From a one-truck scrappy start up in central Massachusetts that delivers fresh produce to local restaurants and institutions, to a 38-year-old Vermont-based distribution business that just added a $9 million meat-processing center, there are a variety of entities in the middle of the food supply chain. While their size, organizational structures and even missions may differ, the groups are all vital pieces of the food system puzzle, both helping to sustain a robust agricultural sector, and, more broadly, growing the local food movement. Not coincidentally, their leaders are passionately committed to supporting the region’s farms. Here’s a sampling of businesses and organizations dedicated to connecting farms and markets.
‘No truck and $100’
Lettuce Be Local, based in Sterling, Massachusetts, started four years ago when chef-turned-entrepreneur Lynn Stromberg parlayed her experience in the hospitality industry into a service supplying chefs and institutions with the abundant produce grown on nearby farms.
Before the business got under way, she had only her knowledge of institutional kitchens, her friendships with local farmers and a dream. “I had no truck and $100,” Stromberg said of when she committed to starting Lettuce Be Local (http://www.lettucebelocal.com). She test-drove the idea when she sourced 100 percent of her wedding party meals with local food, and then hosted a farm dinner to raise capital. She moved on to supply a pilot restaurant next. Finally, she launched her business in 2012 and now serves 27 customers, sourcing from 80 farms in the state. For Stromberg, transparency is the key. She inspects each farm she works with to ensure the soil and growing practices are as described, and prefers to work with organic (certified or not) farms.
Lettuce Be Local turns around product in 12 hours, with one truck and a temperature-controlled container on her property where she can unload, store and repack for deliveries. She is funding her operation through deliveries and with farm dinners – all 100 percent locally sourced. Her team is made up of her husband and family members, who pitch in to do the books, drive the truck and fix equipment.
Farm fresh, big impact
Rewind to 2004, before “buy local” was a mantra. That’s when Farm Fresh Rhode Island (FFRI) got its start as a Brown University student project. Twelve years later, this nonprofit has made a big impact on the local economy, according to Co-Executive Director Jesse Rye.
FFRI (http://www.farmfreshri.org) works in two main areas: community access and food system enterprise. While connecting farms and markets is a big part of its mission, it is also about teaching how to grow and prepare food and increasing access to local food through its programs. FFRI runs summer and winter farmers markets and has a community kitchen where classes for youth on probation take place.
Its aggregation program, Market Mobile, started in 2009 and works with 70 farms and producers from across the region. On a bi-weekly basis, vendors price and list their products online. Buyers use a single order form to select products from across all listed vendors. Market Mobile makes the deliveries to buyers and provides a single invoice.
In 2015, the program sold $2.25 million of local food on behalf of producers. FFRI faces challenges that result from having many different, but complementary, programs, and being strategic and realistic about growth help to keep the organization financially sustainable. However, Rye remains optimistic about its future.
“There is so much goodwill around the importance of agriculture and local food,” he said. “Our organization has the opportunity to interact with farmers and eaters on a daily basis. We get to hear the success stories from farms that are extending their seasons and being rewarded by increased sales either at our winter market or through the Market Mobile program. We get to work with schools, seniors and the general public to talk about the importance of food, where it’s from, how it’s grown and how it got to their plates.”
Online hub, fast growth
What happens when a chef, obsessed with using local ingredients, finds he’s spending more time finding and ordering food than actually cooking it? If it’s Matt Tortora, he starts a tech company and builds an online platform to connect chefs directly to local producers.
Tortora and his team at Rhode Island-based Crave Food Services Inc. launched WhatsGood (whatsgood.services) in April 2015, after establishing Crave a year earlier. In the process, they are attempting to pioneer a for-profit, online, wholesale food marketplace that intentionally ignores warehouses and trucks but still manages to provide a predictable and profitable tool for farmers and a sustainable supply of local products for institutions, schools and restaurants.
In a few months, WhatsGood, has drawn in 300 producers from New England (with an additional 150 from outside the region) and holds over 400 purchasing accounts in the region.
The platform is free for producers and buyers to join. WhatsGood charges a 1.5 percent fee once a sale is generated through the marketplace. Tortora reports that WhatsGood’s wholesale buyers are often surprised to find that buying local costs the same, or even less in some cases, than buying from broad-line distributors, such as Sysco.
“What we’re doing with institutions is essentially a wholesale CSA,” Tortora said. “We’re contract farming what products the institutions are looking for. Although many local producers are not capable of meeting the volume needed by even a single university we work with, a few local producers growing together often can.”
Where the rubber meets the road
Black River Produce has been hooking up hotels, resorts, restaurants, food co-ops and retail grocers with local food for almost four decades. The company works with 150 farms in a geographic sweep that starts near their headquarters in North Springfield, Vermont, down through western Massachusetts and into New York.
Black River (http://www.blackriverproduce.com) recently added Black River Meats to its line of products. By using new market tax credits to build a $9 million meat processing plant, it expanded to add a crucial piece of infrastructure that will, in part, alleviate a shortage of slaughterhouses in New England.
Its 37 trucks deliver six days a week throughout Vermont, New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Black River’s products are also used in Sodexo’s meat and seafood program, which gives it a broader reach into colleges, including Amherst College in western Massachusetts.
Black River’s Sean Buchanan, also a retired chef, said the company recently collaborated with Champlain Valley Farm to secure a Value-Added Producer Grant to answer the demand for locally raised pork and to build that brand. In Buchanan’s mind, there’s no reason locally grown food can’t infiltrate Price Chopper, Stop & Shop and Hannaford’s (where Black River Meats can now be found). There’s opportunity for real growth there, and farmers are responding to that demand. While college and university accounts are great, the growing season peaks when educational institutions are closed or have low demand, and mainstream grocery stores are a consistent market.
“Producers are getting better at growing to specific specs,” Buchanan said. “Over the last three years farmers markets have gotten saturated. Farmers are looking at new markets. It’s risky, but they need to be diversified.”
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In Buchanan’s view, increasing local farmers’ capacity is key, but there is a shift that society has to make. “We want to grow our own food. We want a strong vibrant agricultural economy. We don’t need to be importing 95 percent of our food. I see it increasing, but we have to keep going, we have to keep our foot on the pedal. Our work’s not done until we only have to import olive oil, coffee and chocolate.”
As for New England Farmers Union’s role in a shifting food system that is increasingly more locally focused, Buchanan, who attended a National Farmers Union Legislative Fly-In in 2012, was bullish.
“We love the fact that you guys are fighting for local farmers. It’s huge. We always want to support you,” Buchanan said. If you see the value to a strong local farm economy, join New England Farmers Union at http://www.newenglandfarmersunion.org.