MarketMaker connects farms and consumers to support local food movement

By Jillian Forkal
Communication Intern, Office of Technology Management at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

URBANA, Ill. — Where can you find chocolate goat cheese truffles, organic okra and Ginger Gold apples in the same place? The answer is, an online marketing resource that was created by a team from University of Illinois Extension and has grown to include almost 20 states.

MarketMaker was initially developed in 2004 to assist and educate livestock farmers on marketing strategies for value-added meat products. The current site has developed into a tool that can benefit everyone in the food supply chain, from farmers, to processors, distributors, retailers and the consumer looking for unique food products.

Since its inception, MarketMaker has grown to include profiles for more than 500,000 producers and other food-related businesses. Each state has its own unique site, but all sites access a common database. This allows users to conduct multi-state searches. MarketMaker’s interactive mapping capabilities provide the user with easy location of all businesses.

Large corporations such as Wal-Mart are utilizing this web-based instrument to find produce. Darlene Knipe, MarketMaker principal investigator and University of Illinois marketing specialist, said MarketMaker was able to provide training to buyers that were interested in local produce on how to use MarketMaker for fulfillment in their stores. Because of Wal-Mart, some farms in Illinois, such as Frey Farms Produce in Wayne County, are maximizing their business.

This past year, MarketMaker joined forces with the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission (GSMFC) to provide a region-wide tool to connect fisheries to markets as part of the economic recovery plan after the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of 2010. This accessible seafood section caught the attention of Louisiana when Louisiana State University launched MarketMaker as a means to assist a struggling shrimp and fishing industry after the oil spill.

Michigan is using MarketMaker to help connect producers with food banks to provide fruits and vegetables for those in need. Toril Fisher, director of Programs and Member Services for the Food Bank Council of Michigan, began using MarketMaker to identify farms within 50 miles of its member food banks’ warehouses, and proactively contracted with several of them to provide more than 600,000 pounds of produce through the Michigan Farm To Food Bank pilot program. More than 1 million people utilize these food banks and were able to have fresh produce with the help of MarketMaker and Fisher’s efforts.

Recently, Farm to School and MarketMaker united to link producers and educational institutions, giving farmers access to new markets through schools. The benefits are twofold — supplying local schools helps diversify the producers’ markets while students reap the benefits of healthy, flavorful, local foods.

MarketMaker continues to grow and is a work in progress,” said Knipe. “We are adding new states every year, and are looking to diversify into more sectors such as horticulture, the timber industry and agritourism.”

Knipe said they are hoping to start work with the international market as well.

In 2010, National MarketMaker program was awarded the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Partnership Award for their work in providing consumers with better access to fresh, local foods and for helping farmers profit through a successful, multistate partnership.

The vision of MarketMaker is to be a national information technology platform that enables all food producers, processors, wholesalers and retailers electronic access to geographically referenced data. The platform will enhance the opportunity for food and agricultural entrepreneurs to identify and develop new and profitable markets, and improve the efficiency and profitability of food systems in the United States and, eventually, globally.

From the Dec. 21-27, 2011, issue

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