Lewis County Group Eyes Online Farmers Market Hub

Survey Suggests Local Farmers Could Benefit From Regional Farmers Market Association


Local farmers just might get a centralized online farmers market to act as a digital hub to drive up their sales and remove physical obstacles to their products for their customers.

A group called the Lewis County Agricultural Advisory Committee recently completed a survey of local agricultural producers to determine barriers sellers and consumers might face in direct market sales.

The ultimate recommendation that came out of the survey was to create a regional direct marketing association called Lewis County Regional Farmers Market Association, which would seek to remove barriers for agricultural suppliers and consumers alike, partially through the creation of a digital hub for agricultural sales — like an online farmer’s market.

The survey work was funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development grant obtained by the Port of Chehalis.

Harry Bhagwandin, Lewis County agricultural assessment project manager, and Mike Peroni, chair of the Lewis County Agricultural Assessment Advisory Committee, wrote the survey’s report and made the recommendations through Shady Grove Project Management & Consulting.

Lewis County currently has about six farmers markets where agricultural producers sell their products physically, according to the survey report.

Bhagwandin wrote in the survey report that physical farmers markets, while important, are not as easily accessible as they could be, and the survey gathered input from producers and consumers alike to determine how to serve everyone that wants to buy or sell local produce.

“The results from this producer/consumer input helped us reach the conclusion that a possible way to mitigate these barriers could be in the creation of a regional agricultural marketing association,” Bhagwandin stated.

He noted in the report that the digital farmers market platform would be part and parcel to this association.

However, the association would have to be staffed, so along with the recommendation to create the Lewis County Regional Farmers Market Association and its digital sales platform, Bhagwandin and Peroni suggest at least one staff member be hired.

In Bhagwandin’s experience, this kind of structure would need to be staffed with someone that has specific experience in creating a local quality brand, with the ability to develop and manage a digital platform supporting local farm products.

Bhagwandin noted that the direct marketing association would save individual agricultural producers market development and distribution costs, which would then help them save on the limited resources they have, which are critical to expanding their production.

“(The digital platform) would also be a way of providing a central access point for consumers. The intention is to increase demand, and thus sustainability for local ag producers,” Bhagwandin stated in the email.

The current recommendation is that stakeholders move forward with the marketing association model, “as it has been successful in similar communities,” Bhagwandin stated. Yet it will take funding to get it initiated and rolling until it can be self-sustaining.

The effort would be most successful if done at the grassroots level in partnership with government, business, non-profit and community stakeholder support, he added.

That, and the identification of a viable funding source.

“We are considering moving forward with a feasibility planning grant that would include the development of a business plan which would outline the costs of creating a regional direct marketing association, including funding staff, development of a quality product brand, aggregating product by producer, quantity and availability, and creating a digital marketing platform and distribution center,” Bhagwandin stated.

He added that he and Peroni can't emphasize enough the need for the initiative to be driven by producers with the support of the local community. With adequate stakeholder input and broad community support, he signaled he’d be confident that a structure to meet the county’s specific needs can come to fruition.

The survey report was presented at a recent Port of Chehalis meeting, where the recommendations were made. Since the port secured the funding for the survey work, Port of Chehalis Executive Director Lindsey Senter said the work was a product of collaboration.

“So overall, a team effort we just all had our parts to play,” Senter told The Chronicle in an email. “It was from the survey results that they determined the recommendation in the report. That is of course just a recommendation at this point based on the feedback they received and it has not been determined if that will be pursued or who would be responsible for it.”

Lewis County agriculture facts per the 2017 Census of Agriculture County Profile as identified in the survey report:

• There are $9,643,000 in annual sales of vegetables, fruits and nuts.

• There are $12,707,000 in annual sales of nurseries, greenhouses, floriculture and sod sellers.

• There are 1,723 total farms, aggregating 122,870 acres.

• The average farm size is 71 acres.

• The total acres in vegetable crops are 2,066.

• The top three livestock produced in the county are broiler and other meat-type chickens, cattle and layer hens.

• Forage crops (hay/hay silage) represent the number one crop category with 35,364 acres.

• The total market value of all farm products sold equates to $136,345,000.

• The average market value of all products sold per farm is $79,132.

• About 83% of farmers have internet access.

• About 3% of agricultural producers farm organically.

• About 11% of agricultural producers sell directly to consumers.

• About 23% of agricultural producers hire farm labor.

• About 97% of farms are family-owned and operated. 

• There are 3,038 total producers, of which 2,940 identify as white; 90 identify as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin; 98 farmers who also identify as people of color; 909 are new/beginning farmers; 233 are less than age 35; 1,715 are aged 35-64; and 1,090 are age 65 or older.