Farmers markets keep booming. In the US, the number of farmers markets has more than doubled in the past decade, with more than 8,100 up and running across the country this year., according to the US Department of Agriculture.
More markets means more opportunities for farmers to sell their wares and for consumers to buy locally produced food directly from growers. But farmers markets operate on limited schedules and often for only part of the year, said Rachel Greenberger, director of Food Sol, a food and business think tank at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. Also, shoppers’ purchases are generally limited by how much they can carry in their own two hands, she said.
So, across the country, a growing number of food entrepreneurs is betting that they can do farmers markets one better, connecting farmers and consumers to help reinvigorate and strengthen regional food systems. “These folks are all, in different ways, trying to say, ‘Let’s build an alternative solution that plays on the basics of good business,'” Greenberger said.
For some of these enterprises, the answer lies in the place where people already do most of their food shopping: the supermarket. “We want to do something that everyone has access to, rather than something niche,” said Kate Siskel, marketing manager for New York City-based Bright Farms.
Bringing farms to markets
Bright Farms builds greenhouses at or near partner supermarkets and then uses them to grow hydroponic tomatoes and lettuce year-round. A one-acre greenhouse can produce up to 1 million pounds of vegetables in a year, Siskel said.
The supermarkets pay nothing for the construction and operation of the greenhouses; they simply agree to buy the vegetables produced at a fixed price for a period of 10 years. With these contracts in hand, Siskel explained, Bright Farms can more easily obtain financing for the projects. One greenhouse is up and running now, she said, and another seven are under development.
Another company, Plainville, Mass.-based Red Tomato, is also focused on getting local food into supermarkets. The organization is essentially a nonprofit distributor: The group buys fruits and vegetables from its 45 partner farms, packages the produce, brands it with the Red Tomato name and sells it to more than 200 retailers across the Northeast.
Marketing the Red Tomato name has been a key part of the group’s strategy, said marketing director Susan Futrell. “We have used our brand as a way to help build relationships and trust in the wholesale market,” she said.
Farming out delivery
Meanwhile, other young companies are skipping the store altogether and delivering local food directly to buyers. Among them: Green BEAN Delivery in the Midwest, FarmersToYou in New England and Good Eggs, which is based in the Bay Area, but plans to expand soon into Los Angeles, New Orleans and New York.
These three companies operate on roughly the same for-profit model: They partner with a range of local food producers, take online orders and then assemble customers’ purchases in a central location. Green BEAN and Good Eggs deliver directly to buyers’ doors; FarmersToYou brings orders to more than a dozen pickup sites in the greater Boston area.
For farmers, these services offer a distribution system that has all but vanished in the last 50 years, said Rob Spiro, co-founder and chief executive of Good Eggs, which made its first delivery in March 2013.
As the food system has become increasingly industrialized, big trucks servicing bigger farms have replaced smaller networks for mid-sized farms, making it difficult for these growers to branch out to new outlets. “City-scaled infrastructures have atrophied,” Spiro said. “It is operating at such a massive scale that smaller producers can’t plug into it.”
For consumers, these services offer both convenience and the transparency that many shoppers crave, said Simeon Chapin, a spokesman for FarmersToYou. “A lot of people feel like they’ve been sold a bill of goods at supermarkets,” he said. “The desire to know who’s growing and producing your food is only growing amongst families.”
Keeping prices low
Affordability is also part of these companies’ missions. By cutting out most of the middlemen, these services are able to keep prices competitive with – or even lower than – those found in the supermarket produce section.
“The way we’ve built our model and our business, it’s not to be a luxury service for just the folks at the top of the hill,” said Green BEAN vice president John Freeland. Today the company has 16,000 customers and makes an average of 9,000 deliveries each week.
The leaders of all these organizations express optimism about their futures. And the work they are doing is an essential part of scaling up local food systems to reach a greater audience, Babson’s Greenberger said.
“We need to kind of extract some the chaos that has been created,” she said, “and build a model that really fits with the local food system.”
This story originally ran on theguardian.com on Sept. 11, 2013.