Darlene Knipe
Darlene Knipe

I chatted Feb. 29 with Darlene Knipe, cofounder of MarketMaker and extension specialist with the University of Illinois, East Moline, Ill. MarketMaker is an online database system connecting local food producers with buyers in 20 states.

3:00 p.m. Karst: Today we heard about the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass that shows where the USDA supports local food. There is quite a bit of momentum for local food systems right now, isn’t there?

3:01 p.m. Darlene Knipe: Absolutely. In a way, it is kind of a convergence of a couple of different things, the local food movement also is in sync with thing like traceability, which is basically what Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food has to do with it. People want to know where their food is grown. Yes, they have an interest in acquiring products when they are at their peak so local foods in season really deliver on that. It seems what started out as kind of a trendy thing has kept gaining momentum and know it has created a paradigm shift in the way food is consumed and marketed.

3:02 p.m. Karst: Will the local food/Know Your Farmer movement outlive the Obama Administration? Exactly how broad and deep is the trend for local?

3:03: Knipe: I think that how much momentum continues beynd the Obama Administration depends on a few things. I do think that one of the real barriers with the local food movement is that there are parts of the country that don’t have an infrastructure to support local foods in creating a distribution system that allows farmers to participate profitably. With some momentum and the interest in local foods, there are a lot of people orking on that. I do think if that conundrum isn’t revolved, We will continue to see some struggles. Because there has to be some efficiencies built into local and regional food systems. The demand is unquestionable and it continues to escalate but there still has to be a system that allows farmers to participate profitably and really to create enough critical mass of product that isn’t just a small group of people that have a chance to enjoy the benefits of local and regional food.

3:05 p.m. Karst: Tell me about the history of the MarketMaker program.

3:06 p.m. Knipe: We have been working on MarketMaker for probably 12 years. It actually predated the local food movement, at least in the Midwest. Our interest was to create a platform that would help livestock producers sell differentiated or value added meat products into major markets, specifically into Chicago. We created an information system online that would allow farmers to identify grocery stores and restaurants in urban areas and give them basic information that might help them decide where a potential outlet was for their products, but we also created a market research component so they could identify neighborhoods that might be the best market for their products. So it was a fairly modest project when it started but really early on we moved it beyond just livestock producers and we expanded it to include all foods and all businesses in the food chain in Illinois. And probably within 18 months of that, we partnered with Iowa State to do a bi-state platform and from there it has just continued to grow. Now it involves 20 states.

 3:08 p.m. Karst: I see a lot of participating states are in the Midwest the Southeast, but not so much in the West yet. Is that something that you think will come?

 3:09 p.m. Knipe: We hope so. The way the project has grown, it tends to be one state becomes part of the system and then the neighboring state joins. It really is a little bit like peer pressure. The database and the information within MarketMaker is strengthened with every state added to it. If you are a state that comes on board, what typically happens is that they encourage neighboring states to get involved as well because they are trading partners. Having that transparent supply chain open up more opportunities both on the buy and the sell side.

3:10 p.m. Karst: How many folks are on the system right now?

3:11 p.m. Knipe: In terms of profiles, we have probably a little more than 20,000 registered farms and businesses that have created profiles. We also have additional business data that we have added through other sources, so total we have 600,000 different businesses, farms and farmers markets that are profiled on the web site. However, in order to use it, you don’t have to register at all. We probably have anywhere from 70,000 to 90,000 visitors per month.

3:12 p.m. Karst: These are obviously a combination of buyers, marketers, sellers - all kinds of folks?

3:13 p.m. Knipe: It is really an eclectic mix of people who use it. A consumer can use it. We are scale neutral. A consumer can use it to look for a dozen eggs, look for freezer beef. We also have grocery store chains with regional buyers who use it to source products. We run the full spectrum of users.

 3:14 p.m. Karst: Do the system allow buying and selling online, or is it a place where they connect with each other?

 3;15 p.m. Knipe: We don’t do transactions on the site. We have some limitations because it is hosted at a land grant institution, so there are some restrictions on buying and selling products on a university -based server. We still fill an important role in just helping to make the connection. We have the ability to not only identify where the product is and what it is, we have the ability to differentiate based on characteristic. So it really has unique information that doesn’t exist elsewhere. In some cases, supply chains are based on making the relationship and those deals are going to be made offline anyway. It is a narrow group of people who would get online and buy product anonymously from another source. We are happy to make the connections and help the supply chain get coordinated and organized.

3:17 p.m. Karst: Do you get good feedback from users about MarketMaker?

3:18 p.m. Knipe: Yes, especially since we don’t charge. It is a service; our intention is to create a platform that stimulates economic development and helps local and regional food systems become viable. We do hear a lot. We get some interesting anecdotal stories from somebody that may have gotten a call from someone far away that they never would have heard from otherwise. There are case studies on the web site that talk about some of the examples of businesses that have been given access to markets through MarketMaker.

 3:19 p.m. Karst: What is breakdown of products on MarketMaker?

 3:20 p.m. Knipe: Interestingly enough, it started out mainly for livestock producers but I would venture that probably 85% of the product represented online is specialty crops. We also added fish and seafood about a year ago, so that is an area that is rapidly growing as well. That move was in response to the economic recovery effort in the Gulf.

 3:21 p.m. Karst: What kind of changes do you anticipate with the service inthe next few years? Do you have a mobile phone app for this?

 3:22 p.m. Knipe: Actually we just released the mobile version of MarketMaker, and that is called FoodSearcher.com. That was just released about a month ago, so now wedo mobile application. It is a little more of a stripped down version of MarketMaker, but it does allow users to search what is available, whether it would be a farmer, farmers market or restaurant within a mile of their current location. I believe it will be real powerful, especially if we continue to expand. We’re also interested in looking at other kinds of mobile apps. We have a short list of ideas. I don’t want to jinx it by saying what they are, but I can tell you that is definitely one of our priorities in the next year to eighteen months is to try to take advantage of mobile technology, because that seems to be where everything is headed. We are also looking at alternative platform for other sectors in agriculture, such as non-food horticulture, landscaping, forestry, biomass and we have agri-tours and marine tours in sight as well.

 3:22 p.m. Karst: How does the typical commercial shipper/marketer of fresh produce interact with the MarktMaker system. Do some get involved with the system?

 3:23 p.m. Knipe: Defintely. They (aggregators) are probably an essential role in this whole MarketMaker platform. A lot of farmers are willin to do direct sales and even where different hats in a complex supply chain. But my feeling is we are still going to need these aggregators that are willing to find and identify producers and try to aggregate that roduct. We were accused initially of trying to put those aggregators out of business but I view what we do is a useful tool for those aggregators - especially since a lot of them are being asked to find local and regional growers in a given geography. We have such a rich database that they can find grass fed beef, they can find GAP-certified produce, or organic certified . Those are all searchable queries on MarketMaker.

3:24 p.m. Karst: Can you still use the system if the state you live in is not a part of MarketMaker yet?

3:25 p.m. Knipe: If your state is not involved, you can still get on there and access the information. What we don’t have are the mapping tools set up for non-MarketMaker states. Part of the reason for that is when the states join, they actually help engage producers and businesses in their state to participate. One of the reasons a lot of these platforms fail is they put a lot of emphasis on the technology and if there is nothing in there, eventually they lose traffic. We don’t go into a state unless we have confidence that there are going to be people there who help engage and populate the database beyond what we would do. You can get on search from anywhere in the country or the world, for that matter. Actually, there are some producers in non-MarketMaker state, but they are a little bit harder to find in some of the searches.

 3:26 p.m. Karst: What does each state have to pay to be a part of MarketMaker?

 3:27 p.m. Knipe: We charge them for the initial start up, which is really at cost, and it is usually a little over $50,000 and then they pay a modest annual fee after that. We provide marketing support and we have regular meetings of the stakeholders.