is actually measure the activity to determine, is it good for farmers?” he said. “If it doesn’t help them obtain financial sustainability, it doesn’t really make sense for us to do it.”

Going into a new season, with the viral outbreak hopefully winding down, BCFM.org continues to offer online ordering with curbside pick-up, including options for those who pay with SNAP or WIC funds.