High-tech farmers’ market
Local cheese maker wins grant to launch a delivery service, website
About six months ago, Orland Farmstead Creamery, a small, family-owned dairy, stopped attending local farmers’ markets. Co-owner Valerie Miller was finding it too labor-intensive and time-consuming, which put a strain on her small farm. A typical market day for the creamery began at 5 a.m. with loading and preparing the truck and ended at 5 p.m. after working a market all day.
“The Chico market is the easy one because it’s just down the road, but when you’re traveling to Oakland, it’s a whole weekend event,” she said. “That can be challenging and labor-intensive and costly, because if you’re not going to do it yourself, you have to hire an employee to do it.”
So, the creamery pulled out and started focusing on wholesale. But Miller still wanted to be able to serve customers directly, and she knew from having worked so many markets that there were other small farmers who felt the same way.
“A lot of us are too small to use a distributor,” Miller said. “But we’re also a little too big to continue going to farmers’ markets. So we’re doing a lot of wholesale, but we’re all driving to the same stores. We wondered how we could consolidate our costs so we can share some of those costs and share our own small distributorship.”
Those conversations led Miller to apply for and receive a $100,000 Farmers Market Promotion Program grant, given through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to establish an online farmers’ market for local food producers. Dubbed the North State Producers Network, the program focuses on offering people in Butte, Glenn, Tehama and Shasta counties an opportunity to buy locally grown and processed foods online.
Food-delivery websites aren’t new and opportunities to buy artisan foods online already exist, Miller said, but most of that food comes from outside the area, from big companies that can afford that infrastructure. That’s the reason for the grant, to increase the availability of local foods for local residents.
“What they’re looking for is, how will the grant benefit multiple producers in an area that will create consumer awareness about local food and increase people buying local food,” Miller said. “I think the people who made the award are aware of how people buy things online—look how many people have Amazon Prime accounts.”
Deliveries from the North State Producers Network are made each week on Fridays, and orders must be placed before Wednesday at midnight. There’s a $15 deposit for the reusable packaging and a delivery fee of $5. The market is also establishing community delivery locations, the only one currently being the Chico Women’s Club, where people can pick up their orders with no delivery fee. So far, distribution is focused on Chico and the surrounding areas, with plans to expand as far as Red Bluff and Redding.
The grant, Miller said, will cover startup costs, including marketing and expanding the storage capabilities at the creamery, in addition to the creation of three full-time jobs. Once the market begins to pick up, Miller anticipates hiring a warehouse manager and delivery drivers to help process orders.
Currently, products come from about eight local food producers, including Pacific Culture, Frank’s Farm Fresh Eggs, Llano Seco and Beber Almond Milk. Products include foods such as cheese, pork, beef, chicken, eggs and almond milk. Expanding the number of producers can be difficult when you have to take storage and shelf life of different products into account, Miller said, so the market is focusing on a small foundation before it expands to include more perishable products like fruits, vegetables and bread.
“We joined the network because it’s a great option, not only to the general public but [also] local stores and local restaurants that want to purchase local products,” said Jamie Salyer, a sales representative for Llano Seco, a Chico ranch that focuses on pork, beef, beans and grains.
The farm has had some experience with online sales in the past, but they were through companies that served only the Bay Area, Salyer said. The North State Producers Network allows Llano Seco to reach more local customers. That’s a bonus for Llano Seco, Salyer said, but also—and perhaps more so—for smaller farms.
“As far as our company is concerned, we’ve got pretty wide reach, but there are a lot of other farmers or producers that can’t reach the people that they want to, so this organization allows these smaller producers to really stretch out their products and increase the miles that they can go and the people that they can reach,” he said.
The online market doesn’t just benefit the food producers, Miller said. It’s really a way to reach her customers who have grown accustomed to getting everything online or whose schedules don’t give them an opportunity to attend local markets.
“We’ve kind of been surveying people at different events and at the farmers’ markets and we’ve gotten really positive feedback from the idea of an online market,” she said. “I think there’s a need for it.”