Buy Local, Eat Better

Every supermarket chain, including Walmart, would like to see more local food in their grocery stores. Unfortunately, supermarkets' logistics systems are designed for high-volume producers that are not present in all regions of the country. So if the Walmart in Rutland, Vt., wants to sell local produce, it would have a tough time finding that supply. There are only 4,000 acres of vegetable production in the state of Vermont, while there are thousands of single farms in California that are larger than that. 

While supermarkets are a tough venue for closing the volume gap, there are several new start-ups that are more appropriately scaled for helping to increase the production of local food. These start-ups are in their first or second seasons and have names like Farmers To You, Holton Farms, and Graze Delivered. If successful, they will help restore a more regionally-focused food system by connecting the farmer with the consumer, provide simple, transparent explanations for where their food is produced, and serve as an incremental step toward helping local farms move from small to mid-sized acreage.

Their goal is to cut out the middlemen (the distributors and retailers) and nab that alluring retail price at the end of the chain. They’ll deliver all types of food, from dairy to meat to produce, straight from family farms in Vermont to homes and offices in Boston and New York offices. They’re a more convenient and competitively priced farmer’s market, and they have no brick and mortar in the urban areas. While deliveries can be complex and difficult to manage, their retail price is an alluring figure.

These companies are great for several reasons. First, they build the connection between eater and farmer that has been lost for the past 40 years. For instance, Farmers to You has a page on their website where each farm is described with a link to that farm’s website. So, if one of their customers decides that he really enjoys the Farmers To You greens, they can go to the website, determine that Pete’s Greens is responsible for that delicious salad mix, go to Pete’s website and learn all about his business. Maybe even that Boston eater will decide to stop by Craftsbury, Vt., and see the farm some day.

Secondly, being a responsible food purchaser can be confusing. Should I buy the free-range eggs or the cage-free eggs? Or is it pastured that I want? Natural or organic? These companies reduce the decision making. It is clear that their family farms are concerned with having happy workers, plants, and animals, as much as they’re concerned with their bottom line. They’re driven as much by lifestyle as they are by making money.

Lastly, as these start-ups work closely with the farmers to hone in on their skills as mid-sized wholesale growers, the local farms will have yet another reason to increase their plantings, to find another 10 or 20 acres to cultivate in order to satisfy this new market, and to purchase that mechanical green bean harvester, which will allow them to produce green beans at an affordable price.

As with any start-up, there are caveats and serious questions to be answered. Are these business models scalable? Will they be able to reach beyond the wealthy, well-educated consumer? Will their lack of fixed store fronts prevent them from tapping into the 60% of Americans who buy their produce from supermarkets? Only time will tell.

Photo Credit: David Dolginow