Browsing a local farmers' market for vegetables, fruit, meat and specialty foods soon will be as quick and convenient as browsing the Internet.
The new Web site www.roguevalleylocalfoods.org opens Friday, June 11, to online purchasing. A project of the local economic-development and food advocacy group THRIVE, Rogue Valley Local Foods is designed to assist small farmers with direct sales while appealing to customers who otherwise can't shop at local growers' markets.
"Maybe they don't have time to go to the farmers' market," says Wendy Siporen, THRIVE's executive director. "Based on our initial outreach, people are really excited about it."
A model online market in Eugene reported 2009 sales figures between $75,000 and $100,000, representing about 100 orders per week, says Lois Schlegel, of THRIVE. Unlike Eugene's version and similar markets in about a dozen cities between California and Canada, Rogue Valley Local Foods operates on a nonprofit basis with partial grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Cow Creek Umpqua Indian Foundation. The market also solicits customer donations of farmer surplus for area food banks.
Increasing availability of healthful, safe food is among the goals of Oregon State University Extension's new Southern Oregon Farmer Incubator program in collaboration with THRIVE. The online market will be the first point of sale for some 10 farmers from Jackson and Josephine counties enrolled in the program, Siporen says. The concept emerged in March as an integral component of the Extension's curriculum and support for start-up farms, she adds.
"The farmers don't even have to harvest it until they know it's sold," says Siporen.
Online orders must be placed almost a week in advance, with the sales platform opening at noon on Fridays and closing at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesdays. Products are assembled by THRIVE staff and volunteers and delivered Thursdays for customer pick-up at one of three locations: Grains Beans & Things in Medford, Rogue Creamery in Central Point and Club Northwest in Grants Pass. Each of those facilities has refrigerated storage but keeps deliveries only for a few hours each Thursday until market customers claim them.
"If we get enough feedback that there's interest, we will expand pick-up sites," says market manager Kristen Lyon.
The number of vendors will expand throughout the growing season as Farmer Incubator participants see their first yields, says Siporen. The site is due to launch with just 10 vendors, some long established in the Rogue Valley. Those who deal in highly seasonal products may sign on for just a few weeks per year, adds Siporen.
"The market is meant to support our existing farmers, as well," she says. "People have to make a choice as to which farm they're buying from."
All those choices, however, are confined within the 100-mile radius of Medford. Rogue Valley Local Foods also stipulates that all prepared foods must contain a majority of ingredients grown or raised within the same boundary. Vendors are not allowed to resell products originating outside the area.
"With this economy, people's awareness is changing about how they spend their money," says Lyon. "This is one little thing you can do to spend your dollar locally."
Farmers set their own prices with Rogue Valley Local Foods, which will be competitive with local farmers' markets. By the time vendors pay THRIVE to administer their sales, they receive rates closer to wholesale, Siporen says.
Among the market's first vendors, Kahty Chen Milstead says she see online sales as a good way to test the waters locally in her first year as a farmer.
"There's just a vibrancy and kind of a locus of energy," Milstead says. "It's a good time to be farming."
A Farmer Incubator participant, Milstead is in the process of moving to property in the Griffin Creek area and decided in the interim to grow microgreens under the name Salad Days. The former artist and art professor from Los Angeles says she's relied on the Extension and THRIVE for "professional oversight" of her endeavor, as well as retail exposure that doesn't tie her to a booth at a traditional farmers' market.
"It kind of offers the best of both worlds."
Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.