By Catie Joyce-Bulay
Last season the confusion and safety concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic brought on a need for farmers to pivot to new marketing strategies. They worked quickly to build no-contact sales and distribution systems, rapidly changing how they got product out to customers. Many farmers turned to the internet.
Although many farms incorporated online stores or ordering systems for the first time last year, a shift to web-based sales was already a growing trend. Kari Hulva, of Timber Frame Farm, which sells pasture-raised chicken, eggs, small fruits and vegetables, started an online market in the end of 2018 “to solve my own problem,” he says. When his small farmstand in Unity, Maine, closed in the winter he couldn’t find a market to sell his chicken so he started selling through a multi-producer software platform called FarmDrop with a few of his farmer friends.
For the first couple years Unity FarmDrop made a few hundred dollars a week, some weeks selling only a carton or two of eggs, says Kaya Pulz, a recent Unity College graduate who helped start the online store, which is sponsored by Unity Barn Raisers, with Hulva and Heather Holland of Outland Farm Brewery.
Then the pandemic hit and eaters became very interested in finding secure local food sources. Unity FarmDrop’s orders jumped to 100 per week in a two-week period, and they soon expanded to include 25 participating producers.
This year they changed their name to Central Maine FarmDrop and expanded to offer eight different pickup locations. Then Hulva had a light-bulb moment: He realized that by having participating farmers become pickup locations they could easily expand the market’s reach without much extra effort or time since farmers were already headed back to their farm, after dropping off product, with empty trucks.
“The idea is to have a Portland-size market in every town in Central Maine,” says Hulva. “The information and technology from the [FarmDrop] website allows us to communicate in a way that wasn’t really feasible before.”
The store is open year-round and it opens for orders at 9 a.m. on Saturdays and closes Thursdays at 3 p.m. Vendors pack their products on Fridays from noon to 1 p.m. at the Unity Community Center and customer pickup runs from 2 or 3 p.m. to 5 or 6 p.m., depending on locations, which are in Unity, Pittsfield, Waldo, Newport, Waterville and Lincolnville, with a delivery option for the Hampden area.
Central Maine FarmDrop encourages farmers to branch into value-added products, says Hulva. “Producers disappearing in the fall is a big problem of local ag,” he says. “Every spring farmers are searching for their customers to come back. We really focused on value-added to keep it going over the winter.”
In addition to fresh in-season produce Central Maine FarmDrop offers meats, cheeses, canned products and baked goods, as well as organic coffee locally roasted by Farm House Coffee Roasters in Winterport and organic flours from Maine Grains in Skowhegan.