Farmer’s markets in the Chicago-area pivoted. Will they be successful?
By Danielle Braff
(Chicago) Just like nearly every other profession, farmer’s markets took a major hit during the pandemic.
How can a farmer’s market - where it’s such a tactile, in-person experience - survive when customers are forced to stay home?
That’s when Cian O’Mahony, of Chicago, had his “aha” moment. With a background in sustainable construction and business practices, he noticed that food delivery was an essential service during that time.
“Left with time on my hands at home, I started reaching out to local farmers and farmers market managers to talk about their needs,” O’Mahony says. ”I then spent my time in between helping my kids with online school learning, on how to develop a website - and Hortiport was launched.”
In its initial iteration, Hortiport was supposed to be a multi-vendor platform where farmers would load their stock online. But it quickly became clear to O’Mahony that their preference was to have someone else facilitate this. So in the summer of 2020, he began to visit farmer’s markets to discuss the idea of creating an online farmer’s market - with a curated variety of local produce and foods available for delivery.
Hortiport works with farmers and small scale artisan food producers to distribute farmer’s market-quality food three days a week to anyone within a 50-mile radius of Chicago. They work with two bakeries as well.
Hortiport is hoping that customers will turn to online farmer’s market ordering just as they have pivoted to online grocery store ordering. A survey released in March 2020 found that more than 30 percent of households in the United States bought their groceries online in the past month - a number that was more than double the amount than the same time the previous year. A whopping 43 percent of those say they’d likely continue buying their groceries online even after the pandemic.
They aren’t the only company who are trying to make online farmer’s markets come to life in Chicago.
Fresh Picks, a food hub based in Niles, Ill., started marketing and distributing crops into Chicago back in 2006. Today, they work with dozens of farmers and small local food businesses to grow a safe and trusted food chain year-round.
“We bring people the best of local, as we support local organic and sustainable farmers, we curate delicious and healthy products, and we source and deliver in an environmentally sound way,” says Shelly Herman, the CEO of Irv & Shelly’s Fresh Picks.
While it’s a great concept, will this work in the long term? After all, managing many tiny farms and craft food services - and delivering their food to individual homes throughout Illinois is a big task. Now that everyone is venturing outside once again, is this feasible?
Herman says the largest hurdle is working out the local food transportation, and figuring out each farmer’s business to build the robust local food system.
Many others have tried . . . and failed.
Good Eggs was a major online marketplace for farmers, and they raised nearly $53 million in venture capital. But today, three out of four of their cities have shut down operations, with co-founder Rob Spiro saying the company grew too quicly before learning all the challenges of the food supply chain.
Farmigo also shut part of its business down. They raised $26 million to sell software for local farm sales and CSAs, but found that the logistics of distributing the food was too difficult. Today, they sell the software to the farms, but they don’t provide the delivery anymore.
Still, Chicago is trying.
In the midst of the pandemic, Green City Market made a guide for customers looking for farmers who were offering pick-up or delicerty, though most people would have to order directly from individual farmers who would deliver to a specific Chicago location, similar to a CSA. Future Harvest created a similar national farmer map.