Matchmaking for Food Producers and Buyers

The USDA and Oregon Department of Agriculture helped build a community that's like online dating for the food business.

by / March 14, 2012

The summer season, particularly when it comes after a harsh winter, is a welcome respite. But for many farmers, summer is the peak of harvesting season – a time when it seems like 24 hours isn’t enough time to get through everything on a day’s to-do list.

Still, Cassandra Timms of Deck Family Farms in Junction City, Ore., makes sure that she spends at least 10 minutes every day logged in to FoodHub.

“FoodHub has opened doors by word of mouth to chefs who have tried our products and then referred some of their friends to our farm,” Timms said. “We didn’t have to do the footwork or cold call them when they don’t have the time – they were just referred to us. That makes it worth those 10 minutes a day.”

That’s the concept of FoodHub, an online community for professionals in the food industry. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), FoodHub “is one of the most sophisticated, well-developed (and still developing) networks anywhere in the U.S.”

Launched in 2010, FoodHub has been a collaborative project funded by many organizations and philanthropists. Two of its main sponsors are the USDA under its “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative, and the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

“It is a matchmaking site for food producers like farmers and food buyers,” said Amanda Oborne, the community’s acting project director. “FoodHub works very much like an online dating site for food producers and food buyers and it is completely crowdsourced. Everyone in the directory is in there because producers and buyers logged in and created a profile.”

“So the website is created by people who are actually involved in buying and selling of food.”

That means that FoodHub is open to everyone associated with the food business. It’s open to commercial buyers, producers, distributors, industry suppliers as well as farmers’ market managers, trade associations and even the media.

“If you are a restaurant, a grocer, hospital, or school, you can hop online and find exactly what you want. [And] if you are a farmer, fisherman, dairy owner or a rancher, you have access to a community of food buyers,” said Deborah Kane, the former director of FoodHub who recently moved on to USDA.

Additionally, commodity commissions, trade organizations, advocacy groups, and news reporters have a front-row seat for all this action.

FoodHub operates on a simple principle: Food producers who are farmers – located mostly in rural areas – don’t have as much access to marketing and distribution channels as buyers, who are typically located in urban areas.

Vicki L. Walker, Oregon state director of USDA Rural Development said the FoodHub project was of great importance because, as an online platform, it can be propagated across the country. The platform caters not just to the communities in Oregon, but also in California, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.
“It has been difficult for small buyers to match with the producers and vice versa,” Walker said. “To effectively compete in the market, both buyers and sellers need to make sure who has food and who wants it.”

The problem is particularly acute for mid-size farms, Walker said. “They are often too large to compete in direct marketing and too small to compete effectively in traditionally wholesale supply chains. FoodHub offers the potential to support small and mid-size operations and, therefore, improve the market and support sustainable, prosperous communities.”
The online community’s delivery system is garnering results. Phil Greifs of pdFarms and Greifs Gourmet in Elgin, Ore., is finding that the website is a big money-saver for him.

“I check my FoodHub twice a day during the week just to see what’s out there,” said Greifs. “I was making deliveries to Portland once a month and sometimes every other week. Now it’s on a weekly basis and I partner up with another farm – who is also a FoodHub member – and take turns making deliveries.”

Besides forging partnerships, FoodHub also is a tool enhancing rural communities and bringing them into mainstream food markets, said Gary Roth, administrator of the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s Development and Marketing Division.

“Although America has a very advanced food system, our role as a department of agriculture, has been to identify market opportunities for our 40,000-plus growers and 2,000-plus food processors,” Roth said. “We are always looking for new tools and new opportunities, and we realized that while one could Google, but there were no advanced Web-enabled platforms that had pulled buying needs or selling opportunities into one place.”

The venture has been so successful, Roth added, that in its few years of existence it has already “made a dent on terms of an individual farmer’s capability of being a price maker rather than a price taker.”

However, Oborne thinks what’s most compelling about FoodHub is “that the farmers are using it,” she said with a chuckle.
“There are many farmers listed on the site who are above 60 [years old] and not quite tech-savvy. They were initially afraid of using the website,” Oborne said, “but they seem to have come around now and relate to it. There were also some who had never used a computer before but are now using FoodHub to find buyers.”

This is why both the USDA and Oregon Department of Agriculture are keen about taking the online community to the next level.

At the same time, these agencies want FoodHub to be self-sustaining. The project is operated through grants. Almost $2 million has been invested on research, development, the launch and the continued operation of FoodHub -- including hard costs and all staff time. The program’s management is working on a model for revenue generation, which could include upgraded memberships (all 3,200 FoodHub members have enjoyed free service since launch) advertising, other paid promotional opportunities, and other potential partners.

Going forward, FoodHub also aims to be more sophisticated.

“The next stage of development will move FoodHub from being a point of connection to a true marketplace where products can be purchased and transactions processed, and hopefully, ultimately, also be distributed,” Oborne said.

Indrajit Basu is a Digital Communities contributor.

Indrajit Basu Contributing Writer

Indrajit Basu is an international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities.