the understanding that more people eating local food means
more family farmers upon the land, farmer advocacy groups
are becoming smarter about creating opportunities for consumers
to buy directly from producers in their regions. Internet
technology is helping that effort along.
Two tools developing concurrently in different parts of the
country—but soon available for use anywhere—are
Winter Harvest, a product of the City program in Philadelphia,
and Locally Grown cooperative, an online buying club being
developed with open-source software by Eric Wagoner of Athens,
Farm to City founder Bob Pierson left a comfortable but less-than-fulfilling
corporate job to open his small business dedicated to bringing
communities and families together year-round through the vehicle
of sustainably produced local food. “I can’t believe
I get paid for this,” he says, reciting his personal
mantra following a recent Winter Harvest training workshop.
“You don’t,” he quips, quoting his wife’s
Pierson literally walks the walk when it comes to sustainability.
He doesn’t even own a car; instead, his ancient three-speed
bicycle sports a mammoth rear rack he designed himself more
than two decades ago for hauling kids and groceries. As he
shows a visitor around the neighborhood where he raised two
daughters—an area sandwiched between Philadelphia’s
oldest colonial district and bustling South Street—Pierson’s
ties to the place are palpable. That commitment has opened
eight farmers markets in Philadelphia, helped local farmers
develop CSAs that now collectively serve more than 500 families,
and launched Winter Harvest in order to provide families with
local food and farmers with customers in the off-season between
November and May.
How Winter Harvest serves customers
- Prospective members fill out an online application and
send in a deposit check for $50. Deposits are applied as
payment to an order. Once the check is received the account
is activated and members receive a password in order to
- Approved members order monthly within a 10-day window
for a once-a-week delivery to one of a dozen locations around
Philadelphia. Pierson and his partners are considering expanding
to biweekly. “You have to come to terms with your
administrative capabilities versus the convenience to the
members,” he counsels.
- Members order online, selecting from more than 260 food
items grown or produced in the region, including winter
greens and root crops, meat, milk, yogurt, cheese, herbs,
mushrooms, preserves, honey, and personal care products.
These products come from a network of 20 local farmers and
other small businesses.
- Currently about 275 families served by a dozen drop-off
sites around Philadelphia participate in Winter Harvest.
While the Winter Harvest model is set up to serve its customers
when CSAs and farmers’ markets are not operating, Pierson
suggests that facilitators in other regions may wish to set
up year-round schemes.)
Behind the Scenes
and his daughter Daniela, who handles the books, had been
struggling with making Winter Harvest work on their own for
a couple of years before hooking up with webmaster Tom Javian
(Pierson still rolls his eyes recalling ‘the good old
days). With Javian’s help, they’ve moved forward
from working out the kinks of administering their own group
to standardizing the online tool’s management functions
and expanding its capabilities so that it might serve other
communities and buying clubs.
The website consists of two sections: the public site, where
members log on and submit their orders, and the ‘admin
site,’ where administrators control the data and manage
the program. (View the public site at http://www.farmtocity.org/WHHome.asp).
The site consists of a home page, a producers profile page
where customers can get to know something about the farmers
whose products they are buying, an ordering instructions page,
an application form and a products list.
The web-based ordering system helps solve a number of management
hassles. For instance:
Now, customers who habitually order have no wiggle room with
an automatic time and date cutoff; Account balances in arrears
are flagged, and the administrator has the ability to deactivate
the account at his or her own discretion; and customers are
automatically told when an item is no longer available or in
short supply (this still requires good communication between
the farmer and the administrator, though the data need only
be entered once for all subscribers to get the message). Not
all items are available on every delivery day, and this is also
managed by the website (Farmers send in reports of what they’ll
have available on which delivery dates at the beginning of each
month). Members also have access to their individual ordering
histories. And there’s a logical system in place for figuring
out who’s responsible—and who should pay—when
a mistake is made.
"This stuff is fairly pricy;
it’s not going to attract people looking for bargains.
Our first goal is that we want farmers to be healthy.
We’re not going to sacrifice that goal. If we
can accomplish some secondary goals, good."
- Bob Pierson
While Javian’s program takes a lot of the guesswork
out of running the business, Pierson maintains the human element
through frequent email communication with his customers. He
also gives people the benefit of the doubt when potential
problems arise…at least the first few times. As with
any business, Pierson says with a slightly bemused grin, one
of the biggest challenges is managing personalities. “You
get a whole range of characters,” he says.
Through the admin site, administrators can track member orders
and generate reports to help them manage the buying club and
pay producers. They can also print out labels for farmers
to earmark boxes for individual sites and distinguish potentially
confusable products, and member invoices to help managers
at each drop-off site assemble orders.
The admin site contains a number of other bells and whistles
to help smooth out the kinks of running a local buying club,
and Javian is considering more options daily as new challenges
It’s been a trial-and-error process. Pierson says that
sending labels to farmers at the beginning of the season—for
each delivery date and each delivery site—and assembling
individual orders at each delivery site rather than at the
beginning of the route “have cut our mistakes down to
10 percent of what they were last year.”
tips for building
a local buying club
- Assess potential demand
- Build a mailing list
- Build a product list
- Find pickup sites and site managers
- Recruit producers
- Create producer product lists and producer
As for getting the food from farmer to customer, Pierson
was fortunate in that he was able to partner with a farmer/driver
who was already servicing a route for a collective of Amish
Farmers. With the added Farm to City accounts, the driver—who
gets paid 10 percent of the total order—has been able
to upgrade to a refrigerated box delivery vehicle. (Farm to
City recently raised its own markup from 20 to 25 percent;
managers at each drop-off point receive their orders at cost
plus the delivery fee.)
The driver picks up product at individual farms, then goes
to the head of the route where producers from points east
and west bring their orders. Boxes for each site are assembled
and loaded onto the truck. (Farmer’s get paid, usually
within a 10-day window, following the end of each ordering/delivery
A SARE grant and help from the Pennsylvania Association for
Sustainable Agriculture (PASA; www.pasafarming.org)
helped Farm to host the recent Winter Harvest workshop series,
which took place in the community center a few blocks from
Pierson’s home (the site also serves as a Winter Harvest
drop-off point). Participants ranged from farmers, to makers
of value-added products, to entrepreneur/activists like Pierson
in search of the right livelihood and a way to help their
communities. Some were considering door-to-door box schemes;
others searching for more efficient tools to run already existing
co-ops, still others for ways to partner with neighboring
farmers in order to market local foods in communities bordering
busy interstate corridors.
The Farm to City folks are still considering just how they’ll
structure administrative fees for others who who’d like
to take advantage of the services they’ve developed.
What Pierson says he doesn’t want is for the fee—perhaps
a small setup fee for the administrator and a nominal per
order fee per user—to be cost prohibitive to communities
wishing to set up regional buying clubs. He also wants to
assure that those using the Winter Harvest model remain true
to Farm to City’s local-food mission.
Pierson is unapologetic that Winter Harvest tends to serve
a more upscale clientele. “This stuff is fairly pricy;
it’s not going to attract people looking for bargains.
Our first goal is that we want farmers to be healthy. We’re
not going to sacrifice that goal. If we can accomplish some
secondary goals, good.”
Referencing Marion Nestle’s book, Food Politics,
which illustrates the huge bite middlemen take out of every
food dollar, Pierson challenges: “Take a look at the
dollar between the eater and the farmer and see how it compares
to this model.”
Bob Pierson can be reached at email@example.com.
Eat a peach
Wagoner, who grows heirloom organic vegetables on his farm
outside of Athens, Georgia, is rather new to farming, having
just completed his fourth season. A self-described computer
geek, Wagoner took over the Locally Grown cooperative online
buying club after it became too much of a logistical nightmare
for its founder.
His first order of business was to dump all of the restaurant
“You can get some very good meals very cheaply in Athens,”
Wagoner said, explaining that the economic realities of this
college town meant the commercial accounts just didn’t
"If you want to write a little
novella about every product you have, that’s fine
- Eric Wagoner
Next, he did away with the practice of mixing items from
different farms together in one box, making sure that every
farmer and every product had a distinct ‘voice’
on the website. “I don’t grow just carrots; I
grow ‘Red Core Chantenay’, he proclaims during
the Cooperative Marketing session at the 14th Annual Southern
Sustainable Agriculture Working Group conference in New Orleans.
Wagoner had already been the webmaster for the co-op—actually
a sole proprietorship run in a cooperative spirit, he explains—so
it wasn’t a big stretch for him to take over ordering
and deliveries. The website—which can be viewed at http://locallygrowncoop.com/—was
developed with open-source software, meaning anybody is free
to use it and build upon it at no cost. “Open source
means that a bunch of programmers got together and just collaborated
and created this software,” Wagoner explains. “Open
source uses a shopping cart system. It had a lot of what I
wanted, but not exactly. The beauty of open source was to
be able to go in and tweak what I needed to.”
Currently, Wagoner is “taking 10 percent off the top
for my time” to run Locally Grown. Customers pay $25
annually. “The first two times it’s free; then
automatically in their cart we’re going to stick a $25
membership.” Wagoner plans to offer tech support for
a fee for anyone wishing to customize his system to their
Locally Grown has a fluctuating network of about 10 farmers,
Wagoner says, and drums up business strictly by word of mouth.
Farmers—most of whom are not certified organic, though
all practice chemical free farming, Wagoner says—call
in every Sunday to report what they’ll have available
that week. When it comes to describing what’s on that
list—as in, say, a particular variety—the more
information the better, Wagoner says. “Customers really
like that…If you want to write a little novella about
every product you have, that’s fine by me,” he
says. Evocative photos are also a critical part of the web
Users browse by farmer or product. “Just like going
to a physical farmers’ market, they can look around
and see what’s on the table,” Wagoner says. The
Wagoners’ own farm is the furthest one out on a 19-mile
loop of farms that eventually brings Eric to a central delivery
point in Athens where customers come to pick up their orders.
The ordering window runs each Monday morning to Tuesday evening.
He pays the farmers when he picks up the deliveries.
“Some people like to be surprised with the vegetables
they get, like a CSA, so we provide that, too,” says
Wagoner. “We have a $15 pick-of-the-week box.”
Like Winter Harvest, Locally Grown customers can view their
ordering history at any time. The site also lets users in
on little tidbits such as what’s hot and what’s
This is the first year Locally Grown has operated year-round.
About 200 families are on the company’s email list,
with anywhere from 30 to 70 of them—depending on the
season—placing an order in any given week. “Some
people spend three or four dollars, others ninety,”
Sometimes it takes a new customer awhile to get use to the
idea that something they order might not show up on delivery
day, Wagoner says, but they usually come around “once
I explain that we’re just guessing and that we’re
at the mercy of everything the farmer is at the mercy of.”
With deliveries midweek, Locally Grown offers a nice counterpoint
to the farmer’s market. For some, it has become an alternative.
“This has been working so well that many of us are
weaning ourselves off the farmer’s market,” Wagoner
Eric Wagoner can be reached through the Locally Grown website.
Dan Sullivan is senior editor at The New Farm.