The Haul That Helps the Small
New Ventures Truck Farms’ Online Orders to Town
By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Twice a month, Laurie Smith and Mark Reinhardt load their refrigerated cargo van with stew beef and steaks, chickens and eggs, honey and salsa. All of it is produced by their Rappahannock and Culpeper County neighbors, and on this particular day all of it is headed to Northern Virginia, where customers who have placed online orders await the van’s arrival at one of six scheduled drop-off points.
“I don’t have to go to the farmers market or the farm anymore,” said Mary Malina, whose home on a leafy Annandale lane doubles as a drop-off location. “The food comes to me.”
Smith and Reinhardt’s year-old business, the Local Flavor, is one in a wave of online enterprises cropping up across the country to connect eaters such as Malina, who want local, farm-fresh food without farmers markets’ lines and limited hours, with farmers who would rather spend time working their fields than hawking their wares.
“Most farmers don’t know much and certainly don’t care much about marketing,” said Cliff Miller, owner of Mount Vernon Farm, whose pastured pork and grass-fed beef and lamb account for the bulk of the Local Flavor’s sales. “If somebody can communicate with the customers in urban areas and ideally even come and pick up at the farm and take it to the urban areas, that’s a big deal.”
Locally grown food accounts for less than 1 percent of total U.S. food sales, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, which hosted its first conference on local food systems on June 26.
But demand is growing. The market research firm Packaged Facts predicts local food sales will rise from $4 billion in 2002 to $7 billion in 2011. According to the USDA, there are 70 percent more farmers markets than there were a decade ago. About 12,500 farms offer community-supported agriculture (CSA) memberships, in which customers buy shares in the farm, assuming some of the farmer’s risk and receiving weekly or monthly boxes of produce in return.
Demand for local food is growing so fast, in fact, that it exceeds supply, said University of Maryland agricultural economist Jim Hanson. That, he said, is encouraging producers and eaters to seek new channels — including virtual farmers markets such as the Local Flavor and On the Gourmet, a Vienna business that launched last year — for getting food from farm to fork.
The Local Flavor was born in April 2008 when Miller, who had been taking online orders for four years, handed over his customer list to Smith and Reinhardt, who have so far kept their day jobs as a freelance marketer and Web site developer. They recruited eight other farmers to sell their products, which vary according to the season, through a common Web site.
For farmers, filling Web orders is less risky than traveling to a market where they never know what’s going to sell, said Joel Salatin of Virginia’s storied Polyface Farm, who earns half of his revenue delivering orders made online to the D.C. area.
“This way it is nonspeculative,” he said. “Everything is presold before we go.”
Smith and Reinhardt deliver to Warrenton and Fredericksburg in addition to making the Northern Virginia run, which includes stops in Reston, Sterling, Alexandria, Arlington, Annandale and — as of June — Fairfax City. More than 1,200 families are on their e-mail list. There is no restriction on how often or how much they buy, and about 100 place orders in any given month, Smith said.
Orders average $100, she said, but range from $9 for two dozen eggs to $500 for weeks’ worth of beef, chicken and lamb. Meat is by far the biggest draw, and Mount Vernon’s thick-cut, uncured bacon — more sweet than smoky — is difficult to keep in stock. The Remington Pepper Co.’s salsa has also earned a following; the chipotle variety is made from home-smoked local peppers, the “gourmet” variety from a blend of herbs and spices, including ginger. “I just kind of fell in love,” said Vicky Reiner, an Arlington court reporter who buys a half-dozen jars each month.
Sarah Fox, who hosts the new Fairfax City drop-off spot, said she spends several hours a day procuring and preparing seasonal, local meals, sometimes wrestling with how to use unusual foods that her husband has a habit of ordering. (“Stew meat, in summer?” she asks.) Echoing arguments articulated by Michael Pollan in his best-selling book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” she said she goes to such lengths because the food is more healthful, is more environmentally friendly and tastes better than food from the grocery store.
“Supporting local farmers is an idea that’s important to me,” said Fox, who grew up on a Virginia farm.
There is no agreed-upon definition for “local,” but Smith and Reinhardt aim to serve farmers and buyers who live within 100 miles of one another. The two either collect a commission from the participating farmers or buy the products outright and resell them at a markup.
Customers pay a flat $4.95 delivery fee, plus a premium for food that’s produced with high quality rather than low price in mind, Smith said. A grass-fed porterhouse steak, for example, costs $18 a pound, nearly twice as much as the grain-fed supermarket variety.
“It’s really worth it,” said Cherry Gaffney of Old Town, picking up filet mignon on a quiet residential street in Alexandria to celebrate her husband’s return home after a year-long tour of duty in Iraq. “What price,” she asked, “do you put on good health?”
Similar businesses are taking hold here in the Washington area and across the country, offering fewer choices, perhaps, than traditional food-comes-to-you services such as Peapod and Washington’s Green Grocers but a stronger allegiance to local farmers. On the Gourmet, a mobile local- and fine-foods business housed in a 24-foot truck, was started last year by a trio who met while working together at the Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts. Sara Guerre said she and Libby Rector Snipe shared a love of food and were considering starting a catering business when they were inspired by the scads of food trucks popping up across the country, from Austin’s mobile creperie to a dessert truck in Manhattan. They bought a 1989 Utilimaster, and Chris Guerre, Sara’s husband, joined them in outfitting it with hardwood floors, custom shelves, a refrigerator and a freezer.
“We thought we could have everything that the farmers market has, and more, in one truck,” said Rector Snipe. A main draw is meat, said Chris Guerre, including Loudoun County lamb and grass-fed bison and beef from Culpeper County’s Buffalo Ridge Farm. Ice cream and milk come from a Pennsylvania creamery, and bloody mary mix hails from West Virginia. They sell a little bit of produce: salad greens, okra and peppers from the Guerres’ 800-square-foot backyard garden in Vienna.
Not all of On the Gourmet’s products are local; customers can pick up foie gras and white fig jam from France along with other high-end imports. But the three have found that local food is what customers want, said Rector Snipe, and they have jettisoned foreign products when they found closer-to-home alternatives. Truffle oil from Italy, for example, has been replaced with a North Carolina variety. It has been a successful strategy so far: The trio opened for business in May 2008 at farmers markets in Great Falls and Alexandria, then started offering online ordering and biweekly home delivery to a dozen customers when the markets closed for winter. In August, they plan to make deliveries weekly, hoping to tap customers who are too busy for farmers markets, and to open a storefront in downtown Vienna.
In Richmond last November, restaurateur Molly Harris launched Fall Line Farms, a for-profit virtual farmers market. She started with 25 customers, but by December, that had quintupled to 125 families. Now, more than 300 families order food from 40 local producers, who deliver weekly to drop-off spots around town.
Michele Credle of Chesapeake, Va., enlisted about 200 customers for her nonprofit buyers’ club, Essentially Organic, which took its first orders in May. Georgia entrepreneur Eric Wagoner has licensed Locallygrown.net, the software he wrote for a virtual farmers market in Athens, to about 100 other markets, most in the Southeast and Midwest.
Eleven food-buying clubs have launched using open-source software developed by the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, which started in 2003 and now boasts between $70,000 and $90,000 in monthly sales. And in the past year, clubs have started in Cleveland; Des Moines; Lehigh, Pa.; central Massachusetts; and Niagara Falls, Ontario, each with a slightly different business model.
The Local Flavor is still young and is not, as Smith put it, “a one-stop shop.” So far this year, the selection of produce has been thin because of the unusually rainy spring. In June, the only vegetable for sale was an heirloom variety of cucumber from Whipple Farms in Rixeyville, Va. But July’s warm days and clear skies have nudged the growing season along, said Smith, and on their next trip to Northern Virginia, the pair expect to offer locally grown peaches, heirloom tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and potatoes.
“This is a seedling,” Reinhardt said of the business. “We’re cultivating it.”