Online sales platforms an option for direct-market farmers during COVID-19 (and beyond)

March 27, 2020

by Leigh Adcock, communications specialist

Direct-market farmers face closures of farmers markets, restaurants, and other in-person sales outlets this spring due to COVID-19. What options can replace these important markets? I recently attended a webinar sponsored by the non-profit Oregon Tilth called “Online Sales Platforms for Farmers” (view the recording). Representatives of five platforms gave overviews of their products.

All of these online platforms operate in similar way. Farmers set up an online “store” with their products and prices listed. Shoppers visit the website, select products, fill their “cart,” and check out. The platforms are designed to make it easy for customers to access healthy, locally grown food. And they want to give farmers tools to manage inventory, customer communications, sales, and delivery options.

Person holding smartphone showing online shopping cart.

According to one, 65% of online purchases happen on a mobile phone, so all platforms integrate across devices. They can generate a pick list based on orders, and packing labels and delivery routes with maps for drivers.

Several presenters mentioned on the webinar that they’ve seen a surge in use on their platforms over the past 30 days, up to 10-fold in one case. If you’ve been thinking of adding online sales to your marketing plan, this is a great time to explore it.

The platform’s differences may be minor, but they can be important—especially when it comes to pricing and available tech support. Here’s a summary from my notes on the webinar. But I recommend you visit each site yourself, view their demos, and get a feel for how they work. And remember, there are other platforms out there.

Here’s a great resource from NRC-SARE: Online Sales Platform Comparison Chart (March 2018). Here’s another from the National Young Farmers Organization: Farmer’s Guide to Direct Sales Software Platforms.

Barn2Door (based in Seattle, created in 2015):

  • Can set up accounts for markets and coops, but primarily designed for individual farms. Offers three types of pricing: retail, wholesale, and private buying groups.
  • Does not require customers to create an account or log in; their rep says two-thirds of customers will leave a site if required to do so.
  • Integrates with MailChimp, Facebook, and Twitter for communications, and QuickBooks for bookkeeping.
  • Pricing: $59–$99 a month, plus a one-time set-up fee of $299–$499. Differences based on amount of website design and follow-up support you want.

Harvie (Pittsburgh, 2006):

  • Built based on research into customer preferences for online shopping. Focused on individual farmers rather than hubs or coops.
  • Set up on the CSA model; customers can sign up for a share, or make one-time purchases via the “Harvie Farm Stand” option.
  • Customers set preferences for their CSA boxes so they get only products they want each delivery period. They get an email to say what’s available, then they can swap items, add extras, skip a week. Email also includes recipes.
  • Pricing: 7% percent of sales, $250 set-up fee. Offers some discounts for volume ($250K+ per year). Discounting some fees during COVID.
One person hands apple to another over a display of fruit at farmers market.
Many farmers markets nationwide will delay opening this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Local Food Marketplace (Eugene, Oregon, 2009):

  • Serves 5,200 clients across the US and Canada, including individual farms, CSAs, coops, food hubs, and online farmers markets.
  • Offer individual branded online storefront (no LFM logo on the page) with full back-end system, including order and distribution management, CSA management, inventory management, etc.
  • Farmers say platform saves them 16–32 hours a week of administrative paperwork. Average of 45% sales increase within three years.
  • Pricing: Monthly fee of $79–$149 plus set-up fee of $499–$999 for individual producers; food hub pricing here.

Food4All (Bend, Oregon, 2017):

This small start-up is similar to the platforms above, with the exception of its pricing. Food4All describes itself as “subscription-free selling technology for farmers.” Find out more about its community-supported software fees.

Open Food Network (Australia, 2012):

  • This values-based platform is the only one available internationally, and the only one based on open-source software. A community of designers around the world creates and modifies the platform to meet new needs as they arise. It’s not available everywhere, but the community will help you set it up where you are.
  • Pricing: OFN charges no fees for use. Instead, they ask community members to help out by donating work or cash.

I asked our field specialist, Teresa Wiemerslage, what she thought of online sales platforms as an option for farmers. She said, “It takes a lot of time to set up and manage these sites, and they can be expensive. Farmers need to be prepared for that investment. Food hubs in Iowa are also using these platforms. It may be beneficial for some farmers to explore those partnership opportunities.”

She noted that the Iowa Food Hub, which serves northeast Iowa, recently updated their food box site on Shopify to be an online farmers market. (Click Online Market.)

Iowa is home to eight food hubs covering a majority of the state (the exception is northwest Iowa). Check out our online hub directory to find one near you.