The Rhode Island "Market Mobile":  Easing channels for distribution for farmers and food buyers

Final Report for CNE09-058

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2009: $21,777.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: Northeast
State: Rhode Island
Project Leader:
Sheri Griffin
Farm Fresh Rhode Island
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Project Information

Summary:

Rhode Island farmers have seen an explosion of interest in locally grown fruit, vegetables, eggs, meat, cheese, and other locally produced items. Chefs, school food service administrators, and other food buyers are no exception – many prefer to source food from their local growers and producers.

Rhode Island farmers have worked to take advantage of this renewed enthusiasm. Distribution to local restaurants, schools, and other wholesale food buyers is central to the financial viability of the small-acreage farm, but it is challenging for local farmers and food buyers to find enough time to cultivate those relationships. Wholesale relationships are important to the survival of farms, as they allow for a consistent and somewhat predictable source of income. Still, farmers are amongst the busiest workers in the food system, and rarely have time to coordinate orders from several different food buyers and manage deliveries. Farmers are already busy with tasks on the farm, weeding and harvesting, and setting up weekly at farmers’ markets.

In 2009, Farm Fresh Rhode Island created the pilot phase of the Rhode Island Market Mobile, which coordinated orders and deliveries between farms, specialty food producers, and food buyers. In its first year, Market Mobile moved over $250,000 of local food across the state. Market Mobile is now in its own warehouse and is now independent of the farmers market where it was launched. Warehouse development and investment in other pieces of infrastructure are planned for the 2010 season to keep up with program demand. Continuous outreach to potential buyers has not stopped since Market Mobile’s launch and it continues to grow. Farm Fresh has two dedicated staff members who work 50% time on the program, and hires drivers and rents trucks to distribute local food across the state.

Project Objectives:

A successful Market Mobile Program will offer the following results:

• A 25% increase in local food purchases from participating restaurants, compared to purchases made in the summer and fall of 2008

• A 20% increase in wholesale profits for participating farms, compared to the 2008 growing season

These targets are a little hard to track precisely, because of the poor farming season in 2009. Blight and poorly timed rain wrecked key crops in the Rhode Island agriculture economy, including tomatoes, potatoes and strawberries. However, it is possible to note that the sales through Market Mobile grew exponentially. In June 2009, weekly order totals were less than $2,000. By September 2009, weekly totals were $7,000-$10,000. Even into January 2010, weekly order totals have exceeded $6,000.

• Consistent weekly purchases from participating restaurants, schools, and other food buyers (90% participation throughout the Market Mobile Program).

Market Mobile has had 80 customers to date. Weekly orders consistently reach over 40 customers. While these customers switch and change based on tourist, academic, holiday and other schedules, the weekly total order and number of customers has grown consistently and steadily for the life of the program.

Farm Fresh Rhode Island has had to update the Market Mobile staffing plans continuously, due to higher than expected volume. In the period of June – December 2009, Market Mobile consistently used 4-5 staff members and 2-4 volunteers for sorting and loading, and then used 2-3 truck drivers and assistants for deliveries, on Market Mobile days. Due to the higher than expected volume, Market Mobile was not tied to a farmers market, as was the case from January – May, 2009. During non-sorting days, Farm Fresh staff worked to promote and administer the project. Outreach efforts created new delivery routes, diversified the type of customers, and researched ways to reach institutions serving special audiences, such as hospitals, day cares, schools and corner stores.

Noah Fulmer, Executive Director and website programmer, improved the Market Mobile software to track sales, customers, inventories and harvest data, as well as refining the invoicing system. The Market Mobile Coordinator refined the bookkeeping system to track the accounts payable and receivable, and created a system for reconciling the ordered amount from the delivered amount – a considerable job, especially when working with larger restaurants’ and universities’ business offices.

Introduction:

Farm Fresh Rhode Island is growing a local food system that values the environment, health and quality of life of RI farmers and eaters. There are six full time staff members, as well as seasonal staff, interns and numerous volunteers. Farm Fresh runs numerous programs that link local farms and buyers by building RI’s capacity in three areas: producers markets and eaters. Market Mobile arose from a desire to re-conceive the wholesale market in Rhode Island so that it would better serve local farmers. Interviews and research conducted by Farm Fresh indicted that farms, chefs, schools and other buyers yearned to connect, but that most lacked the time to make the numerous connections needed to create a robust system.
Farm Fresh set out to create an easy online ordering system that made it easy for customers to purchase from local farms and food producers, while protecting farm identity and guaranteeing a fair price to farmers. The software was developed in house with Executive Director Noah Fulmer, who happens to be a programmer.
Through the online system, farmers post their product list over the weekend, customers order on Mondays and products are delivered on Thursday. Farm Fresh rents trucks and hires drivers every week to make deliveries of local products around the state.
Market Mobile began in January 2009 with a small group of farmers from the Saturday Wintertime Farmers Market in Pawtucket and chefs whom Farm Fresh had previous relationships. A dedicated staff member and summer interns reached out to customers across the state over the winter, making in person and phone calls, and developed outreach materials to hand out. Word-of-mouth among Rhode Island chefs was also a strong factor in bringing new customers on board. Another staff member was in charge of working with farmers, coordinating delivery routes, and administrative tasks relating to the program.
Key pieces of infrastructure for the successful operation of the program include adequate refrigerator and freezer space and refrigerated trucks. During the summer months, refrigerated trucks can be difficult to rent on a once-a-week basis. Therefore, good relations with a local truck rental company were crucial for ensuring there would be refrigerated trucks on delivery days.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Noah Fulmer

Research

Materials and methods:

Program Beginnings
Farm Fresh Executive Director Noah Fulmer happens to be a programmer and therefore created the online inventory, ordering and invoicing system. This allowed Farm Fresh could develop this system in-house, but similar online systems are available for purchase.

As the Market Mobile was launched at Farm Fresh’s Wintertime Market in January 2009, Farm Fresh invited all the farms at the market to participate. Most did. A few other farms (not selling at the market) were invited to participate, to supplement the amount and range of products available. Purchasers that Farm Fresh had prior contact with were recruited to buy. These included high-end restaurants, a coffee shop, a diner and two universities.

Ordering System and Participants
The Market Mobile ordering system is easy and accessible for producers and buyers.
• Friday to Sunday: Every week, Farm Fresh works with local producers to list their produce for sale online. Producers log onto the Market Mobile site and enter what items are available this particular week, the quantity available, and the price per unit. (Farm brands and individual pricing are preserved.)
• Monday: Chefs, grocers and schools receive an e-mail reminder with information about "What's Fresh" on Market Mobile. They log onto the site to place orders for specific items from specific vendors. For example, they specify they want Hill Orchards Macoun apples, not just apples.
• Tuesday: Orders are e-mailed to farmers for harvesting. Farmers sort orders by customer. • Thursday: Farms arrive at delivery hub and drop off orders. Farm Fresh staff and volunteers load orders onto trucks for delivery statewide. Farm Fresh invoices customers weekly and pays farmers bi-weekly. There is no delivery fee for customers, but 10% of sales go to cover the costs of the Market Mobile delivery.
Through the online system, farms completely maintain their brand and their pricing. For example, buyers purchase Barden Orchards Macintosh apples at the price that Barden sets. Farm Fresh takes 10% of farmer sales to cover costs. Farms deliver once per week (currently). Market Mobile is currently delivering to 45-50 customers per week. Farmers are paid bi-weekly.

The program started out with a small number of farmers, most of whom were at the Wintertime Farmers Market and previously known to the organization. As the summer season began, new farmers were recruited to join the program to meet customer demand and supply new products. This included several mid-sized farms whom had wholesale operations and had not previously been involved in any of Farm Fresh’s market programs. Additional farmers were brought on during the winter of 2009-2010 as the product supply and availability changed with the season.

As of May 2009, there are 32 farms on Market Mobile. Ninety percent of these farms are from Rhode Island and Massachusetts and travel less than one hour to reach our distribution center. In the height of the produce growing season, Market Mobile will offer just about every fruit or veggie grown in southern New England, plus meat, cheese and eggs. Seafood from a Maine fishing coop is offered, as is milk from Rhody Fresh, the Rhode Island Dairy Cooperative. Farms from Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Maine are featured.

The Market Mobile is flexible enough to handle small orders from urban corner stores, large purchases from public school districts, and everything in between. This system increases consumption of healthy, local foods, by providing access to eaters at several different points: in their neighborhood grocer, their public school cafeteria or daycare, and their hospital. The Market Mobile also satisfies unmet demand where conventional distributors cannot.

Program Management and Staffing
Farm Fresh Rhode Island, a nonprofit, manages Market Mobile. Management of the system entails
• Management of the software. The software generates a continuously updated inventory (live during updating & ordering periods.)
• Helping vendors to remember to list their products on listing days
• Reminding chefs/buyers to order on order day
• Renting and maintaining licensed warehouse facilities with sufficient cold, frozen & dry storage.
• Hiring staff & staffing the warehouse during drop-off and delivery days
• Renting & insuring trucks, hiring drivers
• Creating routes based on delivery time frames
• Delivering foods, keeping up with any problems with delivery
• Paying farms, collecting money from buyers
• Bookkeeping and accounting for the system
• Continuous outreach to potential new buyers
• Continuous evaluation of product offerings, analyzing supply, locating farms for supply expansion or diversification. Maintaining applications for existing and potential vendors. Keeping insurance and other paperwork for vendors
• Insuring entire system through general liability
• Analyzing growth to invest in capital resources for warehouse

Since the fall of 2009 there have been two staff members who put in about 50% time on Market Mobile management. One is focused on customer outreach and management, while the other manages farmer relationships, program operation and administration. Executive Director Noah Fulmer maintains the website and continues to make improvements. Other staff members contribute to strategic planning, data management, and infrastructure development for the program. All Farm Fresh staff and additional volunteers participate in the actual sorting day. Two hired drivers, an assistant, and a Farm Fresh staffer make deliveries in a rented refrigerated truck on delivery day.

Research results and discussion:

About the Market Mobile pilot year

January to May 2009
The first weekly order was January 10, 2009. Market Mobile began during the winter season to reduce logistical variables during the pilot. For the winter pilot, we capped the number of buyers (delivery sites) at 10-12, all in Providence.

June 2009
We transitioned to order days on Mondays and delivery days on Thursdays so that Market Mobile works better for chefs' schedules. Orders were sorted and delivered from a warehouse in East Providence. Deliveries for this month were limited to Providence to ensure quality service during this transition period. Order minimums were upped to $100 for delivery ($60 for pickup), but otherwise there is no fee for delivery.

July 2009
We began delivering to Newport and East Bay at the start of July and then began Narragansett and West Bay deliveries on July 16.

January 2010
Our warehouse space is now in Pawtucket at Hope Artiste Village, site of the Wintertime Farmers Market. The space now has dedicated cold, freezer and dry storage for Market Mobile
Market Mobile Open House brought together farmers and customers to meet each other and discuss the first year of the program. The meeting was overwhelmingly positive and allowed customers and producers to provide feedback about the program that was incorporated into plans for the 2010 season. Feedback related to issues such as the website improvements, food packaging, product labeling branding, new products. It also provide a space for farmers and customers to meet and discuss desired products to be grown for the following season.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

The pilot year of the Market Mobile program received media attention from local newspapers and magazines. This coverage helped the program garner new customers and new farmers.

Working with national funders and colleagues in the area of sustainable agriculture and healthy communities, it has become clear that Market Mobile should target new buyers who serve economically diverse populations, such as nursing homes, day-cares, hospitals and corner stores. A new outreach effort has coalesced around these efforts.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Across the board, Market Mobile is a great success, with greater volume that anticipated. Market Mobile serves both small and mid-sized farms. It reaches small diners and grocers, mid-sized restaurants and universities. Two food service companies, Aramark and Sodexho, have begun to research using Market Mobile for farm-to-school programs.
A large array of products are available throughout the year on Market Mobile, including seasonal fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy, cheese, eggs, seafood, and other specialty products. We are extremely pleased with the outcomes.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

All farm vendors involved in Market Mobile report an increase in the number of their wholesale customers. Most report a 10-15% increase in sales to this sector. Some report a growth in sales anywhere from 70-300%.

An end-of-year convening gave chefs and growers a chance to connect and discuss crop plans, special items, and harvest calendars. This convening helped farmers feel a stronger connection to growers, and since this convening, weekly sales have gone up 30% (even in the winter!)

Future Recommendations

Further market research on wholesale buyers will benefit local foods distribution projects, including mid-priced restaurants and groceries. Researching models of contract growing and similar buyer-grower relationships would be helpful.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.