Sep 19, 2013
MarketMaker can help growers locate opportunities

Growers and other industry representatives can now tap into a national electronic marketing tool for buying and selling locally produced foods.

The National Food MarketMaker Program is being touted as a virtual supply chain to help farmers sell their products at a premium price.

“We’re seeing exponential activity and we keep adding new features, finding ways MarketMaker can serve growers, producers and anyone else in the supply chain,” said Darlene Knipe, University of Illinois marketing and development specialist, who has been working to develop the project for several years with her husband, Rich.

MarketMaker, hosted and maintained by the University of Illinois, is a web-based resource that provides links between producers, processors, wholesalers, retailers, farmers’ markets, foodservice providers and end-consumers within the food supply chain.

Using the business connection feature, farmers can link with specific farmers’ markets, grocery stores, restaurants, schools and other organizations that also have developed MarketMaker profiles. The link serves the mutual benefit of identifying users of local food sources and driving business to the farm.

From the website,, sellers will be directed to their individual states and can easily create free profiles with location, website, contact information and produce available. Users can describe other enterprises, such as retail markets and agritourism activities, through additional profiles. The site’s mapping and directional tools enable customers to easily find a farm.

The program was created in 2004 by a University of Illinois Extension team, with the intention of building an electronic infrastructure that would more easily connect farmers with economically viable new markets. It also serves as an aide in the development of quality driven food supply chains.

There are now 600,000 business profiles in the system, and MarketMaker has expanded to 20 states.

“Hopefully we’ll get to add more states, but it’s not as easy as flipping a switch,” Knipe said. “There’s a lot of people involved.”

Sustained by a national partnership of land-grant institutions and state agriculture departments, MarketMaker allows all information to be mapped and queried by the user.

“We started it as a project to help connect livestock producers with value-added meat products for the Chicago markets,” Darlene Knipe said. “When we were not very far into the project, we realized it had much broader application.
“When we demonstrated it in meetings with other states, it was really an epiphany for us,” she said. “Connecting with other states and cooperating to create a shared effort among states to build this system was the key to its success. We have an outstanding partnership of organizations. We are creating a lot more functionality to help producers improve market outreach.”

Farms self-register, and every state that’s part of the system has its own portal, all sharing the same data.

The system features a buy-sell forum that “helps draw attention to an individual business,” Knipe said. “It’s a good aggregation tool, and with the push for locally grown it’s sort of evolving in the way food is being distributed.”

A trade-alert feature is intended to allow users to pursue a certain type of market opportunity in their profile, and when that inquiry comes through the system it is directed to users seeking those connections.

Knipe said MarketMaker is being recognized as an economic development tool by states involved in the project.
“There’s a lot of opportunity around building a more agile food supply chain.”

As soon as farmers, food processors, wineries, grocery stores, distributors and others create a presence on MarketMaker, they can generate a lot of activity simply by having a profile that will greatly increase market impact. The system receives nearly 100,000 visitors a month, Knipe said.

A newer feature offers a pilot farm-to-food bank program in which MarketMaker is working with Feeding America to connect closer to farmers. It includes a hotline where farmers can send a text message when they have surplus products. That message is channeled to the appropriate food bank for contact purposes.

MarketMaker also has developed a seasonal labor portal that was piloted in Iowa and had “a fair amount of success,” Knipe said. “The idea is to help coordinate seasonal labor where there’s the need and capacity. We’ve been working with the workforce development people and they’ve been pleasantly surprised. We’re strategizing on how to roll it out in other states. We definitely think there is a need there and MarketMaker can play a role in that.”

She said anyone in the industry could get into the system and set up an account by registering and establishing a profile. It’s a matter of “clicking through some boxes,” and the goal is to make it so registration doesn’t take more than 15 minutes. Photos, graphics and other information can be added to the profiles.

The project’s operators plan to do a push during the winter months to get participants to update their profiles when they have more time available.

“If you look at the registrations for the last 30 days (which can be done by accessing the database), it’s surprising we’re still getting farmers signing up this time of year.”

Knipe pointed out that the “quality controls” in the system include moderators looking over the information to “make some judgment if they’re out of line or obviously not legitimate. We don’t have the capacity to go out and visit every farm to verify claims, but we can check on certain certifications that are identified in the profiles to make sure they can be verified.

“We attempt to filter out the telemarketers and people being dishonest,” the specialist said. “One nice thing about a public forum, someone will flag them and let them know.”
The program is funded by the state partners, which pool their resources, along with grants and some sponsorships.
While there is no intent to charge users to put their information in the system, the organizers are “looking at building additional features and functions that individual businesses may be willing to pay for,” Knipe said.

“We’re about to launch a global application of MarketMaker as a pilot in which we’re trying to build an infrastructure where there might be interest from private investment that will really help us grow,” she added. “Our goal is to get that public-private collaboration. While still serving the greater good, we’ll be a little more agile in our ability to ramp up the project.”

Joanne Davidhizar, Michigan State University Extension, is the state contact for Michigan MarketMaker.

“This summer, we are asked that farmers’ market operators create profiles and make business connections with their farm/food vendors using MarketMaker,” she said.

“Markets can easily create profiles with location, hours of operation, available products, contact information, payment options and other valuable information,” Davidhizar said. “Using the business connection feature, farmers’ market managers can link with specific farmers and food processors that have also developed Market Maker profiles.

“The Detroit Eastern Market provides a good example of a MarketMaker farmers’ market profile that connects with area food producers, farmers and other vendors,” she said.
It’s a trend Darlene Knipe, a University of Illinois marketing and development specialist, is seeing more frequently.

“We love the state farmers’ market associations,” she said. “We’re trying to build that capacity and make MarketMaker a useful tool for them.”

Gary Pullano

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