This is an article published in our July 2009 Newsletter.
Back in the summer of 1999, a small group of software engineers, farm activists, and farmers from the Central Coast of California met to talk about how the Internet could contribute to a vibrant future for family farms. The conversation quickly turned to marketing. For many small-scale farmers, marketing was a costly weak spot in the family business. In fact, at this particular meeting, every farmer in the room named it as his or her biggest headache. "I'm a really good farmer, but a lousy salesman," said one. "I want to spend my time in the fields, not on the phone," said another. A third farmer said that when people tried his produce, they loved it, and came back. The problem was getting them to find his farm.
Out of this conversation and others like it LocalHarvest was born. Our mission was, and is, to support family farmers' success by connecting people who are looking for great food with the farms that produce it. We host a national directory of direct-market farms, farmers markets, and related small businesses. We call it a 'grassroots' directory because each member creates and maintains their own listing. Listings include a description of the business, photo, event calendar, list of products, and market information. Members of the public use a zip code search or interactive map to find local, direct-marketed food.
LocalHarvest began as a project of Ocean Group, a small software development company. As activists and fans of good food, the four person Ocean Group team wanted to build a website that would be a gift to the organic farming community. They also wanted to practice their skills and develop a mapping-enabled search engine. Hearing farmers talk about their marketing troubles, the Ocean Group team saw an opportunity.
Once the basic infrastructure was built, we needed a good number of farmers to create listings so that when the site was launched, users would find local farms. The publicity strategy involved creating partnerships with a number of regional sustainable agriculture organizations. In exchange for a link on LocalHarvest, organizational partners publicized the site to their members. We also partnered with the USDA, compiled the data they had for farmers markets, and invited each farmers market manager to complete their LocalHarvest listing. We launched in the spring of 2000, and by the end of the year had 560 farm listings and 2,234 farmers market listings.
That initial publicity push was the only one in LocalHarvest's history. Since then, word of mouth has been the primary way that new members have found LocalHarvest, and we are grateful to all who have helped spread the word. Today the LocalHarvest database contains just over 19,000 listings, including 11,740 farms, and 4,425 farmers markets. On an average day of 2008, ten new farmers and others joined LocalHarvest by creating a directory listing for their business. This year that number has doubled to 20 new members every day.
Likewise, the site's traffic has grown considerably over time. We are fortunate to be listed as a resource in many articles and publications about CSAs, farmers markets, and local food in general. This exposure, along with our high ranking in Google searches, is invaluable in driving traffic to the site. Last year, we served 4.2 million unique visitors, or about 350,000 new people every month. Since 2005, when we began using our current analytic software, over 11 million people have visited LocalHarvest. Once they get to the site, many of these people stay and look around for a while. The average number of pages each visitor views when arriving at LocalHarvest is 6.4. The same average across Internet sites is slightly above two pages per visit.
When LocalHarvest was first conceived, organic farming was getting a lot of public attention, but there was little or no public discussion of "local." Anticipating that the price of oil and the environmental crisis would eventually make geography a higher priority than production methods, and also wanting to do our part for the development of strong local economies, we built the site around the values inherent in buying from local farmers.
By bringing farmers together in a single directory, the LocalHarvest site has become a powerful collective marketing tool. LocalHarvest promotes small farms in the aggregate, and benefits individual small farms all across the country. While members may choose to maintain their own web sites in addition to their LocalHarvest listings, many find LocalHarvest to be the most effective way for new customers to find them.
Many people assume that LocalHarvest is a non-profit organization, probably because of the ".org". We chose to be "localharvest.org" not to confuse people, but because the site was intended to be a service, rather than a business. We wanted the URL to convey 'information' rather than 'commerce.'
When the Internet bubble burst in late 2001, Ocean Group closed its doors. By that time, the company had grown to seven employees. Six of us found other work. Guillermo Payet, software engineer and founder of Ocean Group, did odd jobs and kept LocalHarvest going through a few very lean years. The site almost had enough momentum to make it as its own business. Guillermo is a risk-taker, and after investing so much effort and money in the site, and receiving so much positive feedback from farmers, he could not let it go. Again he had the option to go the non-profit route, but chose against it, wanting instead to build a business dedicated to generating positive social change. In 2002 he incorporated LocalHarvest as its own business entity (an S-corporation). As he tells it, he wanted to see if he could create a different kind of business, one that did three things: put its values first in all decision-making, funded itself (rather than being reliant on grants), and made a living for its employees. It was a fine list, and a good idea – but a little idealistic for a business that had no real revenue stream.
When LocalHarvest was still just an idea, the Ocean Group team had long arguments about whether or not to charge a membership fee for participation in the directory. The final consensus was to make it free for the first year, and then charge a nominal fee. Though revisited many times in the early years, we kept putting off the participation fee, and never have instated it. It was vitally important to us that all farmers feel that they could join the LocalHarvest directory. We knew that even a $25 annual fee would dissuade some people from joining. Maximum participation was a high priority because we knew that the value of the site, to farmers and to the public, would be proportional to the quality and quantity of information available in the directory.
In the end, we asked for a voluntary donation, gave donors a boost in the search results, and left it at that. It was a good choice. Most of our members do not seem to feel like we are outsiders trying to make a buck off of them. (A few do, and they let us know!) Our perception now, after living with the decision for nearly ten years, is that offering LocalHarvest as a free marketing service has generated tremendous good will toward the site. Among the farmers with whom we work, it is part of what has made us trustworthy.
In 2003, still in need of a way of having the site make money, Guillermo Payet added an on-line catalog. The catalog allows any LocalHarvest member to offer farm products for sale via mail order or local pick up. LocalHarvest takes a 15% commission on all sales made through the catalog (with the exception of CSA shares, which have a lower commission of 6%). Our biggest sellers are CSA shares, fruits, turkeys, seeds, other meats, lavender, herbal products and honey.
It was a good and necessary thing to have income stream at last, but this one brought a tension to the site. We are, after all, LOCALHarvest, and the way we make ends meet is by shipping farm products across the country. We see it; we know. And for the time being, we are willing to live with it because it allows us to do the main things that we do: promote family farms and help consumers find sources of good food.
The catalog offers about 5,000 products, from heritage turkeys to dried lavender, honey to goat cheese. Though we reserve the right to make a few exceptions, the basic rules are these: products have to be made by the member, and must use a minimum of 50% ingredients produced on the member's farm or procured directly from a farmer. We do not ship items that can be purchased locally in most places – for example, no produce commonly found at farmers markets. Farmers can, however, choose to offer such products for local pick up or delivery, if they wish. Another example: five years ago it was harder to get really good chicken eggs in some parts of the country, so we allowed those in the catalog. Our sense is that these are much easier to get in most places nowadays, so we no longer accept new chicken egg vendors (for shipping; local delivery still accepted). Duck eggs are still hard to find, so we still accept new vendors for those.
Adding the catalog was a significant move in ensuring LocalHarvest's longevity, as was the revelation in early 2008 that we ought to ask directly for an annual donation from our members. There had always been a donation page on the site, but it was pretty subtle, and oft forgotten. For the last year and a half we have sent out an annual donation request by email to all members, and our donations have more than doubled. Approximately 10% of our members make a monetary contribution to the site. If you are one of them, thank you.
Financial constraints are the biggest limitation to the growth of the site. We have a deep appreciation for the "organic" nature of our business's growth, and have chosen to decline several investment offers which would have required profit maximization to take priority over our social mission. Like many small business owners, we are acutely aware of the gap between what we envision for the site and what we are able to do with our current resources. LocalHarvest is currently run by one full time and three part time employees: Guillermo Payet, president and engineer, Erin Barnett, director, Kerry Glendening, webmaster, and Amber Payet, membership coordinator.
We are sometimes asked to describe what unexpected problems we have encountered in our first ten years. It is a difficult question to answer, because it implies that we had a plan! Mostly, we spend our time laying down new track, trying to stay ahead of the LH train. Sometimes we run into trouble because we stretch ourselves too thin. We added a new blog feature to the website last year, for example, enabling all LH members to have their own blog on the site. Of course we created a blog for the site itself... but rarely, rarely have time to write anything for it. There it sits, a public reminder of our overcommitted resources.
As a small company, we try to play to our strengths, forgive the inevitable screw ups, keep things as simple as possible, and trust our members. We make decisions without bureaucracy, which suits us. We put systems in place to maximize automatization and efficiency. For instance, all new members' listings come into an approval queue, allowing us to quickly preview them and weed out those that are not a good fit for our directory. We do not fix every typo; we just do not have the time. Last year we added a rating/review system, through which people can write public comments about our members. This helps minimize our need to police our members. If people have a less than ideal experience with a farm, they are welcome to air their grievance in a review, which then alerts others to possible issues with the farm in question. This system, too, can be abused, and occasionally we need to remove vitriolic reviews. For the most part, though, it works well. The review system adds a level of public interaction that we hope to expand in the near future.
Less clear cut are the issues that occasionally arise with our catalog sales. A couple of times a year we bump into issues we have not anticipated, and have to write new store policies to accommodate. This month, for example, we are adding a new policy to clarify the commission structure for CSA "add on" items (e.g. meat, eggs, flowers, sold separately from the produce share, but sold only to CSA members). As CSAs and online sales evolve, so too must our policies.
It is delightful to see so many variations on the basic CSA theme taking root. Farmers' ingenuity is at work in molding the CSA model to fit their businesses, and in reshaping their businesses to capitalize on the CSA model. This year we have seen a growing interest in all sorts of meat CSAs, cold-season CSAs, and multi-farm CSAs. Interest in CSA is expanding even in this contracted financial climate. Between 2007 and 2009, the percentage of our traffic coming from people looking for CSAs has increased 38%. Already this year, nearly 700 CSAs have joined LocalHarvest, bringing the total in our database to over 2,900. The word is out.
We at LocalHarvest are excited about the future. We see big changes coming, and, with so many of you across the country, are working hard to make sure they are the kind of changes that strengthen the common good. More thriving CSA farms. More farmers markets, especially in areas where good food is hard to come by. More backyard gardeners. More people thinking deeply about the links between food and justice, health, stewardship, economic webs, and spiritual vitality.
Over the coming months and years, we plan to add new tools to LocalHarvest, tools to facilitate both online local food purchases and social connections. The time for "buy local" has finally come. We at LocalHarvest want to keep the momentum going, to deepen the conversation, and to help create a food system that serves us all.