Internet buying clubs combine emerging technologies and community values
Two entrepreneurs committed to the local food movement are about to make their buying club models available to the public.

By Dan Sullivan
February 10, 2005

With 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, Georgia.

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 common response.

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 log on.

  • 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

Pierson 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.

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 arise.

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.”

Special delivery

Bob’s 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 profiles

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 cycle.)

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 farmto.city@verizon.net.

Eat a peach

Eric 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 accounts.

“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 pay enough.

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 community.

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 site.

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 new.

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,” he says.

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 says.

Eric Wagoner can be reached through the Locally Grown website.

Dan Sullivan is senior editor at The New Farm.