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Online Agriculture Platform to Boost Farms Wins Federal Grant

The local farm-sales platform, called Healthy PlanEat, was originally the brainchild of East Lyme, Conn., native Rosemary Ostfeld, who teaches sustainable agriculture at Wesleyan University.

(TNS) — An online platform to boost sales at local farms using sustainable growing practices has won a $41,600 planning grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The local farm-sales platform, called Healthy PlanEat, was the brainchild of East Lyme native Rosemary Ostfeld, who teaches sustainable agriculture at Wesleyan University. It was launched initially at several local sites, including Provider Farm in Salem, Drew’s Honeybees in Norwich and Long River Farm in Old Lyme.

The award, one of three in Connecticut, was part of a $90.2 million federal investment to “strengthen and explore new market opportunities for local and regional food businesses,” according to a release. Funding for the local project was made possible through the Local Agriculture Marketing Program.

“I’m really, really excited,” Ostfeld said in a phone interview. “I really do feel lucky it’s worked out. It’s an honor.”

Ostfeld said she will use the grant for website development and marketing of Healthy PlanEat in hopes of expanding a locally focused shipping program funded by a small grant from the Connecticut Entrepreneurship Foundation that she tested on a small scale last summer. She also said the project will allow farms and small food businesses to manage an expanded number of pop-up pickups for their products at various sites around the state.

“It will let the platform scale,” Ostfeld said of the grant. “This will be really cool. We’ll be able to have more locations.”

One of those locations currently in the works is an Old Lyme site on Halls Road across from Essex Savings Bank, where Long River Farm owner Walker Potts has plans to open up a shop to sell produce year-round, as well as a variety of breakfast, lunch and dinner food items in cooperation with several other local farms, he said.

Ostfeld said she is also working on another program to help local farmers this winter by having them sell to area school systems. Several farms use hoop houses or other methods to extend their growing season, while others focus on hardy root vegetables, micrograins, honey or syrup that can bring in income during the off-season. She also worked with some farms to develop holiday-related products, such as cheese plates, she said.

Still, many local patrons won’t start seeing Ostfeld’s plans come to life until spring, when the first crops of the season are harvested. In 2022, she will be transferring through the revised website some of the farm sale pickups she has been managing to the local businesses themselves, overseeing less of the day-to-day interactions while also substantially increasing the number of pickup sites.

At the same time, she will be focusing more of her attention on a shipping program piloted on a very small scale last summer at Provider Farm in Salem and two Colchester sites: Cugno’s and Cloverleaf farms. Each site tested out sending produce through the U.S. Postal Service, which Ostfeld said proved very good at delivering packages at low cost, usually in only one day.

A typical box of produce, which sold at a flat rate of around $45, would include cucumbers, squash, onions and potatoes. The initial package program was a bit of a grab-bag and did not offer much in the way of choice, but Ostfeld said the Agriculture Department funding will allow her to offer some level of consumer options in the future.

“We’re building a community of farmers who have shared values, and we are helping them to use technology to make it easier to connect to customers and to each other,” she said. “I’m interested to get more sustainable farmers shipping hyperlocally and to expand our pickup model.”

Ostfeld, in her grant application on behalf of her company Sustainable Planet LLC, noted that she hoped to bring the sustainable agriculture sales website to other neighboring states once she can grow the number of Connecticut farms selling online. One of her challenges in scaling up, she said, would be making sure that customers are happy with the experience, so she foresees a time when consumer reviews might be added to the website.

“We have to make sure the quality is really high,” she said.

Meanwhile, she will be holding farmer focus groups over the winter to discuss the best way of updating the Healthy PlanEat website so it is ready to go by early spring.

“I love working on this,” Ostfeld said. “I love meeting the farmers, getting to know the customers. We’re building a community around eating healthy sustainable food at a time that it has been challenging during COVID.”

© 2022 The Day (New London, Conn.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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