Lacking the infrastructure of traditional suppliers, many local farms that want to connect to restaurants, schools and other big buyers are using the Internet to reach customers.
Groups of farms are banding together to form regional food hubs, leveraging online ordering, tracking and marketing tools to cut down on costs and to try to keep local food systems viable for growers and affordable for consumers.
But not all local producers are online – or even on the power grid, which puts them at a disadvantage. Amish farmers – whose ancestors arrived near Arcola, Ill., in the 1800s – want to continue to live simply on their farms. And because their religious beliefs outlaw the use of heavy machinery like tractors and combines, many still use horses to perform tasks in the field, when they aren’t laboring by hand to produce signature products like goat’s milk, grass-fed beef and raw milk cheese.
Donald Kraybill, a senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, says many Amish communities are working out how to merge tradition with technology to sell the food they grow.
"In terms of technology, the Amish make a sharp distinction between access to it and ownership of it,” Kraybill said.
Kraybill says Amish families in other parts of the country hire a tech support person outside the church to maintain their websites and handle online sales of their products. In forming a co-op, the farmers may be able to hire outside employees to work that part of the business.
“[It’s] just a marriage made in Amish heaven, so to speak,” Kraybill said. “Between a movement among consumers as well as very good products that are family-friendly for the Amish.”
But getting those products to market remains a logistical challenge for farmers whose primary mode of transportation is the horse-drawn buggy. That’s why Dave Bishop, member of a USDA-funded food hub organization team, is urging the Amish community near Arcola to form a farmer’s cooperative and begin aggregating production in 2014.
“This co-op model makes [getting your products to customers] that much easier to do and much more likely to be successful,” Bishop said at a recent informational meeting for Amish farmers.
Bishop and fellow team members are working with the farmers to set up one drop-off point – the “hub” – and from there, a regular delivery route.
“This creates the kind of efficiency in the system that makes sense,” Bishop said. “There is no question that by forming a group, or a co-op, you can accomplish a level of efficiency that you just can’t accomplish as individuals.”
A single Amish farmer may not be able to hire a driver to ship products to a local restaurant. But by banding together, the economics may start to make sense. Thirty-three-year-old Amish farmer Mervin Graber could benefit from being able to sell wholesale, since he often wants to sell whole cows or hogs. That would be much easier if he could find big institutional buyers. He says he’s excited about the opportunities an Amish food hub could bring to the area, even if he’s not prepared to connect to the internet.
Graber does, however, use solar panels to power a phone and fax machine. If he is any example, the Amish in the Midwest will find a creative solution in order to get farm-fresh products to hungry customers.
Harvest Public Media, based at KCUR, is a collaborative public media project that reports on important agricultural issues in the Midwest. You can read more about the project on their website.