The Ontariofresh.ca website is graduating out of its beta phase. While 1225 businesses have enlisted since the launch in November 2011, the website is about to become more robust and flexible says Megan Hunter, project leader for Friends of the Greenbelt. She was speaking at the Canadian Fruit and Vegetable Tech X-Change.
“We’re pushing to be live with more changes in August,” says Hunter. “It will be faster, more intuitive from a search perspective.”
The beta version was cumbersome in terms of sorting qualities of buyers and sellers. The four previous descriptors -- producer, buyer, distributor and friend – were not concrete enough for fast searches. With a new drop-down format, an advanced search will select details such as co-packing services, food safety certification or size of operation.
For food buyers, the search can now be narrowed to regions as specific as Chatham-Kent. For food sellers, the options allow you to list a diverse range of services, from greenhouse grower to co-packer to wholesaler. Processors can detail whether they’re secondary manufacturers, peelers or choppers.
“This should open the door for more businesses actively participating in the website,” says Hunter.
To date, the 1,225 businesses are 66 per cent growers and processors. Another 25 per cent are buyers and distributors, ranging from restaurateurs to major food service companies. The remaining 15 per cent are input suppliers to the industry such as packing and labeling companies or packaging firms.
“It’s premature to think about an e-commerce platform,” says Hunter. But she has her goals firmly set on becoming the go-to B-2-B resource for local food in Ontario.
It’s getting a fair trial during the first growing season. Arranhill Farms, for example, listed garlic scapes and sold 100 pounds of scapes to a Toronto buyer.
“This is one of the better websites, for sure,” says Alan Cowan.
In a survey of users conducted between December and February last year, 20 per cent of users had made connections and half of those reported sales resulting directly from the website. “This is a significant finding given that the beta version was launched in November 2011,” says Hunter.
A strong feature of the website is the ability to post photos and descriptions of how your product is grown, whether it’s kiln-dried garlic or organic apples. Participants can share as little or as much information about what they deem worthy. The more information they provide, suggests Hunter, the more likely their business will pop in search results.
During July, one buyer was looking for fresh or frozen raspberries to make juice while another was seeking blueberries, preferably in closed pints for the rest of the season.
“It’s difficult to track sales and to gauge the impact of the website without online transactions,” says Hunter. “We are surveying our membership after the growing season to gauge the website’s impact.”
The website is supported with social media outreach on Facebook and Twitter. With 2,732 followers on Twitter, Hunter is pleased with the interaction.
This coming fall, the challenge will be to write a business plan that moves ontariofresh.ca to a financially self-sufficient model. To date, OMAFRA has provided seed money.