Michigan lamb producer Sharon Schierbeek says Jerry Adams’s latest idea is the greatest thing since mint jelly.
And Adams thinks it might be the biggest advance since the creation of farmers markets.
He got the idea for online farmers markets when his wife began spending two days a week going from farm to farm to find fresh produce for the family.
Walking through a farmers market in Grand Rapids, Michigan, late in the day with stalls still laden with freshly harvested fruit and vegetables, he realized when the market closed the farmers would have to load their unsold produce and take it back to the farm.
“He works from dawn to dark the day before the market, picking his crop, getting it ready,” Adams says of the farmer. “On the day of the market he gets up at 4:00 a.m., trucks his products to the site and sets up his booth so it is all ready by 7:00 a.m.
“Then at 7:30 a.m., it starts raining like mad. Sales that day are virtually nothing, but he still has to stay there until the market closes.”
In Michigan, winters are severe, so farmers markets close for the duration.
“I love farmers markets, but they are very limited in a lot of ways,” Adams says. “I came up with the concept of trying to simplify the supply chain for farmers.”
In figuring out a way to take the gamble out of selling, he came up with two online farmers 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 or load their crops.
Two Online Co-Op Systems
FarmLink has many attractions for Sharon Schierbeek, who (with husband Pierre) runs a flock of 80 Suffolk and Polypay ewes on their 40-acre S and S Lamb operation at McBain, 100 miles north of Grand Rapids.
The family-oriented West Michigan Co-op has about 300 buyers and 40 farmers in 10 counties. The online farmers market allows people to shop for farm fresh products from the comfort of their homes and then pick up their orders at a once-a-month drop off.
It’s been operating for five years and the turnover has reached $25,000 to $30,000 a month. The co-op gets five percent from the buyer and five percent from the seller.
Adams has now moved onto his latest concept, FarmLink, which aims for bigger orders—targeting restaurants, hospitals and schools around Grand Rapids.
Instead of spending the day trucking their produce from location to location, farmers bring it to a central site.
With FarmLink, chefs interested in first-quality, fresh local produce don’t need to spend days traipsing from farm to farm.
That’s because farmers post what products they have on a website.
Chefs check the website and place their orders.
“I let the farmers know what they’ve sold before they pick it,” Adams says.
Each Wednesday, the farmers go to Adam’s offices in Grand Rapids and deliver the produce. The chefs arrive at the same time and collect their orders, paying for the produce then and there.
FarmLink takes a five percent commission from both buyers and sellers.
“It’s a simple process,” Sharon says. “Customers order online; we check our orders; we bring our orders to the once-a-week delivery; FarmLink sends us a check.
“The other advantages are in the relationships we can have with the customers. That’s top of the list!”
The Schierbeeks joined the West Michigan Co-op the week it began operations. Before then, their main outlets had been their farm store, farmers markets, meat markets and a few restaurants.
“When Jerry began planning for FarmLink, with the same online ordering process, we became interested in being part of the group of producers who could interact with chefs in a face-to-face relationship,” Sharon says.
“We can meet with the buyers, ask questions of what they may want to be using in the future and simply get a good idea of where the restaurant business is headed.”
Sharon says this has moved the farm in a new direction.
“When several chefs asked questions about the availability of duck for their menus, we added duck to our farm’s production so we could fill that need,” Sharon says.
Chef Chris Perkey of the 300-member Kent County Country Club says he always looks for local product because of its obvious freshness.
Perkey, who liked the cuts coming from S and S Lamb, was one of the chefs who steered the Schierbeeks into duck production.
He says FarmLink helps him plan his menus because he can look at the website and see what’s available next.
The Schierbeeks say their sales through FarmLink depend on what is on the restaurant menus. Because the system is in its infancy, the percentage of their overall sales is still small.
“But the growth potential is there and we look forward to that,” Sharon says.
The farm has been in the family since 1932 and Schierbeeks say that as they run the operation on their own, they believe a flock of 80-100 ewes is their maximum.
“We are working now in co-operation with Matchett Sheep Farm in Charlevoix, Mich. They run 400 Polypay ewes for feeder lambs that can be raised to butcher weight to supplement our lambs,” Sharon says.
“We use the same feed, use the same farming techniques, and have the same mindset for producing high quality lamb for customers.”
The S and S Lamb farm raises a variety of meats, although lamb is the primary interest.
“We sell several selections of pork and beef, along with our newest item, duck,” Sharon says. “We also offer eggs from our 500 Isa Brown hens.”
She is generally happy with her cost to use FarmLink.
“From a farmer’s standpoint, we would like to see a two to three percent surcharge,” she says. “That said, FarmLink is doing the work that we cannot leave the farm to do. They make the connections and that first impression’ with customers.
“They keep their ears to the ground and listen to the food world speak. We don’t have time for that. So it’s worth the five percent to have them using their talents while we use ours here on the farm.”
Pierre is developing personal relationships with FarmLink buyers.
“Pierre is the market man here and makes the deliveries to the drop-offs and those relationships develop in a nice way,” Sharon says.
The program will gain importance during winter when farmers markets are closed, she says.
“Now chefs are able to walk the markets’ and pick up their needs on a daily basis, but once the winter months come and they see what is available, orders will increase.”
This is important for a sheep producer marketing year-round.
S and S breeds lambs three times a year to get different sized lambs to choose from throughout the year.
“Right now, I cannot say that there is a peak sales period,” Sharon says. “There is a steady and consistent need for it. The holidays will always bring in a bit more business, but our sales are generally stable throughout the entire year.”
The farm continues to deliver to individual customers on a limited basis.
“If a restaurant orders from us and we are going to be delivering in their area on a different day than the FarmLink drop-off day, we call them and ask if we may drop off their order directly to their door,” Sharon says.
“The order is still processed through FarmLink, but we simply deliver it. It’s always easier to bring it right to FarmLink, but if it means a special trip into town just for FarmLink orders, we try to consolidate our trips.”
The Schierbeeks say the program has generated new business as well as restructuring existing business.
“Some of our customers have chosen to go through FarmLink for what they need from us and some become new
S and S Lamb customers,” Sharon says. “Others do both. It all depends on the buyers’ needs at the moment.”
Farmers and chefs meet each week as orders are filled at the FarmLink office.
Reinforcing Farmers Markets, Not Replacing Them
The sheep producers see farmers markets and FarmLink complementing each other.
S and S Lamb has a stand at the Grand Rapids Fulton Street Farmers Market every Friday and Saturday.
“Many chefs walk through and see what is seasonal—what’s new—and talk to the producers and farmers,” Sharon says. “But they don’t always have change in their pockets.”
With FarmLink they can order at their convenience.
The Schierbeeks see FarmLink as a major breakthrough in rural-urban marketing.
“I’m a farmer and a marketer,” Sharon says. “If I split my time evenly between farming and marketing, my farming will fail.
“Farmers need to work in connection with other farmers to keep us strong and encouraged. What we do here on small farms is sometimes hard and discouraging work.
“We not only compete with huge commercial suppliers, but we also compete on an international level since America’s food supply comes in from all over the world.
“So small farmers need people like Jerry Adams and Scott Hawkins at FarmLink to help us get connected to customers who will buy and appreciate our products.”
The Schierbeeks say the program has had an added benefit.
“We are constantly looking for new ideas, new avenues and new relationships to build upon—that can keep our small farm active and productive,” Sharon says. “To be a small farm that preserves an old-fashioned way of life in a fast-paced world is a true gift and gives me hope for this simple way of life continuing on.”
FarmLink has been operating weekly but next summer Adams is looking at expanding it to twice weekly, perhaps adding a Friday to the existing Wednesday operation.
“There is a need for volume going into the weekend and to keep it fresh, especially with the veggie and fruit producers,” Adams says.
Adams has a reason for insisting on growers and buyers meeting each week as orders are filled at his office.
“I want people to know the guy growing their food,” he says. “I want the buyers to know the people supplying their product. We get a few beers and have a happy hour with chefs and farmers on a Wednesday afternoon.
“With FarmLink, that relationship changes the product. The chefs are influencing the farmers now. The chefs are saying, You are bringing this in, great. But if you did it this way or grew this, I would buy it’.”
It takes a lot of the gamble out of the crop for small farmers. Adams says some producers like to go to farmers markets, but for some farmers it’s “the biggest pain-in-the-drain.”
“They are not social beings,” he says. “They like being out by themselves in a field. That’s why they are farmers.
“Society has almost forced them into this spot. They are not big enough to sell to the chains. They are not even big enough to aggregate with their like fellows. This way they are having the direct relationship with the people they need to have it with.”
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.
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.
FarmLink is attracting quality restaurants with chefs that want to prepare food the right way. If a crop gets wiped out, they will change their menu.
“I am shifting the power,” Adams says. “The chef is coming in here and meeting the farmer. He learns to care about that farmer. He’s your guy; not just some nameless, faceless entity.”
The only reason to reject a farmer for FarmLink is if Adams already has someone supplying a product and the market is not big enough for two. With fruit and vegetables, there’s a lot of overlap because of the demand.
Adams concedes a lot of the 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 got it; picked when it was green and gassed to break down on its way in.
“The product here was picked ripe this morning,” Adams says.
“Once they (chefs) come in, they get it’,” he says. “I was also concerned about the quality of the product coming in, but it’s been as good as you can get.”
Doing Business With FarmLink
On arrival, products are checked and weighed and chefs then pay for the 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 his check by Saturday, he has it on Monday.
The websites for these co-operatives are:
“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 travelled to a Slow Food International conference in Italy he spoke of his operation. And when he returned to his seat, he found 20 people waiting to talk to him about it.
As a result, he is setting up a website for two women in Gambia to offer a Food Link program there.
This gave him another idea—make the model available worldwide.
He has set up a website that offers two options:
Internet-savvy entrepreneurs can download the shareware program and use it to create their own FarmLink programs.
For those not interested in doing their own internet setup, Adams will establish a local program anywhere in the world.
“If anyone is interested in food but need help and want somebody to host it, we’ll put up a site for them, call it FoodStand Gambia or Hampton Roads FoodStand, whatever.
“We host it; we keep it in business.”
Adams says there are no upfront costs, but his charge to operate the site, including its marketing and accounting, is five percent of sales—2.5 percent from buyers and 2.5 percent from farmers.”
The people using the system 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 websites for next year, including in Hampton Roads, Virginia and in Michigan, in Saugatuck, St. Joseph and Traverse City.
“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 also 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.”