August 23, 2008

Hungry for Online Matches

By Lindsey Nair [email protected] 981-3343

Tom Davenport was a filmmaker long before he took over his aging dad's cattle farm in the mid-'90s.

Knowing that, it doesn't seem so unusual that the 69-year-old maintains a YouTube page with videos of cow insemination, calf tagging and other ranching adventures.

But these days, the Fauquier County man's proficiency with technology may translate into a better way of life for fellow farmers.

He and Web developer Steve Knoblock have developed a social networking site for farmers and locavores called Think of it as Facebook, Myspace or even for the folks who grow good food and the people who buy it.

"What we've found is that every foodie that joins Farmfoody is joining because they want to be connected with farms in some way," Davenport said.

Farmfoody, which launched this spring, grew out of another Davenport-Knoblock project, a Web site called Folkstream that showcases niche films about American folklore.

The Internet gave the old documentaries new exposure to the public. The pair wondered why they couldn't give hardworking farmers the same kind of exposure, especially at a time when so many Americans are interested in buying and eating locally produced food.

The new site is already enjoying a measure of success. According to Knoblock, the site has 1,500 members and is growing by 15 to 30 new accounts per day. Most of those users live in Virginia, but Davenport and Knoblock hope to someday have a viable national network of members.

Here's how it works: A new member creates an account as either a farmer or a "foody," then is able to make friends with other members on the site, which matches them by ZIP code and tags, such as "peaches" or "grass-fed beef."

Farmers, which could include everyone from vintners to victory gardeners, can use the site to market their goods directly to interested customers by posting bulletins. Foodies, whether professional chefs or amateur gourmets, use the site to find the exact products for which they are foraging.

Recently, Hannah Coleman, office manager for Mountain Run Farm in Bedford County, used Farmfoody to advertise a family fun day at their farm.

Coleman's brother, Ben, said any tool that helps small farms market their product is a valuable one.

"We are a fan of these Web sites that lead people to the farmer personally, because that's what's lacking is the connection," he said. "It is the most important thing, and it is one of the most challenging things to get going."

As a cattleman himself, Davenport said, he understands how important marketing can be.

He moved his family to his father's 1,000-acre farm, Hollin Farms, in the 1970s and took over operations in the mid-1990s. Now his son, Matthew, is managing the farm.

"Heretofore, if you weren't in the industrial farming mode, you had to get big or get out," Davenport said. "The only way you could survive was to essentially have a direct relationship with customers."

Davenport started a Web site to sell Hollin Farms beef not long after he took over. Because he found himself burning hours on the telephone answering questions about the product, he started a frequently asked questions section on his site.

"That was the biggest obstacle to every farmer," he said. "You had to deal with all these customer relations and you had no time to farm."

With Farmfoody, he hopes that even the least technologically savvy farmers will be able to find a connection with customers on the World Wide Web.

At Mountain Run Farm, the Colemans know about computers but don't have a lot of time to manage them. Even so, Hannah Coleman has posted profiles of their farm on the Local Harvest and Eat Wild sites.

They also have their own Web site featuring their products, which has so far been much more profitable than any of the other sites, including Farmfoody.

Coleman said she thinks Farmfoody just needs more time to catch on.

"I think it is different because it is more of a networking site, as opposed to a resource," she said. "I think they just need to get the word out."Vote on by Aug. 31.

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