Soil mate site rekindles farmer-to-consumer connection

Farm-to-table social networking site helps consumers get in touch with local producers

In a nod to social networking sites that make love connections between people, the new site Soil Mate is hoping to kindle passion between consumers and their local food producers.

People who want to know where their food and drink are coming from can now connect with farmers, farmers markets and wineries using the new farm-to-table social networking site. In turn, farmers and producers can market themselves and interact with their community. The site is free.

Matt Gomez found the need for such a site when he "couldn't find local produce in a way that was convenient for me, not necessarily trudging into the farmers market by a certain time every Saturday to get what I needed. I was looking online to try and find real simple information, basically what was available in the area, how it was grown, where I could buy it and when I could get it and that was really all I needed. My impetus was that I had little kids.''

He had settled in Kelowna, B.C., in 2008 with his new wife after growing up in Luton, England, and found that living in the community coupled with the birth of their two children–now age three and one–made him more concerned about their food.

"I became more aware once I was here because it's more of an agricultural region and started to see that connection and over time start to learn about some of the more fashionable issues like GMO (genetically modified) crops and any pesticide use to some of the more political pieces like the distance travelled and treatment of migrant workers, all of the different pieces that go into the food security.

"`I became aware of all that sort of stuff and made some changes and tried to find stuff online to buy local produce and then I had kids and I couldn't be so blase about it.''

With his background in online marketing, he decided to quit his job, seek investment and found Soil Mate.

Consumers logging on to the site find farms and markets within a 160-kilometre radius, directions and hours. People can sort by crop, organic or non-GMO, and in some cases can order directly from the farm.

"The whole crux of it is to be non-political, non-judgment based, not pushing any agenda, just presenting all the information and you make your own decisions,'' the 31-year-old explained.

"If organic is something that's important to you, then you can find organic. If you don't really care, you just care more about the farmer's story, then read their profile.''

Since unofficially launching to farmers and markets in the spring, Soil Mate has participation in all Canadian provinces, the Yukon and in 40 U.S. states.

"What we're finding is a massive adoption rate when farmers find us ... we actually have a 95% signup rate. The issue is just actually getting the system in front of them. I wouldn't say it's a no-brainer. Farmers have options, right? Directories have been shoved down their throats for years. It's just no one's really created a good directory. They can be a little bit jaded on it. ...

``Once you start to explain the concept of Soil Mate and how it's different from literally every other system out there and how it's helpful and how it doesn't have much of an impact on them from a time perspective. We did focus groups as well so we actually had farmers help us develop it, so we knew they'd actually use it and update it and all that sort of stuff.''

Alan Gatzke, whose grandfather began farming on the site of what is now Gatzke Orchards in 1929, took part in the development process.

"Matt talked to me early on about the needs on our farm from a marketing perspective and then he told me about his desire and passion and what he would like to accomplish with it.

"I've been involved with agriculture and various agribusiness firms and I haven't been in a situation where they actually came and spoke to me at the design stage'' nor did they encompass all aspects of his business, he said from Oyama in the Okanagan.

His B.C. farm between Vernon and Kelowna offers a restaurant, bakery, stand and pick-your-own options.

"There wasn't another site that we've been participating in that fit our whole operation and the ability to adapt or flex, (but) Matt's site pretty much covers everything that we need,'' including the ability of workers to contact him regarding doing labour or picking, he said in the midst of harvesting cherries, raspberries and peas.

"The kind of customer I identify that would plan to come and do their shopping are the foodies, the people that are searching out a relationship with their farmer or getting a better understanding of where their food comes from and Matt's site covers that,'' Gatzke added

Gomez plans to devote 10% of gross revenue to projects like arranging for school children to visit farms and teaching people how to use produce through cooking lessons. His longer-term goal is to buy and lease land at "ultra-low'' rates to people who want to farm.

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