WASHINGTON – The apples look shiny. The strawberries look scrumptious. The Christmas trees look full and ready to take home.
And they should. They are frozen in cyberspace, part of a growing trend to advertise and sell Maryland farm produce over the Internet.
“There is a big push to get farmers marketing over the web,” said Ben Beale, of the Maryland Cooperative Extension. “If you can direct-market products to the consumer you have an advantage.”
Farmers get, on average, about 21 cents for every dollar the consumer spends, Beale said, but marketing over the Internet could push their return up to 90 cents for every dollar.
But Beale cautioned that the demand for cyber farm produce has to increase before the web can be profitable for farmers.
For that to happen, it has to be easier for people who want to buy farm products to find the appropriate farm web page, said Dale Johnson, who compiles farm web sites at www.marylandagriculture.com. Johnson has collected just under 60 Maryland sites, which represents only about 0.5 percent of the state’s approximately 12,000 farms.
Other states have a larger web presence. New York Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Jessica Chittenden said that farmers there, for example, have used the web extensively. She pointed to www.nyapplecountry.com, a site that links to web sites of individual apple orchards around the state.
“This gives them another avenue to effectively and economically reach consumers who want New York products, but who can’t get out to the country,” said Chittenden.
But Johnson said that consumers are not yet flocking to Maryland’s farm web sites.
“I have a small farm and I have a web page,” he said. “We are not getting a lot of business from it.”
Johnson said that one of the reasons his web business is slow is that people are accustomed to purchasing farm products in the traditional ways.
“People want to smell, see and feel the food they are going to buy,” he said.
But Johnson hopes consumers will change their tune once they realize the benefits to farmers through direct web purchases. He has held public meetings to inform consumers of just that.
And farmers’ awareness of the web’s potential is increasing. Johnson said that he adds about a web site a week to his list.
Farmers who are already advertising on the web are also becoming more sophisticated.
“The next thing that we realize we have to do is to get a credit card system for apple orders,” said Priscilla Harsh, of Clopper Orchards in Smithsburg.
She said that she has had a good response to the orchard’s Internet presence — people as far away as Texas and New Jersey have visited the web site and had apples shipped to them. She thinks that the credit card system will make it easier for these long-distance consumers to purchase her goods.
Michael Pappas, owner of Eco Farms in Lanham, considers his web site a tool to break down several barriers. The first barrier is geography.
“There is no reason why I can’t ship around the world,” said Pappas. “It (the Internet) has the potential to open up markets worldwide.”
But Pappas not only wants people and businesses all over the world to buy his goods, he wants them to also be able to virtually step inside his farm and see his squash, beets and arugula grow. He is updating his site to transmit real-time images of his produce.
Ironically, he said, his virtual farm makes his business more real to potential customers.
“There seems to be a pervasive attitude that if you don’t have a web site you are not real,” Pappas said.