The FarmDrop sign outside of the Blue Hill pickup location swings in the wind on Monday. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

BLUE HILL, Maine – A 10-year-old food startup in Maine that connects farmers with consumers in virtual markets expanded last year to two western New York locations. Now, a year later, the company is looking even further west for expansion.

FarmDrop was created in 2011 with an online ordering system based out of the Blue Hill Wine Shop that aimed to get local food producers’ goods into the hands of consumers in a low-effort way. Since then, it’s grown to include 100 farmers selling food through more than a dozen virtual markets from Linneus to Berwick and into New York.

CEO Hannah Semler, who lives in Deer Isle, has been talking with farmers in Arizona and hopes to launch a market in Tucson in the coming weeks.  

“It’s a little daunting,” she said this week. “It’s putting our system to the test.”

Long before online food ordering exploded during the pandemic, FarmDrop was working to create more resilient and regenerative food networks that are better for food producers and customers by making the act of buying local food as easy as shopping online, said Semler.

The FarmDrop model is fairly simple. Customers go to the FarmDrop website and choose a local online market known as a “hub.” Then the website shows what is in stock from farmers and producers at that particular market. Customers can add meats, cheeses, produce and other products to their virtual carts to purchase. Each hub has a weekly cutoff date for ordering and then a pickup date.

Farmers bring their ordered goods for each hub to a designated location where a hub manager compiles each customer’s order on pickup day. There’s no commitment or subscription as with some community supported agriculture programs. FarmDrop takes five percent of sales and hub managers make a small fee per order that’s paid by customers at the online checkout.

Semler said the model lets customers shop on their own time and from home.

Though it will never replace face-to-face interactions that build strong relationships with customers at farmers markets, FarmDrop has been a great additional sales outlet and a way to keep products moving in the off-season, Maine farmers said.

With no local winter farmers markets nearby, FarmDrop has helped 5 Star Nursery and Orchard in Brooklin stretch its season further and provided an online sales system that customers crave, said farmer Molly DellaRoman.

“It’s nice for small guys like us who aren’t going to have their own store,” she said.

Through FarmDrop, Sue Frank, who raises mulefoot pigs at Dogpatch Farm in Washington, can give customers access to her full inventory of pork and charcuterie products at any given time.

“With the inventory feature I can easily sell what I have on hand whereas I cannot bring everything to a farmers’ market,” she said.

Operating in Arizona could pose different challenges. Tucson is much larger than anywhere else FarmDrop has sprouted roots and Semler has found that the farms in the area are much more spread out than in Maine and New York. That makes logistics of pulling together a market a lot tougher and could force FarmDrop to change its model out West.

“It doesn’t surprise me that a different part of the country might need a different solution,” Semler said.

Back home, the business is evolving. In Maine, FarmDrop is experimenting with delivery and piloting a wholesale program. Semler’s also working to maintain a wide variety of foods at each hub to keep customers coming back, even if that means pulling from farms outside of the local pool.

“It’s not going to be an attractive shopping experience if there’s meat and bread but no veggies,” she said.

Adding farms from northern Maine to hubs that aren’t normally in their range could boost selection and give those farmers a chance to tap other markets they might not otherwise have access to. But there are concerns that if too many non-local farms are added to hubs, it could dilute their local identity.

“It’s an interesting conundrum and we’re in the middle of figuring it out,” Semler said.