A startup business based in the offices of an onion distributor’s warehouse is pushing an "online farmers market" that could be an answer to saving family farms and providing consumers with better food.
FromTheFarm.com is an innovation by Derrell Kelso, president and owner of Onion Etc. at the Port of Stockton, and over the past six months the separate ecommerce enterprise has undergone fundamental changes to help family farms across the country build better relationships with consumers. Success means farmers, ranchers and other ag-based producers will have better access to the $78 billion natural and organic food industry.
"We looked at the strategy and looked at what wasn’t working for the last few years. And looked at where we needed to focus, what initiatives that might give us the best (return on investment)," said FromTheFarm.com General Manager Phillip Lan, who joined the business six months ago to use his ecommerce expertise to grow the business. "We’ve rebuilt the team. … We have folks who are experts in their particular fields."
Helping farmers, ranchers and other producers is the idea behind the business.
"(Kelso) comes from a long line of farmers, many generations, and he could see how farming was just a tough business," said Lan, who himself grew up on a 40,000-chicken egg ranch in Ripon. "You work like crazy and at the end of the year you have no pricing power. You just take your goods to whomever and they just pay you what they pay you. Sometimes you can’t make a living at market rate.
"His vision was to try to create an online company, a company that leveraged technology, that allowed the farmers to connect directly with the consumers," Lan said of Kelso.
"I feel that we have a noble cause," he added. "We’re trying to get families to eat healthier. We’re trying to get families to be more aware of what is going into their bodies. We’re trying to help these farming families."
FromTheFarm.com offers online marketing expertise for producers who might not have the expertise or time to set up a marketing strategy, especially with the chance they will end up spending a lot of money on things that do not work.
"We have a lot of online marketing expertise," said Lan. "When a grower comes in, we look at their product … and we think through how we can get people’s attention. How do we do all the things that need to be done, whether it’s email or search engine optimization or working with bloggers or through social media to really create excitement and enthusiasm about that product."
Consumers can go online, read profiles of farmers, ranchers and other producers to gain an understanding of where their food comes from, and then order from those producers. Area producers for now include Onions Etc. and Alpine Meats in Stockton, Burchell Nursery in Modesto, Blossom Hill Packing/Lucich and Santos Farms in Patterson, and Prima Frutta Packing Co. in Linden.
FromTheFarm.com takes ownership of the product, but it is usually shipped directly from the producer. A consumer in Maine can have California-grown figs in no time, a lover of cherries can have them in July grown by a Washington state grower when the season here is earlier in the year, and a Midwest consumer can again taste dragon fruit they remember from their childhood that was grown in Dade County, Fla.
"We’re just at the beginning, because it is very difficult to build a marketplace, because you need a critical mass of growers as well as a critical mass of buyers," said Lan. "So, you have to start somewhere. You can’t try to grow both numbers at the same time pretty fast."
The growth chart since Lan assembled the current FromTheFarm.com team looks much like a hockey stick held horizontally with the blade turned upward – gradual grow for a time to a distinctive upturn.
"We’ve been fortunate to double the (website) traffic," said Lan. "So, we’re at about 25,000 (page views) a month."
An even more impressive chart depicts the results of part of the company’s social media strategy, the company’s Facebook page. The company’s "fans" have grown from about 700 two months ago to 12,300 or so in the third week of September.
"If I was somebody that was satisfied, I’d probably be the wrong person for the job," said Lan. "I mean, come on, we’re talking about a $78 billion market. If I’m not looking at numbers with a whole lot of zeros behind it (I’m not satisfied)."
Even so, Lan does seem to feel some gratification.
"One thing that’s really impressed me about our growth on Facebook in the last two months, is not only are the numbers doing this hockey stick growth, but if you look at the Facebook page, if you look at the users, look at the comments, these are folks that didn’t just (say), ‘Oh, I hit this button and now I’m your fan and I never engage,’" said Lan. "They’re highly engaged with us. We’ll put something up and 100 people will share it with a friend. We’ll have 50 comments or 100 comments.
"People are so passionate about food," he said. "That’s one of the things I’ve learned."
Once that market place is developed a bit more, then come more farmers, ranchers and other producers.
"As that starts to happen, we’re going to be looking to add more and more growers," said Lan. "We didn’t want to create a situation where when the growers came they weren’t able to get much business, because that’s not creating a very good experience for them.
"So, my view was that if we build a growing customer base, these growers (will) come out of the woodwork, because they’re always looking for help, they’re always looking for a way to move their product," he added. "And that’s starting to happen."
There have been challenges along the way, the largest of them being that consumers traditionally have not purchased food online.
Lan compared FromTheFarm.com to Webvan, the online "credit and delivery" grocery enterprise based in Foster City that went bankrupt in 2001 in part, because the business grew too quickly. It made CNET’s No. 1 spot on a top-10 list of dot-com flops. Amazon.com now owns the business that ships nonperishable products via UPS.
"They were way too far ahead of their time," Lan said of Webvan. "Now, today, I think it’s 12 years later, online grocery is going to be a $25 billion business. Natural and organic foods is a $78 billion business. We’re looking to bringing some of that online to give farmers access to those markets that are big and growing fast."
FromTheFarm.com in time will move from gourmet and specialty foods to supplying weekly grocery needs.
"Eventually we’ll start broadening out into more and more categories, into more weekly consumption, as opposed to more gourmet type foods," said Lan. "But you have to start somewhere and then go from there."
Already the changes in consumer habits bode well for the company.
"One thing we always talk about is that ecommerce has completely changed everything in this country," he said. "Every category has essentially been touched and changed by ecommerce. Food is really the last category. … But in five years, seven years, everybody we know is going to order at least some food online. And we’re getting more and more comfortable with that. … It’s going to start changing (consumer) behavior."
Visit FromTheFarm.com to learn more about the business.