I recently came across a really nifty food marketing Web site. While not exactly new, Food Industry MarketMaker (http://www.national.marketmaker.uiuc.edu/), which was created in 2004, is the first site that I’ve found that pulls together U.S. Census demographic data and food marketing outlet locations into one resource.

According to the site, MarketMaker is a national partnership of land grant institutions and state departments of agriculture dedicated to the development of a comprehensive interactive database of food industry marketing and business data. It proclaims itself to be one of the most extensive collections of searchable food industry related data in the country.

All the information on MarketMaker can be mapped and queried by the user. For example, say you’ve recently developed a value-added product that you think would sell well among high-income, Manhattan residents. On MarketMaker, you can choose to find a market by income, select an income range, then select Manhattan (New York County). Click the “Map It” button, and it gives you a color-coded map of Manhattan showing the highest concentrations of households in your desired income range.

As if that weren’t enough, you can then click on “Find Business,” then select from a list of categories that include eating and drinking establishments, farmers’ markets and food retailers. Several of those categories have subcategories to narrow your search even further. The results are then plotted as red dots on the map that show your selected demographic data.

The map is interactive, so users can zoom in and pan. Best of all, though, is the Identify tool, that lets users click on a census tract for specific information or click on a dot for details on the business. Details on restaurants, for example, include address, phone, contact person, e-mail, Web site, sales volume and number of employees.

Finding a target market couldn’t be easier, as long as you want to do business in New York, Kentucky, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Georgia or Mississippi. Unfortunately, MarketMaker isn’t yet available for every state (currently Indiana, Michigan and Ohio are in progress).

The site was created by a University of Illinois Extension team with the intention of building an electronic infrastructure that would more easily connect farmers with economically viable new markets. MarketMaker is hosted and maintained by the University of Illinois Extension and is guided by an advisory board made up of representatives from participating partner states.

Another aspect of the MarketMaker site is the ability for buyers to search for farms by products produced and various subcategories. Farms can also be mapped, and quite a bit of detail about what the farm produces is provided.

MarketMaker also features a Buy & Sell Forum for products and services. Last time I checked, no ads were posted in any of the categories, however.

I was curious to know if it was possible to at least get the same demographic data on the U.S. Census Web site. While it’s possible to view interactive, themed maps that display data like income, the census site is much more cumbersome to use and doesn’t seem to provide the level of detail that MarketMaker does. If the exact same data is available, I couldn’t find it after an hour or two of exploring the site.

Of course, you can still make use of data from the census site if your state isn’t available on MarketMaker, but then you’ll still need to find the locations of food businesses like restaurants, grocery stores and farmers’ markets. That information may be available from a variety of sources, such as Switchboard.com, industry associations and government agencies. Switchboard.com (http://www.switchboard.com) will even plot the results on a map. It will be up to you, however, to compare the census and Switchboard maps to determine where your best potential markets are located.

Even though it’s possible to do your own research, it would be great if MarketMaker were available for every state. The MarketMaker site doesn’t offer any details on what’s involved in becoming a partner, but hopefully partners in other states will step forward soon, as this site seems to have the potential to be a great tool for farmers everywhere.

The author, a freelance writer, is public affairs specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conser-vation Service in Amherst, Mass. of Food & Agriculture. Read past marketing columns by this author online at http://www.farmmarketing.blogspot.com