Entrepreneur Jerry Adams's latest idea might be the biggest rural advance since the creation of farmer's markets.
In figuring out a way to take the gamble out of selling, he came up with two online farmer's markets.
One links families with growers and the other does the same for chefs.
In both formats, the farmers know what they have sold before they pick their crops
In addition to the family-oriented West Michigan Coop, which has about 300 buyers and 40 farmers
in 10 counties, Adams is also offering FarmLink, which aims for bigger orders, targeting restaurants, hospitals and schools around Grand Rapids.
Six months into its operation, FarmLink has 15 producers signed on, selling everything from fruit and vegetables to honey, goat cheese, lamb and ducks.
There are 12 regular buyers, all restaurants except for St. Mary's Hospital in Grand Rapids.
With these numbers, the program is turning over $2,000 to $2,500 a week.
"If I can get 20 or 30 people shopping, that's going to be fine," Adams says.
He says FarmLink is a learning experience for some chefs.
"They work with food, but some don't even know what grows when."
FarmLink is attracting quality restaurants with chefs that want to do food the right way. If a crop gets wiped out, they will change their menu.
The system is a radical change in making chefs pick up their supplies.
"I am shifting the power." Adams says. "The chef is coming in here and meeting the farmer, He gets to care about that farmer. He's your guy; not just some nameless, faceless entity.
"It's a big shift. I want to even it up a bit more for the farmer."
The only reason to reject a farmer for FarmLink is if Adams already has someone supplying the same product and the market is not big enough for two of them. With fruit and veggies there's a lot of overlap because of the demand.
He concedes a lot of chefs are not going to be attracted to FarmLink because of perceived higher costs, but those that are attracted care about fresh quality and local food.
He says he had some concern at the start because of the legendary temperament of some chefs. But they know if they order through regular channels the tomato has been sitting in a crate for a month before they get it; picked when it was green and gassed to break down on its way in.
"The product here was picked this morning," Adams says.
"Once they (chefs) come in, they get the idea," he says. "I was also concerned about the quality of the product coming in, but it's been as good as you can get.
"Everything brought in has already been sold. The chefs have ordered it, and the farmer knows he has a sale."
On arrival, products are checked and weighed and the chefs then pay for their purchases.
Adams deposits the money the same day or the next, and the accountant is advised to cut the checks. If the farmer doesn't have this check by Saturday, he has it on Monday.
"It's a quick turnover," Adams says. "I am adamant about that because they need to get paid."
Adams quickly found the FarmLink model can be universal.
When he attended a Slow Food International conference in Italy, he spoke of his operation. When he finished, 20 people were waiting to talk to him about it.
As a result, he is setting up a website for two women in Gambia to offer a FoodLink program there.
This gave him another idea – make the model available worldwide.
So he set up another business called FoodStand that offers two options.
Computer- and Internet-savvy entrepreneurs can download the shareware program and use it to create their own FarmLink programs.
For others, Adams will set up a local program anywhere in the world.
"If you are interested in food but need help and want somebody to host it, we'll put up a site for you, call it FoodStand Gambia or Hampton Roads FoodStand, whatever," he says.
"We'll host it; we'll keep it in business."
Adams says there are no upfront costs, but his charge to operate the site, including its marketing and accounting, is 5% of sales – 2.5% from buyers and 2.5% from farmers."
The people using the system will set their own commission percentage.
"We have the software developed to make these connections," he says. "I am not going to give it to somebody two blocks away, but it doesn't hurt us to give it to somebody else somewhere else."
Adams is in the process of setting up five programs for next year including in Hampton Road, Virginia; and Saugatuck, St. Joseph, and Traverse City, Mich..
"I would like to set up a whole network of these throughout the state of Michigan," he says. "It's taking off because it makes sense."
Adams has been approached from people elsewhere in the U.S., the Congo and Sweden who want to introduce the program.
He is not surprised.
"It easily and quickly allows people to connect with their local growers," Adams says. "It gives farmers, wherever they are, another revenue stream that they don't have right now."
For more information on FarmLink visit wmfarmlink.com. Information on FoodStand is available at www.food-stand.com and West Michigan Coop is at westmichigancoop.com
Harman writes from Brighton.