Since fall of last year, I’ve had a bushel of vegetables delivered to my front doorstep every other week. The boxes (recently switched to more-sustainable bags) contain everything from tomatoes to parsnips, fresh herbs to polenta.
The company I get my produce from—From the Farmer—is a locavore-minded company headquartered in Beltsville, Maryland. Founded four years ago with a customer base of one or two hundred, the delivery company now serves 4,000 customers in a 200-square-mile radius, scattered over 600 zip codes in the Maryland, D.C., and NOVA area.
I mentioned the company to Forrest Pritchard, farmer and author of Gaining Ground, last year when talking to him about the future of sustainable farming. He got very excited. This is how you know a market is flourishing, he said—when the intermediaries spring up. When it isn’t just direct farmer-to-consumer sales, like CSAs (community-supported agriculture) and farmer’s markets, but when others step in to facilitate those sales. From the Farmer is a sign, Pritchard said, that sustainable farming is what consumers want—and that they’re trying to get it, even if they don’t have time for farmer’s markets or CSA drops.
So why does From the Farmer do what they do? Is all their produce local? What are their plans for the future? To find out, I drove Thursday to the company’s headquarters.
The warehouse-style building is open and bright. The front room is focused around a large square table, where the FTF team usually eats their meals together. One of the company’s employees had smoked meat for the team’s lunch, and the smell still wafted through the room when I arrived.
Most of the people at From the Farmer are young millennials who probably fit several hipster stereotypes. They drink local artisan coffee, enjoy eating granola, talk a lot about sustainability. But I can’t help but wonder whether it’s these people who will revitalize America’s food landscape—not by circumventing free market models, but by presenting a new ethic of value to the American populace.
Jason Lundberg, co-founder of From The Farmer, walked me through the building as he talked about the company, its customer base and methodology. The company has 21 employees: 14 work during the day, seven during the night. Their space is purposefully community-centric: “no conference rooms, no walls.”
In the back room, two assembly lines of employees were putting vegetables, loaves of Lyon Bakery bread, and Whiffletree Farm eggs into their respective bags. Customers can either opt for an automatic selection of produce, or customize their bag according to their tastes (i.e., more carrots, no cabbage, and a loaf of Jewish rye).
Lundberg explained the timeline: the farmers usually pick their produce around 5 a.m., and the company’s trucks pick it up by 8. The trucks return to FTF headquarters around 11 a.m., and everything is packed by 6 or 7 p.m. The trucks leave for deliveries around 10 p.m., and work all through the night. “It’s about a 24-hour turnaround,” he said.
I have noticed that the FTF bags will occasionally contain oranges or avocados. I’m not complaining—both items have been fresh and flavorful—but I was curious as to how the company incorporates this into their local vision. Lundberg said this is a way for them to satiate customer’s needs and desires, while also helping fund future local sales. Their vision is to buy mostly local, but to occasionally supplement with “non-local, honest” items. Most of the farmers the company works with are the same ones they partnered with four years ago—and they hope to continue working with them in the future.
I’ve also been surprised at the pristine assortment of vegetables in my basket—in fact, they’ve been spotless enough to leave me skeptical. If this is farm-fresh, shouldn’t there be some ugly ducklings in the bunch? Jason explained that they’re very picky about what they put in their bags—and they have to be, because customers are likely to complain about any bruised or less-than-perfect produce. (This is a consistent American dilemma: consumers are used to pristine fruits and vegetables, and their choosiness—combined with careless consumption practices—leads to astounding food waste.)
But FTF fights food waste in a couple different ways: first, by conscientiously composting. “We generate one bag of trash per week,” Lundberg said, while gesturing to two large composting bins in the center of the room. They give their composting items to a composting company and a local farm.
FTF is also trying to educate their customer base, to explain that bruised or deformed items are often okay, even delicious. In the meantime, however, they have to be selective. He showed me huge boxes of produce that were deemed “not good enough” by sorters. At first, I was horrified. They all looked perfectly good to me. But Jason said that almost all this rejected produce is either eaten by the FTF team, or donated: to the Montgomery County men’s shelter, to a local Baptist church’s food shelter, or to “Misfit Juicery”—a D.C. company that, as the name suggests, uses bruised or damaged produce to make juices.
Of the company’s sales, approximately 40 percent goes back to the farmers (the percentage is sometimes higher, sometimes lower). Lundberg admitted quickly that, if people want to support their local farmers, the best way to do so is by joining a CSA or visiting a farmer’s market. He ranks his own company fourth in the best ways to support local farmers, behind CSAs, farmer’s markets, and farm co-ops. The company’s flexible schedule, in which customers can turn orders “on” or “off” from week to week, is structured so that customers can take a leave of absence for summer CSAs or a weekend’s farmer’s market.
But FTF has been remarkably successful for a company that chiefly advertises its existence via word of mouth. And much of this success seems to stem from its easy, customizable nature: considering the chaotic lives of many in the D.C. metro area, FTF provides goods to people who may be unable to join a CSA or visit a farmer’s market. By delivering the farm to your doorstep, they cut out a step that many have trouble taking. This intermediary service may be what many farmers need to reach a wider customer base.
Lundberg still has some concerns, however, with the growing online farm-to-consumer market. Throughout our discussion, he emphasized the importance of trusting partnerships: “We want long-term alliances with specific farmers,” Lundberg said. When they picked up their first two apple crates from a local farm four years ago, the farmer never thought he’d see the two city boys and their truck again. Yet Lundberg says they paid that farmer a quarter million dollars last year.
What would happen, though, if an online farmer’s market similar to Amazon were to spring up, with different produce and meat farmers all advertising their various products? In the absence of relationship, Lundberg fears this farmer-Amazon would hurt independent, small enterprises in the same way the real Amazon has hurt small book publishers. “I’m scared about what happens if technology takes over,” he said. This is why locavorism is different, why an emphasis on rootedness in place has become so important to so many food consumers: in a world full of choices, sometimes the best thing you can do is to focus on the choices next door to you.
Lundberg is right that, if you want all of your money to go directly to the farmer, a CSA or farmer’s market is your best bet. But From the Farmer serves a very unique purpose: from its doorstep delivery model to its plans for eliminating food waste, the company presents a vision that is farm-focused, while also transcending the farm.