Farm fresh

Farm fresh

From farm to fork

has long been the rallying cry of the eat-local movement.
“From farm to fork” has long been the rallying cry of the eat-local movement.

But getting the food from the farm has been a barrier for some consumers who don’t have time to shop at farmers markets or who find community-supported agriculture programs, better known as CSAs, inconvenient.

Enter a new breed of business – a middleman between consumers and farmers – that tweaks the old model.

Traditionally, a consumer who joins a farmer’s CSA pays up to $600 in the winter for a weekly share of produce from spring to fall.

Though the programs are popular – there are more than 100 in North Carolina, up from 35 in 2002 – many people cannot pay for a whole season of produce in advance, volunteer on a farm or pick up the food at designated times as many programs require.

Other people simply don’t know what to do with an abundance of beets or kale.

That has created an opportunity for businesses such as Papa Spuds and The Produce Box, which allow customers to pay for their produce as they go – generally $20 to $30 per box. They offer customers more choice and generally stock products from several farms rather than just one. In addition, the boxes are delivered to customers’ homes.

These new businesses are bringing hundreds of new customers to the table, helping to make farming financially viable for more small farmers.

In two years, The Produce Box has grown from 25 customers to nearly 3,000. At the end of last season, the Raleigh company was filling 900 boxes a week, and owner Courtney Tellefsen said demand is growing steadily this year. Some areas have a waiting list to become a Produce Box customer.

This type of system has been feasible only for a few years, said Rob Meyer, co-founder of Papa Spuds, a similar operation in Cary, N.C. He credits his partnership with Eastern Carolina Organics, a Pittsboro, N.C., group that acts as a distributor for local organic products.

Meyer’s company, which offers meat and produce, also contracts directly with dozens of farms throughout the state to get the volume and variety customers demand.

“If you were going to do local organic in our size in this area, there aren’t enough farms,” he said.

Sandi Kronick, CEO of Eastern Carolina Organics, said the new businesses complement farmers’ other efforts to reach consumers. Eastern Carolina Organics is farmer-owned and distributes organic products from farmers to restaurants, retailers and companies such as Papa Spuds.

“CSAs are overbooked by February, and there’s always going to be customers who choose to go pick up off the farm,” Kronick said. “The point is that the money is flowing throughout the local community, and hopefully it’s resulting in more acres turning into organic in the state.”

The Produce Box partners with Lee Farms in Dunn, N.C., where the sorting and packing is done on site, often within hours of the items’ being picked. The company then relies on a network of women who do not work outside the home to distribute the boxes throughout the Triangle.

Papa Spuds gets bulk shipments from Eastern Carolina Organics at its Cary warehouse, where everything is packed and then distributed.

“It took us a year to turn a profit,” Meyer said. “We bootstrapped the hell out of it at first. We got our feet and hands really dirty.”

For customers like Jessica McRackan the new businesses make eating local feasible.

McRackan, 29, of Cary gave birth to a daughter at the end of March, an event that put an end to her regular trips to the farmers market.

“I like it better,” she said of the deliveries. “I love the environment of the farmers market; it’s a lot of fun. But it’s often hot and it’s crowded.”

McRackan has become such a fan of The Produce Box service that she writes a blog dedicated to sharing what she does with the contents of each box she receives. She posts meal plans and recipes to help others figure out what to do with less familiar produce.

“I want people to use local produce,” she said. “If one more person decides to use The Produce Box and subscribe to their service and say, ‘Hey, this can help me,’ then I’m successful.”

Neither the farmers nor the businesses were willing to talk about the financial arrangements of their partnerships, but the farmers do say that the increase in demand not only allows them to make a living but also spurs growth.

Marshall and Ronald Lee are prime examples. When the brothers partnered with The Produce Box three years ago, they were farming 50 acres. Now they grow tomatoes, squash, corn, cucumbers and more on 100 acres.

This business arrangement is much better than selling at the State Farmers Market in Raleigh – though they still do that. “We know it’s pretty much sold before we pick it as opposed to the market,” said Shelly Johnson, Marshall Lee’s daughter who works on the farm.

Before connecting with Papa Spuds, retirees Dianna and Bill Osmolski sold grass-fed beef directly to customers from their Green Acres Ranch in Seagrove, N.C. “It was time-consuming,” Dianna Osmolski said.

Now instead of having to make a round trip to the slaughterhouse, they make one trip. They take the cows to a Moore County slaughterhouse, and Papa Spuds employees pick up the meat. “Papa Spuds was a blessing for us,” she said.

When you are a small business, every mile counts, says Tinker Linebaugh of Black River Farmstead, which produces goat cheese and soap. Linebaugh, who markets the cheese made at her sister’s farm in Sampson County, spends Thursdays delivering the cheese to grocery stores and restaurants.

Linebaugh said she wasn’t able to break into the Raleigh area until she hooked up with Papa Spuds. “It’s a tremendous help,” she said. “It reaches a whole new area. It’s only one stop for me.”

At least so far, it seems there’s only room to grow.

Demand for local has stayed strong even through the recession, and those involved in local agriculture do not expect it to fall off. New efforts like the 10 percent project (aimed at getting North Carolina residents to spend 10 percent of their food dollars locally) will only increase awareness of local food products.

Many companies are branching out, arranging social events so that members can meet each other and swap recipes, ideas and contact information.

“It really is a community of people who support buying local,” said Courtney Tellefsen, founder of The Produce Box, who recently hosted a get-together at the Chapel Hill Creamery. Getting them together “validates what they are doing.”

Additionally, many of these new local suppliers are striking deals with corporations in an effort to increase their memberships by a few hundred people at a time.

Companies including SAS, Blue Cross Blue Shield and WakeMed have signed on to offer Produce Box deliveries for employees at work.

“It just fits with our own initiatives for health of our employees,” said Lew Borman, spokesman for Blue Cross, which has signed up more than 100 employees in just the first month of working with the Produce Box.

Those types of contacts may give such companies the volume they need to truly become large-scale profitable businesses, and it may help the farmers, too.

“Everything I order from (farmers), we order while it’s in the field so they can really reduce their waste, which costs,” said Meyer of Papa Spuds. “But you could absolutely get to the point where you could order before they even plant. You’d have to be of a certain size.”