Mississippi farms and specialty businesses have a virtual route to potential customers with an interactive computer mapping program on the Internet.

MarketMaker is a tool to link farmers with grocery stores, food processors, specialty outlets, food industry representatives and consumers who want to buy their products.

University of Illinois Extension created this software five years ago when specialty beef producers had trouble reaching potential buyers in Chicago.

“Even though there were buyers who wanted their products, it was hard for rural farmers to enter these markets because there was no way to communicate,” said Darlene Knipe, University of Illinois Extension marketing and business development specialist.

“Sellers often called us for help, and buyers did, too. We decided to develop a way to help them find each other using the Internet.”

MarketMaker was the result. Representatives working with other food commodities noticed the program’s success and began using the tool. The program soon generated regional interest because it could map food commodity buyers and sellers by location, size, volume, specialty and clientele.

“The geographic information system, or GIS, component of MarketMaker links physical addresses, Web sites, e-mail, phone numbers and other contact information that sellers and buyers need,” said Ken Hood, agricultural economist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

Hood attended a MarketMaker presentation while attending a National Value-Added Conference in Nashville three years ago. MarketMaker representatives told Hood they wanted to expand the program to southern states.

“We saw marketing opportunities for farmers in the South because they are diversified and produce the specialty products that urban customers want,” Knipe said. “Expanding the program south was a nice way to round out the types of products available to buyers and sellers through MarketMaker.”

Hood told MSU Division of Agriculture, Forestry and Veterinary Medicine administrators about the idea.

“We felt MarketMaker would give our producers a good way to reach customers and have a presence in the marketplace,” Hood said. “The program gave us both sides of the marketing equation.”

Farmers, businesses and home-based operators who want to participate can add information to MarketMaker’s secure database. Members can search the database or edit their entries anytime. There is no fee to join.

Hood met with representatives from the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, Mississippi Farm Bureau and food commodity groups. After obtaining a grant, he worked with MSU Extension computer specialists and the University of Illinois to build a Web site for Mississippi and a link to the main MarketMaker Web site at Illinois.

The Mississippi Web site went live in November 2007. Other participating states include Iowa, Nebraska, Kentucky, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, New York, Georgia and South Carolina. Colorado, Arkansas and Washington, D.C., will soon join. Users in those states can search information from any state’s MarketMaker Web site.

“University of Illinois Extension has been really helpful in assisting states as they join,” Hood said. “We would recommend that other states join the effort.”

Market information is power in today’s global economy, and MarketMaker is an important tool to help Mississippi producers find opportunities beyond the state’s boundaries, said John Michael Riley, Extension agricultural economist at MSU.

“Having a good marketing plan is extremely important, especially with the volatility in the marketplace right now,” Riley said. “MarketMaker is a great way for our producers to see what’s available and to include this information in their marketing campaigns.”

MarketMaker has a search engine that consumers in all 50 states and other countries can use to buy specialty foods.

“If people want to find organic products, or locally produced products, they can use MarketMaker to locate suppliers,” Hood said.

University of Illinois Extension has modified MarketMaker software to track hits on state Web sites. Also in development are program modules for agritourism and the green industry. These refinements will advance marketing opportunities for Mississippi products and services, Hood said.

“We hope MarketMaker becomes the amazon.com for finding and selling food commodities in small-to-medium sized markets,” Hood said.

Mississippi MarketMaker is online at http://www.marketmaker.msstate.edu., or http://ms.marketmaker.uiuc.edu.

Contact Hood at (662) 325-2155 or hood@agecon.msstate.edu.