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College Entrepreneurs Find a Green Niche in an Online Farmers Market

College Entrepreneurs Find a Green Niche in an Online Farmers Market
Image credit: Photography by Ben Hoffmann
Sign on delivery: My Fresh Company's Noah VanValkenburg (left) with Spiller Farm's Anna and Bill Spiller.

When the entrepreneurship club at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, challenged students to come up with ideas to stimulate the state's small-business economy, Danny Garin, an economics and government major, envisioned a virtual farmers market stocked with local produce and artisanal products.

"There are a lot of high-end markets [here], but nothing that replaces the farmers market experience," Garin, 21, explains.

With classmates Marcus Josefsson, an economics and math major, and Noah VanValkenburg, a government major, Garin developed a business plan for My Fresh Company. The idea was to create partnerships with farmers and producers in Maine and sell their locally grown and produced products through an online market. "Farmers want to focus on what they know best and do best, which is growing their crops, not managing an e-commerce site," Garin says.

The trio, environmentalists with a passion for sustainable agriculture, won $10,000 in funding from the Colby Entrepreneurial Alliance Business Competition to launch the venture, which Josefsson refers to as the "Amazon.com of local foods."

MyFreshMaine.com debuted in September 2011. The farm-to-front-door market sells produce like apples and potatoes and prepared products like bread and relish.

Prior to signing contracts with producers, MyFreshMaine samples all the products, treating the taste tests as a form of quality control. The founders aren't afraid to turn vendors away if their products are subpar. Despite interest from ranchers and dairies, for now the firm can't ship meat, cheese or other products that require refrigeration.

"We want every item to be as fresh as it would be if [customers] bought it at the farmers market," Garin says.

MyFreshMaine worked with 10 producers during its first season, including Bill Spiller, owner of Spiller Farm. "I thought it was a good idea to get our products on the internet, but it was something I didn't have a whole lot of time for," Spiller says.

Orders received through MyFreshMaine.com are sent directly to the producer with a detailed packing list. To make the process simple, the company provides boxes and prepaid shipping labels to participating vendors, who ship directly to consumers. My Fresh Company takes a commission from each sale, based on factors such as size, weight and whether the products are perishable or require overnight
shipping. Commissions can range from 25 to 60 percent of the retail price.

Sales topped $5,000 in October, the last full month of the growing season in Maine. The students-turned-entrepreneurs invested their profits in the business, expanding marketing efforts and attracting new vendors. Already they've expanded their reach beyond the virtual world, supplying fresh produce to a local elementary school and selling baskets filled with Maine-made products through a hospital gift shop.

Other plans are in the works as well: "We see a huge opportunity to partner with restaurants," Garin says. "Chefs want fresh produce, want to promote it on their menus that their produce is delivered daily, and we want to help them with that."

A fertile market has the trio eager to replicate the model in other states. "MyFreshMaine is a starting point," Josefsson says. "Once we prove the concept, our goal is to expand in every community."

Jodi Helmer is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. Visit her online at www.jodihelmer.com.

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This article was originally published in the July 2012 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Local Color.

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