Local Dirt: Making “Buy Local” Work

04 Mar, 2012

Heather Hilleren“Buy local.” Sounds easy enough, but how easy is it for local producers to reach supermarkets, restaurants, hospitals, schools and other potential outlets? Heather Hilleren, while working for a natural products retail chain, wondered the same thing as she watched both buyers and vendors struggle to get local food into the store in which she worked. With considerable determination, she set out to solve these issues—and, with an extremely innovative website called Local Dirt, she has done so.

“When the chain I was working for opened their Madison, Wisconsin, store they were buying from about two dozen local farmers,” Hilleren told Organic Connections. “As each year went by, you would think that they would have developed more relationships and bought from more farmers, but in fact the exact opposite happened. Each year they were dropping their local farmers to the point where, after a few years, they went down from two dozen to two.

“It wasn’t because of quality, quantity or price; it was just because it was so unbelievably time consuming to buy from local producers. The produce buyer would have to have price sheets dropped off or e-mailed in, and then she would hope that she would have them by the time her buying day came around. On that day she would spread out two dozen price sheets in front of her, figure out who had what and how much they had of each product, then she would break down her wish list and sit there and play phone tag all day long with farmers. She would have to ask them if they still had a product and was it still the same price, because prices change a couple of times a week. Whenever she would get very busy or go on vacation—or if she left and we got a new person in that position—the new person would just do the easiest thing, which was to go online and order it through the regional distribution center.”

Today, Heather has evolved a remarkable solution. Local Dirt makes it possible for buyers to log into a single website and access a special tab that will show what local produce is available from farmers in their particular area. The inventories are constantly updated, so it’s simply a matter of clicking on the needed items. The order is automatically generated.

It is far easier for farmers too. “A farm can go in and list out their products,” Hilleren explained. “Once that is done, all they have to do is update that information. Whenever they put in further products, these automatically get added to their profile page. They specify which areas, whether that’s a certain zip code or a state or a certain city that they deliver to, and then only the buyers in those areas see that price sheet and see those products.”

Both buyers and farmers love it. “Response has been very, very good,” said Hilleren. “It’s a big jump in technology. I think the buyers wish that all farmers would use it because it’s just so convenient. One of the things that we hear a lot too is about relationships—there was a worry that automated sales would take away from relationships. But the buyers still say, ‘Well, you know, we see the farmers when they drop off the product, and we’re still going to call them to find out what products we can get that aren’t sold to everybody.’ So they continue to want that relationship.”

Consumers can also utilize the Local Dirt site to find local produce sources within their areas.

Before Local Dirt, others had had the same idea, but nobody had fully brought it about. It wasn’t long before Hilleren discovered why that was. “You think, ‘Why is nobody doing this?’ and then you try to do it and you realize why nobody has done it before,” Hilleren said. “It was just much tougher than anybody had anticipated. We started with the site and we had to make a lot of changes to it. You’d think it’s simply an out-of-the-box ordering system—but produce is perishable and things happen, weather happens. Sometimes farmers have to short orders; they can’t deliver everything that they thought they were going to be able to harvest because they got a hail storm or strong rains came in and wiped out some of the crops. They have to be able to go in and adjust the purchase orders. So we set up the online ordering system, and we’ve constantly been making adjustments that are specific to farmers and specific to local food.”

Hilleren was indeed determined—she put everything on the line to bring about Local Dirt. “I decided I was going to do it, and cashed in my retirement, pulled together all my savings and everything I had,” she related. “I then put it into trying to develop the software. It was very complex, and it really didn’t get off the ground until we received funding from the National Science Foundation. Then we had the funds to hire more than one person to develop it, and it took a whole team almost a year to develop what you see today. It wasn’t easy.

“We’ve talked to people who have said, ‘Yeah, I thought about it.’ But I think when they started trying to build it, it just got so complicated and so expensive that they couldn’t do it. We have seen online ordering sites for an individual farm cooperative, but they have to develop it themselves and that gets really expensive. This is a site that everyone can share; and because everyone can share it and because it works for anyone anywhere, it becomes much less expensive than trying to develop your own software.”

The innovation has not stopped at the website. Heather and her team have now evolved a free app for iPhone and Android, called Locavore, that will assist anyone, right within their area, to source local food. “The Locavore app, used on your phone wherever you are, utilizes the device’s GPS to locate farmers’ markets and farms within the couple miles from where you’re standing,” Hilleren explained. “It will also tell you what’s in season from where you’re standing, and what products are available.”

For local food, this is definitely the business model for the future. “Especially as rural areas get more Internet access, it’s less time consuming and it just makes sense,” Hilleren concluded. “It automates so much of the process, and it takes a lot off the hands of the farmers. Farmers don’t have to generate the invoices and do all that work, and buyers don’t have to be really aggressive at trying to figure out what the farmers are offering and what products are out there. It’s simply an easier solution all the way around.”

Find out more at www.localdirt.com.

Download the free Locavore app at www.getlocavore.com.

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  • Cshekoski

    This is wonderful service for the world.  Thank you Hilleren for going through all the tough spots and bring this forth.  Christina