Farmers look to grow Web presence
--Original Source: Stockton Record--
Connecting farmers directly to consumers via the Internet is the aim of Fromthefarm.com, a 3-year-old website run from offices in Stockton.
It provides expertise in online marketing and Internet retailing that farmers and ranchers may lack, while rewarding them for doing what they do best - producing top quality, in-season fruits, vegetables, nuts and gourmet food products, said Phillip Lan, the company's general manager.
"I grew up on an egg ranch and almond farm in Ripon," he said. "We've seen first-hand how farming is a good way of life, and a lot of families want to continue to do it. But unfortunately the economics are such that it's very difficult for the children and grandchildren of farmers to follow their parents and grandparents into the industry.
"By giving them direct access to consumers, we feel we can really help these hard-working American farmers."
Among those are Tonetta Simone Gladwin, owner of Passion Fruit Farms in Merced and who calls herself the Fig Lady.
A third-generation fig producer, at this time of year she ships pallets of the sweet, ripe fruit to major metropolitan markets around the country. But Fromthefarm.com helps her reach fig lovers outside of those areas, particularly in the nation's midsection, Simone Gladwin said.
"It fills a niche that I as a fig shipper can't reach on my own," she said.
While figs are widely popular in other parts of the world, particularly around the Mediterranean and Middle East, relatively few U.S. consumers know their pleasures.
Because of that, and their highly perishable nature, major supermarket chains and big box retailers seldom carry them.
Working with Fromthefarm.com also means Simone Gladwin can get lower shipping rates from package delivery companies, which is a big advantage because her delicate figs must be shipped by next-day air.
"In addition they do some marketing ventures that can reach out to more people," she said.
The collaboration works for her fig-loving consumers.
"We're filling a niche for those who really love what they can't find elsewhere," Simone Gladwin said.
It's also helping fill a niche for Shady Oaks Farm, a boutique olive oil from trees grown by Fritz and Phyllis Grupe on their ranch outside Lodi.
Tyler Grupe said he and his cousin, Fritz Huber, convinced their grandfather two years ago to let them commercially market the oil he was having bottled for personal use and as gifts.
They have sold the oil at farmers markets and at retail through a half-dozen Lodi winery tasting rooms.
Fromthefarm.com has provided additional exposure.
"It's been good as a way to get our name out there to clients," Grupe said.
Orders through Fromthefarm.com have been limited, about 15 in the past two years, he said, but there's no cost for being listed on the website.
"All in all it's been a good partnership," Grupe said.
Fromthefarm.com was founded by Derrell Kelso, a fifth-generation California farmer and operator of Onions Etc., a Stockton company that packs, markets and distributes onions, potatoes, walnuts and seasonal produce.
Lan said he has decades of experience in technology industry marketing and in online marketing, specifically.
Mixing that technical savvy with knowledge of farming is what it's all about.
"It's helping people get closer in touch with farmers, closer in touch with where the food comes from," he said.
Still, there are huge challenges, Lan said.
"Food is perhaps the last category not to be revolutionized by e-commerce," he said.
Certainly, consumers have increasingly turned to online sources for music, books, movies, personal goods such as shoes and clothing, kitchenware, gifts and home electronics.
It has contributed to the upheaval among traditional brick-and-mortar retailers.
But, in contrast, Web-based food sellers, such as Webvan, which went bankrupt in 2001 as the dot-com bubble burst, have vanished or struggled.
"They were just too far ahead of the market," Lan said.
"My view is that one day everybody that we know will be ordering at least some food online."
That's where Fromthefarm.com comes in.
"We're getting ready for this market shift, but doing it in a way that is smart and not getting too far ahead of the market," Lan said.
Thus, the website focuses on specialty products, gourmet foods and produce that are readily available from farms in all parts of the country, such as cherries, figs and nuts, he said.
"The only way for folks who are outside of the area to get access to really, really fresh produce is through a service like ours," Lan said.