Online markets help Indiana growers find new customers

FRANKLIN, Ind.—Customers meandered from bin to bin, inspecting thick cucumbers, deep red and green peppers and bunches of carrots.

The roadside stand at Weaver's Produce was filled with the bounty of an unusually good spring for growing. Peaches, cantaloupe, and sugar baby watermelons were stacked in piles, dwarfed by the bin filled with Indiana sweet corn picked that morning.

Juicy green beans, plump tomatoes and of course sweet corn are summer staples in central Indiana. Weaver's Produce has specialized in providing fresh produce to people passing by their stands in Franklin and Shelbyville.

But owner Jeremy Weaver is always looking for new ways to make a sale. And now local residents can get the farm-fresh produce they want all at once, simply by going online.

Area farmers such as Weaver are banding together with digital food distributors to form "food hubs." The system gathers freshly picked, locally grown fruits and vegetables, as well as locally raised meat and dairy to be packaged together for weekly deliveries to customers.

"You're getting fresh produce, truly fresh. It wasn't picked four or five days ago and trucked 2,000 miles across country. It was picked here," Weaver told the Daily Journal.

Food hubs have emerged as small and medium-sized producers have worked together to find ways to distribute their produce. A 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture indicated that despite a spiking interest in local food, getting that food to customers was the main constraints preventing farmers from taking advantage of it.

Before, it might be impossible for a single farmer to sell to customers even on the other side of their own county, the report stated. Food hubs allowed them to work together to reach new customers.

"This allows them to focus on what they do the best—grow product. They don't have to spend time organizing market stands, loading up the truck, figuring out how much food to bring," said Roy Ballard, Purdue Extension educator and organizer of Hoosier Harvest Market service. "They only deliver to us what they only commit to sell. They already know what's being sold."

Hoosier Harvest Market was founded in 2011 to complement local farmers markets and community-supported agriculture programs in central Indiana, Ballard said.

"The mission was to find one additional way to connect the Hoosier farmer to new consumers," he said. "It's not to take the place of anything, it's just another option for people."

The appeal of the farmers market is that by attending a weekly event, consumers can find food from varying suppliers and producers, picking and choosing the items they prefer.

The Hoosier Harvest Market takes that idea digitally, Ballard said. People can surf their market's website for that week's order.

They can purchase red plums from O'McDaniels Farm in Carthage, cucumbers from Tuttle Orchards in Greenfield and T-bone steaks from Langeland Farms in Greensburg.

Dried red beans, Indiana honey and goat cheese produced in Spiceland are recent offers available on the site.

"For the customer, those who don't have the time or effort to drive all over the countryside sourcing from individual farmers, it's a benefit. If you have commitments on Saturday morning, you can still access fresh food," Ballard said.

Weaver heard about the service earlier this year. His Needham farm is focused on Johnson and Shelby counties, but he was hoping to expand into the Indianapolis market.

The farm started its own community supported agriculture operation this year, inviting customers to log on to their website and choose a week's worth of food.
Joining Hoosier Harvest Market was a chance to expand his footprint.

"I'm trying to expand my business, but also catering to my customers that are still here in Franklin and Shelbyville," Weaver said. "Indianapolis is the best market for this kind of thing, where they don't have fresh produce readily available."

Services such as Green BEAN Delivery takes the idea a step further, delivering food from dozens of different producers to people's front porches. In an increasingly urban and suburban society, organizers see this as a way to keep area farmers viable, said John Freeland, vice president of Green BEAN Delivery.

The focus is keeping the money local and helping to sustain the success of these smaller to midsized family farms, he said. Delivering to people's homes, and using multiple growers to provide variety, is the future.

The convenience factor is what has driven the growth of food hubs and similar operations, Weaver said.

Customers who have signed up for his community supported agriculture service at Weaver's Produce throughout the summer get a box of food each week. The orders change depending on what's in season and how much is available.

People can pay either $30 for a full order of corn, tomatoes, peppers and other veggies, meat and cheese, or $15 for a half order. Every Tuesday, the food is dropped off at the Franklin Active Adults Center and their farm stand in Shelbyville.

Customers can pick it up any time between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., Weaver said.

The system is similar for the Hoosier Harvest Market. Customers have from Friday to Monday to decide what they want and place their food order. Since it's all done online, they can do it any time.

"You can order at 2 a.m. in your pajamas if you want to," Ballard said.

Pick-up day is Thursday evening, and locations are spread around the east side of Indianapolis, from Greenfield to New Palestine to the south side of Indianapolis.

Though organizers of these services are encouraged by the potential, the practicality remains to be seen. Hoosier Harvest Markets customers have slowly expanded since starting in May, and more people are hearing about it, Ballard said.

Weaver started offering his service in late June, and has about 20 loyal customers who have signed up. This being the first year, he hopes to see it grow as more people get comfortable ordering their food online.

"I don't know yet how it's going to work. But I'm hoping we reach an entirely new generation with this," he said.

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