FarmVille, Facebook’s most popular game, allows millions to till digital soil and trade products in a virtual market. Now, University of Florida faculty are bringing social networking to real-life agriculture, and they want players.

“Social networking is changing our personal lives and the business world in ways we could have never predicted a few years ago,” said Allen Wysocki, an associate professor of food and resource economics at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “It only makes sense to bring that to agriculture.”

For the past two years, Wysocki has worked with IFAS faculty and stakeholders across the state to set up a Florida version of the Web site MarketMaker. The site allows farmers and seafood producers, both large and small, to set up profiles featuring details of their operation such as pictures and maps.

Buyers looking for specific products can use the site to find nearby producers. The site also features extensive demographic information, including listings of potential buyers, allowing farmers to seek out new markets.

The site isn’t just for bulk trading, however. It’s also designed to be accessible for those who just want to find fresh local food. The site even offers recipes that use locally available, in-season foods.

The MarketMaker team unveiled the Florida version of the site July 31 at the annual Florida Small Farms Alternative Enterprises Conference. The site is still in its infancy, with relatively few farmers signed up. But interest is growing rapidly, and Wysocki expects to have a viable number of farmers using the site by early 2011.

“One of the biggest challenges we face as farmers is finding markets for what we grow,” said Eva Worden, who has set up a profile for Worden Farm in Punta Gorda. “The site is easy to use, and it could potentially open whole new areas of opportunity. So, we have high hopes.”

MarketMaker was originally developed at and is hosted by the University of Illinois. Initially designed in the late 1990s as a way to find new markets for cattle in Chicago, the site is now available in 16 states and Washington, D.C.

“Florida was, in many ways, a whole new ballgame for MarketMaker,” said Darlene Knipe, who developed the site with her husband, Richard, as faculty at the university. “The state has so many unique products and very different overall agricultural infrastructure.”

Although the site is just getting started in Florida, it could soon expand beyond agricultural food products. Knipe hopes it will someday help distribute two other large Sunshine State products: Horticultural crops and biomass such as bagasse that can be used to produce energy and ethanol.

“We’re really only limited by the willingness of businesses and individuals in Florida to get involved,” Wysocki said.

To sign up, visit http://fl.foodmarketmaker.com. Those less familiar with social networking can get help from their local Extension agent.

“This is designed to be an accessible tool,” Knipe said. “In some states, even Amish farmers have been benefiting from it … through their local Extension agent, of course.”