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WisBusiness: Lake Geneva company aims to better equip farmers for ‘buy local’ movement

By Katie Dogs
For WisBusiness.com

Ryan Dover and Jeff Clark are working to revolutionize the rapidly growing “buy local” niche with an application that's part eBay, part Angie’s List and part Craigslist for the local food movement.

The goal of the Lake Geneva-based LocalGrown is to change the way food is produced, distributed, and consumed by providing farmers and consumers with simple, effective, and affordable tools to find, sell and buy locally-produced food.

“The challenge for local food systems is, that by their very nature, they lack the platform or economies of scale to compete with global, industrial food systems and have no way to easily scale sales directly to commercial or individual consumers,” Dover said. “LocalGrown addresses these issues, enabling farmers to create an online storefront and extend their marketing and sales efforts without any additional costs while simultaneously helping buyers find food farmed in their area.”

The idea began at a Halloween party in 2008 when Dover met Ed Jaeger, a farmer from Lake Geneva. Jaeger had recently begun a sustainable farming operation producing all-natural eggs, chicken and lamb. They met again shortly after to discuss ways that Jaeger could grow his customer base.

“As I started to design a simple website to advertise the farm, take orders, process payments, and schedule weekly deliveries, I realized that the challenges Ed was encountering in growing his business were not unique,” Dover said. “By its very nature, the local food movement does not have the platform or economies of scale to compete price or marketing-wise with food systems available to industrial agriculture.”

Dover added that while there are several non-profit and community-based organizations that provide “Yellow Pages” type directories to buyers and encourage buying locally, there’s no easy way for farmers to scale sales to grocers or restaurants, let alone directly to individual consumers.

LocalGrown is an easy-to-use application that does not require extensive investments or staffing. It is designed to function nationally but be branded individually for each local "foodshed." A foodshed is similar in concept to a watershed, identifying the network of food that feeds a particular area. The founders have a background in complex Internet platforms and start-up businesses. They are developing a scalable platform that can be easily managed by a small team, which is good news for investors. LocalGrown’s system can be replicated using the same technology platform for multiple foodsheds, giving LocalGrown the ability to grow nationally and realize significant revenues.

The LocalGrown platform will be launched on a region by region basis, starting in southeast Wisconsin. Dover and Clark have identified 50 areas for expansion throughout the United States where the LocalGrown platform could thrive. LocalGrown will partner with local cooperatives and participate in farmer’s markets and local food events.

LocalGrown is a cooperative that uses a “freemium” revenue model. Farmers receive some free services like the bulletin board to list and search for services, a seller profile page and a virtual storefront on an easy-to-use dashboard to manage inventory and sales. Other services, like an advertising program and information about loans and insurance, are offered at a premium.

Buyers also receive some free services like search functions based on area and preferences, grocery lists and online ordering. Premium services like planning tools and the “Eat. Drink. Be Local.” program are primarily targeted towards commercial buyers such as restaurants, grocers, schools, and food manufacturers.

The classified and online advertising components offer value-added services to producers while providing both producers and consumers with an online community including nutritional information, recipes and links to social media channels.

“By providing the farmer and the consumer tools to easily promote, sell, and buy food within their foodshed, LocalGrown positively impacts how food is farmed, the quality of food produced, the health of those people that consume that food, and the well-being of local economies across the country,” Dover said.

LocalGrown is among two-dozen finalists in the Wisconsin Governor’s Business Plan Contest.

The contest will culminate June 7-8 at the Wisconsin Entrepreneurs' Conference, to be held at the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee.

-- Dogs is a student in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.
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