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Open Food Network targets small-scale e-commerce

Not-for-profit platform now available in 12 countries

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Food, unincorporated. That’s the tagline atop the website of the Canadian version of a 12-country digital commerce platform for small-scale farmers.

Theresa Schumilas of Open Food Network (OFN) Canada, told those attending a Jan. 25 seminar at the Guelph Organic Conference that the platform is free for those selling less than $500 in produce per month. For producers making sales of more than $500, a two per cent commission is charged, up to a maximum of $150 per month.

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Why it matters: OFN offers small-scale farmers an opportunity to access e-commerce technologies with little financial investment.

Most of OFN’s activity involves development and maintenance of the open-sourced platform for digital local food commerce. In the future, the network hopes to broaden the availability of all types of ag-related digital technology controlled in a not-for-profit model.

All 12 countries use the same platform. There is communication between the countries on a weekly basis, and small, often imperceptible-to-the-user tweaks are made on a continual basis. If any of the 12 countries implements an improvement or addition to the platform, it becomes available to all member countries.

“It has been built specifically for selling food so it can handle tricky measures or stock levels that only food has — a dozen eggs, a bunch of parsley, and a whole chicken that varies in weight,” explains the website at

Schumilas says producers provide a link on their website or social media page to the OFN site. From there, the OFN platform, which looks identical in all 12 countries, takes over in terms of digital sales, inventory control, and record-keeping.

Aside from its work on the platform, Open Food Network Canada has been doing work for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Development through a New Directions grant. That involves developing policies to help small-to-medium scale farms take advantage of digital technology.

So far the focus in information technology for agricultural applications has mainly been on large-scale, commodity-focused operations. A handful of global corporations are occupying that space, Schumilas said, typically handing out accelerator funding for start-ups involved in research and development, then subsequently paying out more money to buy those start-ups if their technology appears to have promise.

“It’s not just these guys (companies involved in agricultural technology). This is how Google works. Everybody in tech works like this.”

This leads to technologies that are proprietary; as a result, the knowledge and data from these systems often remains out of reach even for those paying to use the system. Schumilas sees parallels to proprietary development of seed varieties, and the loss perceived by many in the agricultural sector as a result of the decrease in publicly funded plant breeding programs.

Small-scale, direct-to-consumer farmers might believe they can continue on as they have in the past, and ignore all these information technology developments. Other reasons she heard during her work on the OMAFRA project are that the cost is too much, concerns about privacy, the products aren’t designed precisely for their farm, or that the next generation on the farm should be the one to worry about it.

But these technologies have become pervasive, she said, and emphasized her point by noting the number of cellphones held in the hands of workshop attendees as they entered the room.

“There’s no suggestion this is going away. And there’s no suggestion you’re going to be able to opt out.”

It’s likely that consumers to whom small-scale farmers want to continue selling have seen these technologies affect their food-buying choices.

It’s these connections that may be easier to nurture and maintain if farmers take advantage of a platform like OFN’s, said Schumilas

But she stressed it shouldn’t cause undue stress or uncertainty. “Farmers are the original hackers,” she said, advising participants to be confident in their ability to make adjustments in the technology so it works for them.

Plus, she argued, any improvements in the digital tools adapted for small-scale farm use enhance the likelihood of attracting new, younger farmers into the fold.

About the author


Stew Slater

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.



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