Growing local markets

Wes Constantine gathers goats for milking early on a Sunday at WesMar Farms in Moreauville. Constantine and his wife, Marguerite, participate in the state’s MarketMaker online service designed to help niche agriculture businesses sell their products to consumers.
Wes Constantine gathers goats for milking early on a Sunday at WesMar Farms in Moreauville. Constantine and his wife, Marguerite, participate in the state’s MarketMaker online service designed to help niche agriculture businesses sell their products to consumers.

Website helps niche agriculture businesses reach customers

CHAD CALDER

Advocate business writer

Talk to farmers who use MarketMaker, an online service to help niche agriculture businesses market their products directly to consumers, and you get glowing reviews.

“I really do think it’s helped us,” said Marguerite Constantine, who runs WesMar Farms, a goat dairy in Moreauville with her husband, Wes. “In fact we’ve gotten a few calls from out of the state.”

“The market for local (products) is much larger than people think,” said Shannon Gonsoulin, of Gonsoulin Land and Cattle in New Iberia. “Consumers will buy local as long as they have an avenue to get it, and we think MarketMaker is that avenue.”

But there is one criticism — not enough people are aware of it.

OK, so that’s not really a criticism, but increasing awareness of the website among restaurants, grocers and the general public, is a common refrain.

“It kinda hasn’t reached its full potential,” Constantine said. “I don’t think a lot of people are aware of it, actually.”

“It needs more recognition and advertisement,” Gonsoulin said. “There’s still a lot of people in the ag community who don’t know of its existence.”

Anybody in Louisiana with an agricultural product to sell — seafood, pecans, crawfish, strawberries — can establish an account on MarketMaker for free, said professor Roger Hinson, of the LSU AgCenter’s Department of Agricultural Economics and one of the coordinators of the project.

It is not restricted to food products, but the business has to be agriculture-related, like agritourism, for example.

MarketMaker includes nearly 18,000 ag-related businesses. Among them are 10,000 eating and drinking establishments, 6,000 food retailers, 750 food processors, 800 food wholesalers and more than 300 farmers.

Providers can add images of their business and a link to their website, if they have one, and can add a narrative with more details about their business.

Consumers don’t even need to register to use MarketMaker, which is at http://la.foodmarketmaker.com/ .

Hinson, who along with Jon Westra helped make Louisiana one of 19 states that subscribe to the program, agrees there is much more work to be done if Louisiana Market Maker, which went live about a year ago, is going to reach its full potential.

“There has to be people on both ends,” he said. “There have to be people looking. It’s like any other Internet network, the more people that are there, the more value it has.”

Hinson said the response from users on both ends has been overwhelmingly positive so far. He said his office continues to do outreach not just for providers, but also to bring in more consumers, and not just individuals looking for a source of organic heirloom tomatoes or grass-fed beef, but major users like restaurants and grocery distributors.

Hinson said this has already started on the restaurant end. He said Louisiana MarketMaker set up a booth at the Louisiana Restaurant Association’s food service expo last month, making the service known to the restaurants attending the event.

Reaching out to the grocery distributors could be more complicated, because stores have food safety and product characteristic demands that make the process a little more difficult than just filling their shelves with local produce. But Hinson said getting larger-scale customers involved in MarketMaker shows promise.

At WesMar Farms, where Constantine and her husband milk the goats, pasteurize and bottle the milk and make the cheeses themselves, Constantine said she thinks MarketMaker could be of use to local chefs.

“Time is very valuable nowadays and there are a lot of people who own restaurants … and their time is extremely limited and it’s a habit to just pick up the phone and place your order,” she said. “If purchasers would get in the habit of using MarketMaker … there may be people out there who can meet those needs.”

Gonsoulin decided two years ago to try direct-marketing beef instead of the traditional method of using cattle markets.

“It was just hard to ride the cycles out of the commodity prices,” he said. “It makes it hard to make a living.”

By selling directly to buyers, “we cut out the middle man and increased our profits,” he said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Gonsoulin said the move was also predicated on the realization that demand for food that is locally produced, organic or farmed sustainably is rising.

“All those things have been gaining a lot of traction,” he explained. “You’re seeing a lot of farmers markets open up because people want to know where their food is coming from and want to know more about the food they are eating.”

Beginning a year ago, Gonsoulin began working with grocery stores and other retail outlets to sell his beef. Among them are Bi-Lo Supermarket in New Iberia, NuNu’s in Youngsville, Robie’s Food Center in Abbeyville, Joey’s in Lafayette and the Hollygrove Market and Farm in New Orleans.

Gonsoulin said his total sales have only gotten a modest boost from MarketMaker — about 10 percent — but he said it hooked him up with Hollygrove and with a new co-op that will open in October on St. Claude Street in New Orleans.

Grocery stores, he said, give an operation like his “the most bang for our buck.”

Gonsoulin said he once anonymously asked a woman looking at Gonsoulin Land and Cattle beef in the store why she’d consider something a little pricier than the mass-produced alternative. She told him that while there are health benefits, “it’s local and I’d rather spend another four or five dollars on a local product so my money can stay local.”

“I think that from a consumer standpoint, if people have the option, they’ll buy local,” he said.

Constantine said that a successful MarketMaker could help existing small farms expand and even create more small agricultural operations.

“There are a lot of people out there who are small farmers or would like to be small farmers but the marketing aspect is an obstacle they don’t know how to overcome,” she said. “Not everyone has the sales skills to approach people or the time to say, ‘Go and buy my product.’”

Hinson said MarketMaker started nationally just over 10 years ago, when an animal scientist at the University of Illinois decided that cattle producers producing only grass-fed beef lacked a way to get their unique product to the consumers who would value it.

Hinson said he first became aware of the program in the middle of the last decade, as it was demonstrated at various agricultural gatherings. Hinson and Westra began working with MarketMaker to bring it to Louisiana, but the cost could never quite be justified with the administration. But then in the late 2000s, the price of shrimp plummeted in the face of foreign imports, and people began to take notice. The potential impact of MarketMaker became a bit more appreciated.

“Of course, that got everyone’s attention and got everyone’s attention along the coast,” he said.

After securing a $125,000 grant from the Louisiana Recovery Authority to operate Louisiana MarketMaker for the first three years, the site went live just under a year ago.