App Links Grapegrowers and Buyers

Free, multi-state program builds specialty crop supply chain

by Jane Firstenfeld
farmer buyer app
MarketMaker connects farmers and buyers in 21 U.S. states.
Moline, Ill.—It’s been growing for almost 10 years, but is not yet well known except by its users in 21 middle-American states. MarketMaker is a free website/app created at the University of Illinois to connect small and medium-sized food industry businesses with buyers and distributors near and far.

Like the market websites that have served West Coast winegrape growers and potential customers for years, but far less specialized, MarketMaker users can find specific products—locally or elsewhere—or distributors/retailers to sell them. For crops like winegrapes, which experience radical swings vintage to vintage, it can help winemakers find state-grown grapes. Those in need of blenders, or whose brand does not depend on specific AVAs, can source raw product to keep barrels and bottles full year after year.

A national partnership of land grant institutions and state departments of agriculture, MarketMaker is “dedicated to the development of a comprehensive, interactive database of food industry marketing and business data…a platform that seeks to foster business relationships between producers and consumers of food industry businesses and operations,” according to the website. Click the interactive map on the homepage to select a state and learn what’s available or needed.

Calling for produce
Tom Kalchik of the Michigan State University Product Center explained that the national group was founded by the University of Illinois to help connect state meat producers with potential markets. It has since grown to include crops and food products from seafood to sugar and wholesalers who deal with them. Wineries have a place of their own, with categories including red, white, fruit, fortified and sparkling.

MarketMaker’s national board receives some grants, and Kalchik said some states have secured grants of their own to support the effort.

“The purpose is to help all parts of the supply chain connect. We brought it to the Product Center to help new or existing businesses to start or expand,” Kalchik said. Users can specify their customer (or potential customer) demographics, and find restaurants or retailers serving that niche, something of obvious utility to small, self-distributed wineries. Interested distributors can also self-list, when looking to broaden their portfolios.

“Anyone in any state can do this,” he said. “If you’ve done your marketing work and know your customers’ demographics, then you can find stores and restaurants” where your wine will fit.

The MSU Product Center asked interested growers to call (517) 432-8750.

Feeding the locavore appetite
It’s a real cooperative effort, explained Dar Knight at the University of Illinois extension. “We’ve had some public moneys, and these institutions are pooling their money. It’s a testimony to the people helping to build it: We’ve put a lot of ourselves and our institutions into this product. Despite seasonal disruptions, we can help people find each other: in some cases, even two or three states away.

“We need to be more efficient to connect the markets, so we put it into one system. Our motives are altruistic: Public institutions can do more than individual businesses. We hope we’re building the infrastructure for them to find each other,” Knight said.

MarketMaker’s complexity makes it trickier to navigate than established, single commodity sites like Sonoma’s or Napa’s, but it also can educate and entertain users, covering as it does crops and products that may be unfamiliar. In an increasingly locavore society, a virtual tour through the produce on MarketMaker is an eye-opener. “Some people still don’t know you can’t buy local oranges in Illinois,” Knight commented.

For MarketMaker, it’s been slow growth for almost a decade. “Each state must decide that they want to be part of this, to connect us to local enterprise,” Knight said. Wyoming, with its tiny wine industry, is the latest addition.

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