The digital farmers’ market

[Shutterstock/ SUPREEYA-ANON]

This article is part of our special report Short food supply chains in Europe’s North.

Farmers being in direct contact with the consumers and setting their prices independently, without having to submit to the wholesale market dictate – sounds like going back to the roots of agricultural markets. Behind this, however, is a model with a genuinely promising future. reports.

‘Short supply chains’ – an idea that’s hardly new: Direct sales by small-scale producers, community-supported agriculture as well as self-service stations for regional products are a trend. At the same time, discounter supermarkets in Germany’s major cities have started using external service providers to have their product range delivered directly to the customers’ homes.

So why not combine these two trends and deliver regional food at fair prices – not from the discounter, but directly from the farmer ‘round the corner’?

The term digital farmers’ markets describes a new concept that uses the internet as a marketplace for agricultural products. Their aim is more than just to “digitally shorten” the distance between producer and consumer.

Achieving fairer prices for small farms is one of the goals of the new European agricultural policy. Commissioner Phil Hogan already hinted that large farming enterprises’ growth should no longer be massively supported by EU funds. T

he Agricultural Markets Task Force (AMTF), in particular, is to draw up concrete proposals on how to support the farmers’ position within the food supply chain. One point is the redistribution of agriculture subsidy funds to smaller businesses.

What sounds great in theory leaves small-scale producers like Michael Beyer somewhat sceptical, though. He does not believe that the overall situation will change dramatically: “What we all need – and I mean producers and consumers alike – is a complete re-orientation of European agriculture towards more sustainability,” Beyer says.

Today, only a few retail chains and corporations determine what is put on European plates every day. This does not only have negative effects on diversity and quality but particularly on smaller farmers who are often forced to shut down their business.

All of the above are reasons why Beyer and many, predominantly young, farmers are looking for new sales channels, such as the online farmers’ market Markta from Austria. On this platform, Beyer can set up his own online market stand and offer his produce directly to potential buyers.

His chances of finding many customers on the website, which was started on 1 March 2018, are quite high. After all, Beyer offers rare, traditional vegetable varieties that are rarely found in supermarkets, but which appeal to a food- and nutrition-conscious and financially strong target group.

Especially for such regional niche products, digital farmers’ markets may offer a good opportunity for direct sales and a possibility to withstand the increasing digitalisation of the food retail trade by the likes of Amazon & co.

For the time being, the logistical effort is still comparatively high, but the Markta team plans to expand its cooperation with local suppliers in major metropolitan areas.

The main objective of virtual market stalls like Markta, however, remains turning industrial distribution structures upside down and making trade relations fairer for small producers. Farmers are to gain more independence and autonomy over prices and production conditions – and thus be able to keep up with global competition.

According to Eurostat, farmers receive a mere 21% of the retail price that customers pay in supermarkets. Keeping this in mind, the 20% commission fee that Markta charges is much fairer for the farmers and leaves them with a much bigger share, Beyer insists.

If digital farmers’ markets really become more commonplace in the future, it seems they could bring higher incomes for farmers, access to fresh, regional and seasonal products for consumers, shorter transport distances, less packaging, and greater social cohesion at  the local level, making them a viable alternative to supermarkets.

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