COLUMNS


Is There an App for That?

Mobile apps may be an untapped marketing tool
By Diane Baedeker-Petit


A popular smartphone commercial boasts repeatedly: "there's an app for that." So when I started using a smartphone and a tablet/e-reader, I wondered whether there were any apps (short for applications) that would help farmers market their products. The answer seems to be yes, but not as many as you might think.


Photo courtesy of jakovcevic slavisa/sxc.hu.

It seems like a natural fit. After all, given that mobile devices with GPS (global positioning system) technology can pinpoint a user's current location, and given that agritourism farms, farmstands and farmers' markets are sometimes hard to find, then putting information about your farm business into a customer's hands, literally, to help them find you seems like a no-brainer.

Here's how I envision such an app would work: say I'm out for a fall foliage drive in the country and decide that I'd like to buy some apples and cider. I turn on my smartphone and tap on a "farm finder" app. The phone automatically knows my current location, so it shows me a map with pushpins indicating nearby farms.

Once I decide which farm I want to visit, I tap "route" or "get directions," and it gives me turn-by-turn directions and navigates with spoken directions. Then, when I'm at the farm, I can "check-in" so that friends on social networking sites can see that I've been there, and I can even write a review on-the-spot.

That's my fantasy farm/food app.

So, in real life, I searched the app stores and did a Google search for food and farm-related apps and turned up very few. I found two that sounded promising, but neither works exactly the way I envisioned.

The first is called Farmers Market Finder, which is billed as being able to help consumers locate some 2,500 farmers' markets across the country. It's listed as a free app, but the only free listings are markets in California. To find Massachusetts farmers' markets, for example, it costs $4.99.

Markets can be found in several ways: by browsing an alphabetical list, searching keywords and viewing markets indicated by pushpins on a map. Tapping on a market name brings up basic information about the market, including "amenities," which are general product categories like fruits, vegetable and meat, hours of operation and location.

Users can also tap buttons to go to the market's website or get directions, and markets can be marked as favorites for future reference. A nice addition to this app would be the ability to find the market nearest the user's current location.

Another food-related app called Foodtree is more of a social network for foodie photographers than a useful tool for finding markets and products. Foodtree pinpoints the user's current location and shows on a map the locations of farms, markets, restaurants and retail stores where other users have posted photos of food products they've purchased or consumed. It's kind of like a Panaramio for food.

If you're not familiar with Panaramio, it's a site where photographers can upload and map images so other users can see their images when viewing a location in Google Maps or Google Earth. For example, if you're interested in visiting Washington, D.C., you can see hundreds or thousands of images other photographers shot at almost every street corner, monument or museum in the city. Foodtree works in almost the same way, except users view close-ups of squash or oysters.

It's an interesting premise, though I'm a little uncertain about how this app would benefit me as a consumer, or how it would benefit the food sellers listed. I suppose the answer lies in the old adage "a picture is worth a thousand words." If numerous customers upload a bounty of beautiful photos of your products, other customers will believe that you sell quality products and want to buy them. The converse could be true, as well. If customers shoot and upload photographs of bruised or moldy produce, your reputation could be tarnished.

There are already a lot of apps out there for farmers on the production side. So, it's surprising that more software entrepreneurs, ag organizations or government agencies haven't jumped on the app bandwagon as a way to promote local farms and ag products.

Never having developed an app myself, I don't mean to be critical of any person or organization for not being quicker out of the gate. There may be tens or hundreds of farm and food apps now in development. It may be difficult and time-consuming. A little research reveals, however, that there are plenty of tools and services out there to make app development possible for nonprogrammers.

The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Amherst, Mass., and was previously director of communications at the Mass. Dept. of Food & Agriculture.