by Steven E. Smith
Loading the truck and heading to the market with full awareness of who will being buying your product. That is not the usual expectations of a crew as they head to what could be a day long farmer’s market subject to limited attendance if the weather doesn’t cooperate. But the nearly 40 farms from Schoharie County that market at Schoharie Fresh instead experience a smooth, less time consuming event each week thanks to their unique marketing system.
Flexibility of an online farmers market
“Schoharie Fresh is an innovative approach born from the farmer’s market model that harnesses the power and efficiency of the internet,” stated Maureen Blanchard, Project Coordinator for Schoharie Fresh. Participating farms provide images, pricing and quantities of their farm products. The website displays the product information from first thing Friday until the Wednesday at 11:59 p.m. “We are located at the SUNY Cobleskill campus where we have student interns who organize the products and complete the purchase activities with customers. Orders received are organized by the team from Schoharie Fresh and then farms are informed of their orders on Thursdays. Products that were ordered are delivered to market by Friday morning so that customers can come in, pay and receive their purchases that afternoon.
As would be expected at a farmer’s market, there is a seasonal aspect regarding fruits and vegetables but the market includes much more than what would be envisioned on the tailgate of a pickup. Blanchard said, “We offer artisan cheeses, baked good, herbs, eggs, beef, pork, lamb, poultry, honey, syrup as well as natural health and beauty products in addition to specialty meats and other items.” But one of the most dynamic aspects of Schoharie Fresh is the flexibility it provides the participants. “Our farmers can add product to the site any hour of the day or night. Likewise, our customers can shop from the convenience of their home or smartphone in real time. Although the site does not accept orders on Thursdays, we send a reminder email to our known customer base on Wednesdays. This really works because we record substantial order activity from 8 p.m. to the close of the market at 11:59 p.m. many Wednesdays.”
The market finished its fourth year by the middle of last December, reopened on the first Friday in February and charted its highest weekly volume generated since the inception by the end of March 2014. “And this activity was not even during the peak season of late summer.” While other food hubs that aggregate product charge as much as 20 percent processing fees, we operate at a 15 percent processing charge to our participating farms.”
“I was very surprised but more so proud of our farms and their customers,” said Blanchard as she explained that the Schoharie Fresh group earned the third place ranking across New York State in last year’s American Farmland Trust “I love my farmer’s market” competition. The competition involved participation by the customer base as they made pledges in advance of their purchasing at the market.
A group of Schoharie County organizations sponsored a Family Farms Day last August, and for Blanchard, who was not raised on a farm, participating in the event brought her great perspective regarding Schoharie Fresh producer farms. “When I got to tour their operations and learn about the farms, I saw the passion for what they do that made me an even bigger supporter of this industry and what we can do to market their products,” stated Blanchard. She is interested in getting videos of producers and make those a part of the online farmer’s market. To further connect the producer and the consumer, the Schoharie Fresh group also surveyed the consumers and shared feedback with the producers. “I am pleased to know that many of the requested farm products such as asparagus have already been planted to be available in time to meet our growing demand.”
According to Blanchard, “We started this project through a Creating Healthy Places to Live, Work and Play grant from the New York State Department of Health in 2010. The grant of $875,000 was awarded to SUNY Cobleskill and will be administered during its five year lifespan by the Research Foundation for the State University of New York.
In addition to Schoharie Fresh, the grant was written to serve two major focuses including making community improvements to provide places for people to be active. The Cobleskill Creek Trail was developed to provide increased community walkability. The grant has also collaborated to promote healthy local meal alternatives at area restaurants where for example, a side of French fries is exchanged for a locally grown apple with advertisement about the local food alternative. The concept is to link the consumer and the producer in a market place that is accessible and efficient. Blanchard continued to say that customers are pleased to be able to find local products and be intentional with their purchases. “Our consumers can read about the participating farms because the website includes an area for farms to post information about their operation as well as photos.
“We have been working with the New York State Ag and Market so that we can process purchases of participants in SNAP, WIC & Low income seniors program who participate. It is our goal to also reach low income populations with our fresh products as well as education. Fresh foods are not actually more expensive or costly to make. We are very competitive with grocery store prices in season. We experienced good demand for SUNY Cobleskill’s hydroponic tomatoes and peppers which are already in production now in April,” indicated Blanchard.
“In the future, I perceive we will need more fruits and long storage vegetables as there is excellent demand for the volume we currently offer,” stated Blanchard. We also know that our current market share is from the immediate community. With that knowledge, Schoharie Fresh is considering expanding the pick-up points for products that are close to other municipal venues and accessible by public transportation.
Other counties interested
Schoharie Fresh’s concept of the farmers market has drawn the interest of farmers and consumers in other counties. Other counties have shared that they are interested in marketing online. While Schoharie Fresh is exclusive to Schoharie County farms, Blanchard and others are collaborating to help other counties increase accessibility of consumers to local fresh foods in an efficient, predictable framework.
For more information about Schoharie Fresh, view their market online at www.schohariefresh.com .