Driving The Local Food Movement [Literally]
NOW THAT THE "eat local" movement is firmly entrenched in our consciousness, Hudson Valley households and restaurants are clamoring for a more consistent supply of local products.
There is no question that local products are more readily available now than in the past, but the distribution services available to local farmers have struggled to keep in synch with the increased emphasis on eating local, and small farmers who want to market their products to restaurants, resellers or directly to the public often lack the time, skills or resources needed to successfully place and deliver their goods.
Farms2Tables cofounder Patricia Wind has a passion for food, and she is using her expertise at the computer to make the distribution of local, farm-fresh food simpler and more efficient for both buyers and farmers. At Field Goods, Donna Williams "treasure hunts" each week for unusual fresh fruit and vegetables from sustainable small farms. The produce she purchases is bagged at the company's Athens warehouse and delivered to 4,000 subscribers.
These two entrepreneurs developed innovative methods that address obstacles to distribution from different angles to ensure that the food gets where and when it is wanted. Here's how they did it.
Serving a Niche Market Just in Time
Patricia Wind tapped into her broad range of experience to help develop the business model for Farms2Tables. Born in upstate Brockport, she went to high school in Minnesota and studied hospitality management and computer science at the University of Wisconsin. She managed a national wine importer's wholesale distribution for several years, moonlighting at farmers' markets on the weekends. She's lived in the Hudson Valley since 2007, and attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, "not to be a chef but to be a chef's boss," she notes.
Wind's inspiration occurred in 2014 during a dinner conversation with her business partner, Clifford Platt, a Poughkeepsie lawyer with a background in engineering and dairy farming. (Platt is listed as cofounder of Farms2Tables on its website but has no role in the company's day-to-day operations.) Using her savings as seed money, Wind spent over a year working with a software company to design and develop the app that became the backbone of Farms2Tables' operations.
"I understand programming—and can code myself—so there was hardly any disconnect in collaborating with the development team for our needs," Wind says. "I can 'speak their language,' so I was able to convey our needs on their level of understanding versus trying to explain to them how wholesale distribution works."
The app (and a recently added web platform) links more than 80 small farms directly with more than 300 wholesale buyers, including retailers, restaurants, caterers, corporations and schools.
Most farms Wind deals with range in size from 5 to 15 acres; a handful are under 5 acres and another handful are 50 or more acres. All the farms are within 100 miles of Rhinebeck; 80 percent are within 50 miles. As of early January, there were 74 farms waiting to be added to the active list. Wind delivers throughout the Hudson Valley, as far north as Saratoga, and into Brooklyn and parts of Massachusetts and Connecticut.
Farms2Tables made its first deliveries in June 2015. The company broke even for the first time last year and Wind is confident it will soon turn a profit. "We handle distribution," Wind stresses. "We sell service—we don't sell a tangible product. It makes us different."
Fees paid by the farms vary depending on product type, volume and location. Because the company, which doesn't have a warehouse, has low overhead, the fee frequently is lower than they might be charged by a traditional wholesale operation. "The service is a real asset to the farming community," says Katie Bogdanffy of Yellow Bell Farm, a poultry operation in Red Hook. She says Farms2Tables has allowed her farm to venture into the wholesale market, allowing her to "focus on the product."
Farms2Tables' four trucks leave early in the morning with items that have been purchased online the previous day by wholesale customers. As the trucks empty, they pick up food from the farms for delivery the next day (all coordinated by computer). The company currently makes deliveries four times a week, though Wind says she is considering adding a fifth day to the schedule and may purchase another truck.
Rory Chase, of the Chaseholm Farm Creamery in Pine Plains, produces artisanal cheese that was "outside the regular commodity stream." Through Farms2Tables, he says he's been able to develop a "tidy little business" with Mohonk Mountain House and other buyers.
Mohonk has purchased about $60,000 of food from approximately a dozen Farms2Tables farms since March 2017—a small amount compared to the resort's bulk supply, but the total has been growing. "We use Farms2Tables to support and promote the sale and distribution of local goods in the Hudson Valley," Mohonk Executive Chef Jim Palmeri emphasizes. "We feature their product on our menu. It is high quality."
Jake Novick-Finder, owner of Gristmill Restaurant in Brooklyn, confirms he has a "great relationship" with Farms2Tables, his largest vendor. He says he likes the variety of the food he finds on the app and having a direct relationship with the farmers (and the driver who delivers his food, who has become "a member of the family"). His only gripe? He would like three deliveries a week rather than two.
"Large companies would not think it worth their time to go to a farm and pick up a few cases of lettuce."
Ed Kowalski, chef/owner of Crave Restaurant in Poughkeepsie and Lola's Café in Poughkeepsie and New Paltz, says that Farms2Tables "is the best thing that could have happened to us. It's super convenient."
Farms2Tables lists more than 4,000 products offered by its participating farms—a fairly even mix of produce, proteins, cheese/dairy/eggs, and value-added items like honey, jam and tomato sauce. (In contrast, Ginsberg Foods, in Hudson, a prominent regional distributor, has more than 7,000 items in its inventory, including national brands.)Wind calls her business model "just in time," and compares it to the industrial method of keeping only enough inventory to fulfill sales orders or demand. Kowalski says that he is confident food hasn't been sitting around in a warehouse before being delivered to the restaurants. "It's being picked as soon as you put in the order," he notes.
Wind estimates that Farms2Tables has delivered close to 1 million pounds of food since early 2016. She acknowledges that this is a "minuscule" amount in a market dominated by large distributors, but says her operation fills a niche. "Large companies would not think it worth their time to go to a farm and pick up a few cases of lettuce," she notes. "Some try [to] work with small local farms, but ultimately the logistics of doing so are not easily aligned with their current operations—small farms don't have pallets-worth available at a given time."
She continues, "I believe small companies can survive because the large wholesalers are leaving a gap in the market that consumers want to be filled."
Farmers' Markets Hit the Road
Donna Williams, a self-described former "execu-chick," moved in with her parents in Athens to recover from health problems and decided to stay. She wanted to start her own business after stints in investment banking, publishing and at a corporation that sells gourmet snacks.
The idea for Field Goods—a business that specializes in distributing "fresh food from small farms" directly to consumers—germinated during a study Williams conducted for the Greene County Industrial Development Authority on an agricultural incubator. She found a growing demand for local food, along with farmers who were willing and able to supply it, but conventional distribution methods weren't keeping pace.
Her answer was to establish a "food hub"—one of ten in New York State—where Field Goods aggregates 150 varieties of vegetables and fruit from 60 farms and manages their distribution and marketing. The source farms range in size from 5 to 1,000 acres; most are around 50 acres. The company employs 32 people and operates an 18,000-square-foot warehouse, with 4,000 square feet of refrigerated storage.
With revenue of $3.1 million, Field Goods, which started out in 2011 making deliveries in Williams' produce-stuffed station wagon, ranked 1,584 on Inc. magazine's 2017 list of the 5,000 fastest-growing private companies in America.
Field Goods uses its hub to promote healthful, nutritional choices and to support farmers by helping them to sell their goods at a fair price. Subscribers to the distribution service sign up online for weekly or biweekly delivery of one of four different-sized bags, costing from $16 to $32. The company selects the contents of the bags from different farms based on the season, variety, perishable nature of the produce and other factors. Customers can put bags on hold and order individual items. Separate subscriptions are available for eggs, bread, cheese, salad mix and other items, and customers also can purchase cooking staples for their pantries from local producers.
Contents of the bags for the first week of 2018, for example, included certified organic frozen broccoli and organic summer squash, organic fingerling sweet potatoes, gold beets and green and red leaf broccoli. Available the following week were red and green leaf lettuce, frozen butternut purée, crimini mushrooms, eschalions, Pink Lady apples and parsnips.
Field Goods trucks drop off subscribers' bags at 700 private businesses and public locations such as libraries, cafes and community centers in eastern New York, western Connecticut and northern New Jersey. Each delivery includes a "cheeky" newsletter written by Williams that offers recipes, tips and nutritional information for food that may not be familiar to some customers. Purchases are "transparent"—customers are told where the food originated and how it was grown.
Todd Erling, executive director of the Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corp., which has assisted Field Goods from its inception, noted the Field Goods model "is a good way for consumers to know where their food is coming from and how to support it."
Its suppliers say that they have a good relationship with Field Goods. "They do things farmers do not have time to do," says Ashley Loehr of the Sparrowbush Vegetable and Grain Farm in Livingston. Martin Stosiek, of Markristo Farm, which grows flowers and organic vegetables in Hillsdale, says of the company, "They are good people to work with. I know what they are looking for. They are very accommodating."
Williams says that the produce in the Field Goods bags may look different from what subscribers see in supermarkets. "The produce sold in grocery stores has to match a visual ideal, like Barbie. Our product is more Cabbage Patch Kids," she quips, adding, "You can't find what we have at a supermarket—and if you do, odds are it will be more expensive and lower quality." Field Goods promotes and supports corporate wellness programs, and claims its customers have healthier diets. ("Who knew my kids would like kale?" quotes one mother on its website.)
Further, Williams adds, consumers who want healthy food do not have to travel miles, fight for a parking space or wait in line because, "it is more convenient to get the bag at work or to go to the library." Maureen Jagos, a subscriber and director of the Chester Public Library (a drop-off location) agrees. "It's easier to have the farmers' market come to you than to go to the farmers' market," she says.
Williams says that 2017 was a "challenging" year for Field Goods, with increasing competition from new "meal kit" programs like Blue Apron, and demand has "flattened out." But she remains optimistic. "We're all at an adolescent stage of our development," she says. "It's really critical that we continue to grow rapidly—we have a lot of farmers to support."