Last year, we introduced you to Little Egypt Alliance of Farmers – or LEAF – and their online farmers market.
Spring is here, the grass is growing, trees are starting to show their leaves, and flowers are starting to bloom.
Some people are planning to start a garden while others plan on going to the farmers market.
Last year Little Egypt Alliance of Farmers or LEAF unveiled their online farmers market called Leaf Food Hub.
Liz DeRuntz is the operations manager for LEAF.
She says its ran like a community supported agriculture model, except customers sign in on the website and add money to their account and shop from the different growers on the website and pick what they want instead of receiving what’s available like a traditional CSA.
“We were just really thrilled with the response, with how people were telling their friends and family and how we continued to grow throughout the season.”
DeRuntz says once the flowers, berries, and other products started popping up outside, new customers started popping up on the website.
“Last year we started with 32 families or members and we had 2 restaurants and then by the end of the season we ended with 90 families and 7 restaurants.”
That kind of fast growth combined with the end of the online farmers market’s first season had LEAF make some changes this year.
First, they added some new farmers.
“We actually added 2 new producers, we have Flyway Family Farms and they grow mushrooms and our other new producer is Angie’s Honey, so we’ll have all kinds of honey related products.”
Next they started planning for this season, because the farmers don’t want to all grow the same crops and they can offer a lot of variety to the customers by providing more options.
“We now have 9 producers, almost all of them returned from our first season and so we’re excited, having meeting about what we will be growing this year and how we can accommodate even more customers this year.”
This year they dropped buy in price to make it more enticing to attract new customers.
“That is one of the things we did hear from a lot of people that the $200 mark was just a bit much and we realized in hindsight that it absolutely was so we have reduced it to $50.”
They also looked back at last year to see what sold well or didn’t sell that much.
“The software that we use keeps track of the things we sell every single week and so now we’re able to go back and run reports and look at what customers did want so that we can focus in on things that maybe we ran out of or things that we should have more of, so really trying to be more strategic this season.”
Being more strategic is the reason farmers like Courtney Smith joined Leaf food hub.
Smith started Flora Bay Farm in Carbondale 5 years ago and specializes in flowers, herbs and a few other vegetables.
“Since I’m growing mainly by myself, I have a few friends and family that help, but I try to do everything with my own hands so its small and I try to be fairly unique with what I choose to grow.”
Being a new and small farm Smith looked at different ways to sell her products but saw some obstacles.
“I had tossed around the idea of selling different things online but with fresh produce and fresh flowers I didn’t ever feel like I could successfully transport it or mail it to another place without a lot of damage or worry as a small grower I really don’t have that option.”
Then Smith got involved with a small group of farmers that became Leaf food hub.
“When the idea came up to form a group of us to sell online, it just made a lot of sense. We worked out all the details before hand before we started we worked a full year before we started leaf.”
Following the model of community supported agriculture the online farmers market help all the farmers involved to know exactly what they need to harvest each week.
“As a person who is like I said mainly farming by herself it is just so much easier to harvest what has been ordered and not try to guess how many bunches of say rosemary to take to market.”
Before selling online, Smith would spend all day harvesting, preparing, and packaging her products, hoping she didn’t bring too much or not enough and then she would double check she had everything she needed to set up at the market the next day.
Then there’s the getting up early the next day, setting up the tent, tables, and products.
All of this is very time consuming for farmers.
“Pack everything in your car and you go and you stand there for 4 to 5 hours, by the time you get home you’re really, pretty tired so I would say I save a good day, a whole 24 hours by selling on leaf as opposed to doing a market.”
While Smith gains the equivalent of an extra day every week, she uses it to reinvest her time into her farm and continues to grow it every year.
“It’s a ton of work, especially when you’re first starting out, I don’t have a lot of infrastructure quite yet, so every year we add a little bit more, last year I added a new water source, we added a well, I also added this high tunnel, this growing structure so that has been leaps and bounds to where I was.”
By adding the high tunnel Smith extended her growing season allowing her more opportunities for sales and new products.
“I’m also growing things that I normally wouldn’t be able to grow.”
That’s because the high tunnel gives the farmer more control of the growing environment or zone.
The USDA mapped out the country into plant hardiness zones that lets farmers know what will or will not grow well in a particular area so their crops aren’t planted too early or just won’t grow well because of environmental factors.
“I’m able to push our zone, we’re zone 6 and I’m able to grow things that are in zone 8 zone 9, even through winter with the help of the high tunnel.”
DeRuntz says Smith and some of the other farmers with Leaf Food Hub also use high tunnels so they can keep growing produce so the website keeps growing customers.
“I think it’s just an easier process for them because they know Tuesday night they can look at their pick list, they know how much they need of every single item and they can harvest accordingly.”