At the Columbia Farmers Market one Saturday in June, bundles of fresh, leafy basil crowded a table at the Sellmeyer Farm stand. The herbs, Tammy Sellmeyer told a customer, would stay fresh longer if the stems were placed in water.
“Conversational commerce,” as Kim Harrison calls it, is the connection that lets farmers explain their growing process and exactly what goes into their food.
With that connection in mind, Harrison and her daughter Olivia Vann have created an online site called “2BuyAg” that functions as a digital marketplace. 2BuyAg lets farmers post their products online so shoppers can buy directly for pickup or delivery.
“Our role is to be a connector,” Harrison said. Face-to-face interactions give farmers like Harrison the chance to show consumers: “This is how I do what I do,” she said.
The emotional experience a consumer has during a transaction plays a role in what food they continue to shop for, Harrison said, and knowing about food production lets people feel good about what they are buying.
“A lot of people don’t know how food is raised or where it comes from,” Sellmeyer said, but that has begun to change.
Although a majority of Americans still buy their groceries from supermarkets or supercenters, the market for locally sourced food in 2019 is estimated to jump almost 60 percent over 2014.
And while the emotional component does impact food purchases, Harrison said convenience and price still play a big role in where people shop. Because stores like Walmart sell such large quantities and varieties of goods, prices can remain low and the store can function as a one-stop shop.
By using technology, Harrison and the 2BuyAg team want to help close the gap.
with the market
With 2BuyAg’s new partnership with the Columbia Farmers Market, customers can order groceries online from farmers for pickup at the market. Harrison is still in the process of pitching the idea to farmers, and Sellmeyer and Mighty Acorn Farm are both on board.
The same type of buy-online, pick-up-in-store option has increased dramatically. Since 2016, the number of grocery pickup points at Walmart stores has increased six-fold — from 150 to 900 — and includes the Walmart on Conley Road.
With the same online convenience, 2BuyAg gives farmers “the opportunity to meet consumers where they’re meeting the Walmarts and the Amazons,” Harrison said.
And while farmers markets are a great place to connect to consumers, she said, “there’s a limitation on that.” Only so many people will visit each week, due to time and location constraints, which limits a farmer’s networking opportunities.
“As long as farmers are willing to engage with their customers online, we give them the ability to make the connection and transaction,” Harrison said.
Increasing the visibility and accessibility of farmers is a goal of 2BuyAg, and Olivia Vann said she hopes the online marketplace will encourage young people to try locally sourced food. The average farmer’s market shopper is over the age of 45.
“The younger generation is really into knowing where their food comes from, but at the same time, they also want convenience,” Vann said. Even just visiting a farmers market can introduce new people to local food.
“Hopefully when they’re there, they see something else that might draw them to the market, where they might not have come otherwise,” Sellmeyer said.
Closing the distance
John Corn of Mighty Acorn Farm recently brought bushels of vibrant green kale to display on a table at the Columbia Farmers Market.
He ran his fingers over a section of tiny, natural holes on the edge of the kale. The marks, he said, would dissuade many retailers from purchasing the produce.
Because bigger food suppliers look for shelf life and appearance when buying food, retailers often turn away produce that has natural imperfections.
The farmers market allows Corn and others to produce food for consumption rather than distribution, so it can reach dinner plates in days rather than weeks. He called it “food less traveled.”
The growth of the food transportation system has allowed retailers to shop nationally and internationally for lower prices or out-of-season food, which in turn, has increased the distance food travels. A report from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture found that ordinary apples were traveling 1,700 miles on average to reach Chicago, while locally grown produce was only 61 miles away.
Since produce at Mighty Acorn Farm’s stand is grown nearby, a lot of it can be picked the night before the market opens, and the focus stays on producing ripe, high-quality food.
And as the seasons change, so does the supply of local food. Corn said the farmers market is a great place to learn how to shop in season.
Continuous demand for out-of-season fruits and vegetables leads to importation, which can take weeks of travel from warmer climates during winter and spring. The long distribution and transportation process also takes away profits from the farmers using the services.
“Any time you can shorten the food supply chain, there is a greater chance that more of that money will go to the initiator of the supply chain, like the farmer,” Harrison said.
Not only do more direct interactions help keep money in farmer’s pockets, but they build community as well.
As John Corn put it, “food transcends barriers and boundaries.”