Local Dirt is free, powerful resource for growers and farmers
Easy, no-cost ways to market and sell farm products locally include word of mouth, Facebook and Twitter, but more and more Wisconsin farmers and growers are tapping into Local Dirt, a new, free marketing system they can use to find buyers and manage their price sheets.
On March 15 during a webinar sponsored by eXtension and eOrganics, Local Dirt's founder, Heather Hilleren, and outreach coordinator, Kassie Rizzo, said the marketing system goes "beyond marketing to find buyers, sell online, source and buy products yourself."
"We (Local Dirt) are a free online marketplace, a national site and an information source with automated recordkeeping," Hilleren said. "We do not distribute. We don't deliver or buy; there is no middle man and no shipping. We are already in every state."
Hilleren's commitment to local foods began with her own family farm and deepened over 10 years working in the natural foods industry.
She began work on Local Dirt several years ago, inspired by the time she spent in a Madison grocery store where purchases from local farmers went from two dozen to two. "It was unbelievably time-consuming, with the store purchaser figuring price sheets and then spending the day on the phone, trying to contact the farmers," she recalled.
Efforts to make buying easier didn't work for the store, either. For instance, during sweet corn season, the buyer went online and bought a palette from the next state over, Hilleren recalled. It was put up for sale already old, was no longer sweet, and ¾ of the pallet was thrown out.
Local Dirt evolved out of Hilleren's work on her MBA involving a local food nonprofit where farmers put their products online and grocery stores went online to buy. Local Dirt was funded by the National Science Foundation, meaning no fees and no payments are involved, and launched in 2009.
Marketing is a critical business element that leads to increasing demand, higher sales, higher prices and provides information such as what items a grower is selling and why customers should be buying them, Hilleren said. Customers who buy local and organic do so because they value the relationship, trust, and being part of the community, she noted.
A survey of value-added farmers showed over 60 percent marketed using only word-of-mouth, and nearly everyone surveyed relied on it more than any other tactic. "Word of mouth is still really important, but it has changed," Hilleren said. "Many conversations are now online, so an online presence is very important."
In general, she explained, growers can offer three types of information depending on the time they want to devote to their online presence. There's the static information of a profile, which is updated yearly; as well as changing information that is updated monthly or, ideally, weekly; and there are conversations/discussions that occur daily.
Whether on Facebook or Local Dirt, make the farm's static profile count and make it powerful by showing the farm and the family. "Give people a reason to contact you," Hilleren said. "Your story is important."
Use keywords and pictures of the product, she advised, and put in other links. . ."The more links, the more information, the better to increase your chances of being found," Hilleren said.
It's important to keep the content up-to-date, she said, noting Local Dirt is updated daily. "Your profile is a reflection of your business, so keep it updated or people will doubt if you care about the business and about your product," she explained, advising growers to add new and interesting things that are going on, update prices and products, and tell compelling stories using pictures and links.
Another way to update is the products themselves, Hilleren added, noting the Local Dirt site automatically calculates inventory for its users.
Kathy Rizzo is the outreach coordinator for the free online service that can streamline direct sales for the family farm. Every farmer/grower on Local Dirt has a profile page that displays their business logo, pictures of products, links and a Google map.
Farmers Markets are also involved with Local Dirt, with each having a profile page that shows schedules and locations and all the farms involved, allowing customers to order from an associated farm for pickup at the market. The site is also used for CSA shares, which can be ordered directly through Local Dirt, Rizzo noted.
One great way Local Dirt goes beyond marketing is its use of price sheets, Rizzo said, that give customers a clear picture of what's actually available. For instance, Hawk Hills Cattle Ranch shows the farm's inventory in real time. When an order is created, a purchase order is generated for the buyer and seller, and both the buyer and seller get an invoice in their e-mail.
For wholesalers, managing spreadsheets and price sheets can be a pain, Rizzo noted, but Local Dirt can consolidate everything into one price sheet. At present, farms who join as wholesalers may join free as a "medium" farm.
Local Dirt helps wholesale farms network with buyers to find out if their product is a good fit, while the Local Dirt profile can be used to get branding going. "It allows you to say what makes your product unique," Rizzo pointed out.
Delivery areas and issues can be set up as desired in terms of location, date, particular buyers and other chosen parameters. For instance, a farm might choose to deliver to three particular counties or the whole state or on certain days; it might set minimum purchases or add delivery charges.
Local Dirt also goes beyond marketing by allowing farmers to sell to particular markets and offer exclusive pricing lists with special prices to certain buyers, Rizzo added.
Price sheets are set up to key off availability dates so all products are listed, but customers will only see the active, available products. "A lot of farms use this to preload the system to account for their busier times," Rizzo explained.
When a buyer uses Local Dirt, he clicks on the price sheet (which shows only what was previously set up as available) and adds in what he wants, goes to the shopping cart, and chooses the delivery date. Local Dirt automates the invoicing and purchase orders to the buyer and the seller, Rizzo said, noting the system allows changes to be made. Payment is always as it has been, from the buyer to the seller.
Farmers can also use Local Dirt to run reports, such as how much was sold in a certain time period by dollar amounts or products or buyers. Invoices are always saved on Local Dirt, Rizzo said. She added that the program is free at present with the NSF grant running through 2012 and a USDA grant pending.
For any and all questions, Rizzo can be contacted at the Local Dirt office on Monday through Friday at 608-554-4800 or online at firstname.lastname@example.org.