The farm-to-fork mentality is less a trend and more a lifestyle. Now, it has the online community to prove it. Sites like Eggzy.net, which locates local chicken farmers, and HomeGrownCow.com, a conduit for beef, chicken, and cheese lovers looking for farmers in their area, are bringing a digital edge to agriculture. Consumers are concerned about the traceability of their food, but 98.5 percent of the population is not directly involved in food production, according to AgChat.org, a site focused on "agvocating" and connecting farmers through social media. Even though foods with local origins have a lower deliverable cost, consumers still pay up to 50 percent more for these items as opposed to mass-distributed supermarket fare. Consumers see the value in eating local and are willing to pay. As farmers compete for recognition and repeat customers, new online channels are specifically aimed to help agricultural businesses maintain their presence off the farm.
The Incredible Edible Egg
Relying simply on word of mouth, Mark Thompson and his wife, Charlene Smith, of New Hope, Pennsylvania, launched a public online eggstand called Eggzy. Thompson, a software developer, used his tech background to create their concept. "We have a range of flock keepers, some produce dozens and dozens of eggs, and others like ourselves do a dozen a week at best," Thompson says. He knows the keys to good agricultural commerce: face-to-face marketing and traceability. Currently a free service, Eggzy allows those interested in purchasing eggs to search for their local chicken farmers and see when and where eggs are available. Whether it's a cash honor system in a tin can at the base of a dirt driveway, or a table at the local farmers' market, Eggzy eliminates the commercial layers of distribution. Don't let their grassroots vibe fool you, though. Eggzy is on the edge of tech-savvy trends and is promoting the use of Quick Response (QR) codes on egg cartons so consumers can use smartphones to view the product origins, chicken diets, and farmer histories.
Besides eggs, where can you get a good, local steak? Home Grown Cow launched in early 2011 for consumers to find cattle farms. Taking a small percentage of each transaction, Home Grown Cow is not just a directory, but a marketplace for farmers to post their entire inventory. If visiting relatives enjoyed their locally sourced and home-cooked meal, they can fly back home and order the same steak online. The meats and cheeses are packaged and distributed around the country. Not just for organic aficionados, Home Grown Cow is open to all beef, poultry and cheese producers. Consumers are able to customize their orders based on grass-fed, organic or conventional.
Connecting with consumers on a local level leaves a neglected clientele: businesses. Undergoing a major relaunch in the summer of 2011, Food-Hub.org is a regional site with a business-to-business mindset. Restaurants, corporate food service providers and cafes utilize Food Hub in the Pacific Northwest to find goods local to their area—making their menus more attractive and offering another feather in their caps. Users can be rated with reviews and recommendations just like on Amazon and LinkedIn. Food Hub is currently considering expanding its service area to the rest of the United States.
More farmers around the country are creating their own sites to fill a digital gap. "If we're not going to use social media, we might as well be talking to the cows," says Jan Hoadley, a farmer and avid blogger based out of Alabama's Birmingham area. Just two years ago, Hoadley, who has a small farm and raises traditional animals like chickens to more exotic varieties like Giant Chinchilla rabbits, launched an award-winning page at SmallFarmCoop.com. Hoadley sees a lot of misinformation on the Internet and wants to engage and inform people. Passionate about providing consumers the truth about livestock and produce, she directs people to her blog (SlowMoneyFarm.wordpress.com) even when she knows they may never buy an egg. With all of these new media concepts for agro-professionals, what about the grandparents of social media: Twitter and Facebook? Farmers are using them, too, but they also should check out Farmbook.info. Farmbook launched just this year and is for farmers all around the world. Modeled after Facebook's ease of use, Farmbook is meant to be a connection for all aspects of agriculture on a localized level. From timber, livestock feed, and equipment, to produce, eggs, and meats, every aspect is covered so that users anywhere can connect with those in their own backyard. What do the births of all these sites mean? Farmers are not just sowing seeds in their fields anymore, they're also taking time to rotate the digital fields of their virtual harvests. And for farmers whose only tweets are those that come from the hen house? Those not savvy about social media can view strategies at AgChat.org (or better yet, 'like' Ag Chat on Facebook). Get connected, get cooking, and update your social media statuses when it's time for dessert.
By: TARA LYNNE GROTH
Edited by Sara E. Howard
Excerpted from GRIT, Celebrating Rural America Since 1882. Copyright 2011 by Ogden Publications Inc. Photos taken by Flickr photographers woodleywonderworks and Tim Sakton - licensed under the Creative Commons license.