Unity is the latest town to join FarmDrop, a website that acts as an online grocery store for small farmers to sell their products directly to consumers, while reducing waste.

Kari Hulva, Unity FarmDrop program manager, introduced the idea to Unity Barn Raisers as a way to connect local consumers with small farmers who face difficulties selling products consistently year-round.

Hulva owns a small farm where he sells pastured chickens and vegetables. While perusing the internet, he stumbled on the FarmDrop website and, after more research, thought the business model was viable for the Unity area.

One of the biggest issues Hulva faces is declining sales in winter, when his vegetable stand is closed and there isn’t as much traffic on his farm to sell his chickens.

“I have a farm stand, seasonal vegetables, but it’s closed for the winter. So, to sell my chicken in the winter is tough. In the summertime, people stop by for tomatoes, they get chicken. In the winter time, at the end of the day, they don’t want to try to find me, see if I’m home. So they just end up going to the grocery store,” Hulva said.

The FarmDrop website lets him post whatever product he’s offering in one place for people to place orders efficiently.

Hulva approached Unity Barn Raisers, a Unity nonprofit, about being the host site in the community because of the other food programs it runs.

All monetary transactions for FarmDrop are completed online and go directly into the farmer's bank account. Part of the business model requires that 10% goes to the nonprofit host site. In this case the Barn Raisers are the nonprofit host site receiving money to help supplement food programs that help fight food insecurity in the community.

On Friday afternoon, farmers will drop off their packaged product to the Barn Raisers, where Hulva puts each order together. Then it’s picked up by customers between 4 and 6 p.m., every Friday.

The website gives farmers the ability to set their own prices. Knowing how much product to pack in advance reduces waste. Farmers have to estimate how much product will sell at a market and risk being left with too much or not enough for consumers.

“The technology allows you to reduce some of that friction …. So a farmers' market, you have to make a special trip to go and the farmer is speculating about waste and you’re not sure what you’re going to get when you go there … and so it’s hard for you as a customer to plan and it’s hard for a farmer to plan. So this kind of works at that friction level where the farmer only picks what he’s going to sell and get paid for,” Hulva said

Barn Raisers Board Director Jean Bourg was excited about the project when it was presented to her because one of the Barn Raisers’ goals is to promote local farming and access to food.

“We try to be a partner to whatever projects that are brought to us that are good for the community,” Bourg said.

Reach more consumers

When Heather Holland and her husband bought Outland Farm, a Pittsfield apple orchard, in 2015, they knew it would be the perfect spot to start a small brewery with enough room to raise livestock.

Holland already was eating local chicken from small farms because of a health condition that prevents her from consuming too much commercially raised chicken, so it was a natural transition into raising her own livestock.

She said she likes the idea of knowing where her food comes from and how the animals were raised. It’s something sacred for her to know that the livestock she raised had a quality of life and a level of comfort while they were alive.

“Most of our customers and ourselves agree that having an animal that was able to live out a life on pasture more humanely is more important to them than going to a store and not knowing the animal's name, just a package of meat,” Holland said. “They would actually prefer to know the animal’s story and that it had a good life rather than the sight-unseen package of meat that was raised in a factory setting.”

That's a concern she thinks most people who grow or consume food from small farms share.

“A lot of what drove us to farming is that we wanted better food for our families,” Holland said.

The Unity FarmDrop website could help Holland reach more consumers in an otherwise isolated area. Also, it allows her to place orders with other farmers who have different products than what she raises on her property.

Integrating nonprofits to share the bounty

Hannah Semler created FarmDrop with business partner Kelin Welborn from a concept created by a mother-and-child team from Blue Hill that was similar to business models seen in India to sell shoes.

They integrated local nonprofits in the business model to help address food insecurity issues in communities the website serves. Semler has a background in working for nonprofits, so she knows the importance of funding local nonprofits.

“We think it’s a really important third pillar to integrate the nonprofits that are making sure the bounty of our local food system gets to everyone, into the business model that we design as we move forward with innovative technology and innovative thinking around how to bring food systems forward to the next generation in a way that can work for everyone,” Semler said.

The business model was taken over by nonprofit Healthy Acadia when Semler was working for it out of Ellsworth after the original founders decided to focus on other things. When Semler left Healthy Acadia, she and Welborn took over the business model with funds left from the original project and a Maine Farmland Trust Grant, which allowed them to hone the website.

Now, FarmDrop serves Blue Hill, Mount Desert Island, Portland and Unity to further develop its business model that can help connect farmers and consumers in more communities beyond Maine.

“I see it in hundreds of communities across the United States, if not other countries, having the ability to choose FarmDrop as their preferred model for their local economic development, community economic development,” Semler said.

The projected launch date for the Unity website is July 12.