Farmers are eliminating the middleman, and getting a higher price for their products, by selling through the Internet.

When a group of five west-central Minnesota farm families got together as a study group two years ago to research ways to create a direct line to consumers, none of them dreamed that a pig would someday sell for a dime or less per pound.

Now, in these leaner times, the group's efforts to market their environmentally friendly farm products through the Internet and a storefront coffeehouse seem to make more economic sense than ever.

Armchair shopping with your coffee. The two-pronged result of their efforts may offer other growers a model for how farmers with fewer acres can market their products directly to consumers. With the expertise of computer whiz Kevin Hein, of Hein, Theobald & Associates of Montevideo, MN, the group designed a Web site called prairiefare.com that is both interactive and a showcase of their individual farms and product offerings.

The second prong is Java River Coffeehouse on First Street, the refurbished main thoroughfare in the heart of Montevideo, which serves as a gathering spot as well as a pilot project storefront for organic and low-input farm produce raised on these and other farms in the area.

Just inside the front door of Java River is a computer kiosk where consumers have finger-touch connection with prairiefare.com. "You can drink cappuccino and have a sandwich and buy drug-free, range-fed chickens off the Internet all at the same time," says Patrick Moore, the leader of the group, owner of the coffeehouse and organizer for the Land Stewardship Project.

The other farmer-members of prairiefare are Jim and LeeAnn VanDerPol, of rural Clara City, who raise pasture-fed pork and lamb; Dave and Avis Swenson of Montevideo, who offer tree-ripened, reduced-spray apples and apple products; Larry and Carolyn Olson of Granite Falls, who market pasture-raised, organic chicken, pork and lamb; Craig and Joanie Murphy of Morris, who sell organically grown beef; and Audrey Arner and Richard Handeen of Montevideo, who market "naturally raised" beef cattle grown without hormones or antibiotics. The group received a $10,000 grant from the USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research Education Program for their project.

Lose the middleman. To date, the Web site has had almost 31,000 successful "hits" since it was put online, including 1,388 user sessions. The group considers this to be a limited success. "We're not getting rich off this, but at least it is a start," says Larry Olson. "None of us expect our Web site to become our primary method of marketing products."

Craig Murphy, who has established a direct marketing link with consumers in Minneapolis, St. Paul and Fargo, sees other benefits. He says, "I've had people say that they have a sense that the way we raise our cattle is the way it should be done. Our Web site could really raise awareness of that. The Internet broadens the universe and introduces our products and way of life to people worldwide."

Personalized selling. When you connect with prairiefare.com, you find a history of each farm along with each individual farmer's farming philosophy. Pictures of the farmers and their farms are also on display. "We wanted people to connect with our farmers and their way of farming," says Moore. "One of the first things we did was purchase a digital camera, and we gave each of the farmers the camera and a questionnaire to fill out. The group then designed the individual Web site pages from that."

In the beginning, it appeared that the group's goal of creating a Web site on a budget was a nearly impossible task. Then late one night Hein, while surfing the Internet, happened upon a computer program in Great Britain. "It was perfect for what we had in mind, and it meant we didn't have to reinvent the wheel," he says. "That is what made this so doable at so low a cost, and right now it is somewhat unique."

"But," interrupts Moore, "it won't be unique for long. This will become a viable marketing tool for farmers everywhere to use. Someday we will likely see this type of marketing in small towns all over the Midwest. What we're doing in Montevideo can be done in service-center communities all through the Midwest."

He adds that the concept was never intended to reach consumers in, say, New York City. "Our target audience is actually more local, and the kiosk concept is intended as a direct link between local consumers and our farmers. This is a tool that allows these farmers to own their products further into the food chain and, consequently, to receive a higher price for their products."

Call it niche marketing, if you will - one where the niche is being created on the computer screen. "Right now there are but a handful of farmer-to-consumer Web pages," says Moore. "I feel our site is both friendly and interesting, and that the food being offered is the best anywhere around."

Says LeeAnn VanDerPol: "Creating consumer-farmer relations is the key to our success."Pricing and ordering information is available on www.prairiefare.com, and orders can be placed via e-mail or by contacting the farms by phone or regular mail. For more information, contact Moore at 320/269-7106, or e-mail Audrey Arner at aarner@maxminn.com.