The Day – Local Farming Website Wins $ 41,600 Federal Grant

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East Lyme – An online platform to drive sales to local farms using sustainable growing practices has won a planning grant of $ 41,600 from the US Department of Agriculture.

The local farm-gate platform, called Healthy PlanEat, was designed by East Lyme native Rosemary Ostfeld, who teaches sustainable agriculture at Wesleyan University. It was initially launched at several local locations including Provider Farm in Salem, Drew’s Honeybees in Norwich, and Long River Farm in Old Lyme.

The award, one of three awarded in Connecticut, was part of a $ 90.2 million federal investment to “strengthen and explore new market opportunities for local and regional food businesses,” according to a statement. Funding for the local project was made possible through the Local Agriculture Marketing Program.

“I’m really, really excited,” Ostfeld said in a phone interview. “I feel really lucky that this is working. It’s an honor.”

Ostfeld said she would use the Healthy PlanEat website development and marketing grant in hopes of expanding a targeted shipping program locally funded by a small Connecticut Entrepreneurship Foundation grant that she tested. on a small scale last summer. She also said the project will allow farms and small food businesses to handle an increased number of contextual pickups for their products at various locations across the state.

“This will allow the platform to evolve,” Ostfeld said of the grant. “It will be really cool. We can have more slots.”

One of those locations currently under construction is an Old Lyme site on Halls Road across from the Essex Savings Bank, where Long River Farm owner Walker Potts plans to open a store to sell produce throughout. year, as well as a variety of breakfasts. , food products for lunch and dinner in cooperation with several other local farms, he said.

Ostfeld said she is also working on another program to help local farmers this winter by selling them to school systems in the area. Several farms use hoop houses or other methods to extend their growing season, while others focus on hardy root vegetables, micrograins, honey or syrup that can generate income during the off season. . She has also worked with some farms to develop holiday-related products, such as cheese plates, she said.

Yet many local customers won’t begin to see Ostfeld’s plans come to life until the spring, when the first crops of the season are harvested. In 2022, it will transfer through the revised website some of the on-farm sale pickups it managed to local businesses themselves, overseeing fewer daily interactions while dramatically increasing the number of pickup sites.

At the same time, she will be focusing more of her attention on a very small-scale piloted expedition program last summer at Provider Farm in Salem and at two sites in Colchester: Cugno’s and Cloverleaf farms. Each site tested shipping products through the U.S. Postal Service, which Ostfeld says has been found to be very effective in delivering packages at low cost, usually within a single day.

A typical box of produce, sold for a flat-rate price of around $ 45, would include cucumbers, squash, onions, and potatoes. The original program was a bit of a catch-all and didn’t offer a lot of choice, but Ostfeld said funding from the Agriculture Department would allow it to offer some level of options to consumers in the future.

“We are building a community of farmers who share values ​​and we are helping them use technology to facilitate connection with customers and with each other,” she said. “I’m interested in more sustainable farmers shipping hyperlocally and expanding our collection model. “

Ostfeld, in her grant application on behalf of her company Sustainable Planet LLC, noted that she hoped to bring the sustainable agriculture sales website to other neighboring states once she can increase the number of farms in the region. Connecticut selling online. One of her challenges in scaling, she said, would be making sure customers are happy with the experience, so she foresees a time when consumer reviews could be added to the website.

“We have to make sure the quality is really high,” she said.

During this time, she will be holding farmer focus groups over the winter to discuss how best to update the Healthy PlanEat website to be ready in early spring.

“I love working on this,” Ostfeld said. “I love meeting the farmers, getting to know the customers. We are building a community around consuming healthy, sustainable food at a time when it was difficult during COVID.”

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