Mississippi’s specialty businesses are finding a quick and easy virtual connection to consumers through a newly expanded computer mapping tool.

MarketMaker is an Internet tool linking growers and producers with grocery stores, food processors, specialty outlets and food industry groups. The program also makes agricultural businesses accessible to individual consumers.

University of Illinois Extension developed the software to help beef producers reach potential buyers in large cities, such as Chicago. The program was a success, and other food commodity groups quickly began using it.

Now in its sixth year, MarketMaker serves 16 states and the District of Columbia.

“The program generated so much interest because it is easy to use and can map food commodity buyers and sellers by location, size, specialty and even clientele,” said Ken Hood, agricultural economist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “It isn’t just for large farms and producers. It can help customers find organic and locally produced products, too.”

Led by Hood, Mississippi was the sixth state to join MarketMaker, and Mississippi is represented on the program’s governing board.

“MarketMaker gives our growers and producers a direct route to potential customers,” Hood said. “If you don’t have a hook, you can’t catch anything. MarketMaker gives ag businesses that hook.”

MarketMaker is a free service that allows its users to update and edit their business profiles easily and keep track of the clients they attract.

Hood said Mississippi’s participation in MarketMaker has increased the visibility of many of the state’s agricultural businesses.

“Lauren Farms, a prawn production farm in Leland, Miss., for example, is on the list of MarketMaker’s top 10 most visited sites,” Hood said. “We update the site frequently to feature individual businesses on the homepage and help direct potential customers to them.”

Bill Wooten, owner of Missiana Produce in Bruce, Miss., has experienced the benefits of the computerized marketing tool.

“Surprisingly, I received a call from a potential customer in the United Kingdom who was interested in having us ship him sweet potatoes,” Wooten said. “I’d say a program that can have that wide a draw is a benefit to us. We’ll keep using it.”

Hood said the website’s recent expansions benefit agritourism businesses, which includes attractions like pick-your-own farms, petting zoos, corn mazes, and farm bed and breakfasts.

“Families can use MarketMaker to find a local pumpkin patch or a pick-your-own blueberry farm,” he said. “Customers can also find restaurants in towns they are visiting. They can click on ‘restaurants’ and enter the zipcode and a list will appear with addresses and a map so everything is easy to find.”

In the next year, MarketMaker will expand to include horticulture businesses.

“The expansion is going to have an impact on Mississippi because of our large green industry,” Hood said. “Anyone who has Web access can connect to the state’s horticulture businesses. It is going to provide many new marketing avenues for nursery growers.”

As a member of MarketMaker’s national governing board, Hood was named in a recent award given to the program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

“The next round of expansions should also be of interest to those who buy or sell feedstock from renewable energy sources, as we are looking to add the bioenergy industry,” Hood said. “Growth is always on the horizon.”

Mississippi MarketMaker is online at http://ms.marketmaker.uiuc.edu. Contact Hood at (662) 325-2155 or hood@agecon.msstate.edu for more information.