Farm Direct Distribution

Final Report for FW07-303

Project Type: Professional + Producer
Funds awarded in 2007: $25,444.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2008
Region: Western
State: California
Principal Investigator:
Brigitte Moran
Marin Farmers Market Association
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Project Information

Abstract:

Since spring 2007, significant progress has been made in the development of this unique farmers’ market partnered local distribution program called Farm to Fork (previously Farm Direct).

Initial steps were taken to begin educating and training a small pilot group of producers who are members of the Marin Farmers Markets to participate and help design the program.

Jim Eldon, Fiddler’s Green Farm; Dennis Dierks, Paradise Valley Produce; and Andrew Brait, Full Belly Farms have been integral in designing and developing, advising, and promoting the program. Jim has contributed his long-time expertise in farmers markets and on the needs of local producers, as well as giving input into the administrative paperwork used in the program. Dennis has represented Marin County’s producers’ needs and assists with the program’s development and implementation. Andrew has contributed his knowledge of marketing, food safety, packing and promotion to the program’s development. All three farmers have provided their product and have benefitted from the program; their efforts have allowed many other local small/mid-sized farmers to benefit from the program.

The first few customers of Farm to Fork started during the time period of this grant, and the number of customers has increased steadily since it was initiated. The development of this program has progressed more rapidly than originally planned, in response to positive feedback on the part of customers and participating producers. In 2007, during the initial start-up and development phase of Farm to Fork, delivered one day a week, about $100,000 of locally grown and produced foods were purchased through the program by local institutions. In 2008, the revenue brought in through the program doubled and the program instituted a small mark up to help cover program costs. The income generated from the program for 2008 was about $200,000.

During this developmental period, the program has stayed small and manageable, growing in small increments. Despite the declining economy, sales have grown steadily and the program maintains a positive and growing contribution to both customers’ and farmers’ businesses. One challenge has been that for some customers, Farm to Fork is not replacing their bigger distributor. Price conscious and accustomed to getting out-of-seasonal products, some customers’ orders are relatively small. More education, recruitment of knowledgeable and dedicated customers and ongoing encouragement will be helpful to engage customers at a higher level.

Introduction

In 2007, Marin Farmers Market Association (MFM) began developing Farm Direct (renamed: Farm to Fork), a local food distribution effort aimed at linking locally grown farm fresh foods with institutional food service customers and food businesses in Marin County. This locally-based pilot for a farm fresh food distribution and education program is being developed as a unique model of local food procurement and delivery systems; aimed at serving local institutions, businesses and organizations. MFM is committed to sharing this model and lessons learned with other interested communities.

MFM and its partner producers have benefitted from Western SARE’s support to develop and pilot Farm to Fork, which partners with farmers in two local farmers markets. Over the last nearly two years, Farm to Fork’s activities have resulted in farm fresh products being purchased directly from farmers markets by local hospitals, schools and restaurants. The program has simultaneously created a brand new opportunity for small, sustainable farmers in our markets to add boxes of product to their farmers market-bound truck, to be loaded on a single truck delivering direct to local business and institutional customers.

In 2008, MFM and the Marin Agricultural Institute (MAI) – a close affiliated organization of MFM – determined that MAI was best positioned to develop Farm to Fork and take it to the next level. This decision, that clarified a continued partnership, gradually led to the transition where MAI now plays the lead role in the administration of the program.

MFM views its role in starting Farm to Fork as helping to spawn a new trend for local food distribution programs to be created. Demand for locally grown sustainable food products has been growing. However, systems have not been in place to meet the increasing institutional and business desire for locally produced foods, straight from the farm.

The development of an exciting new local food paradigm demands the willing investment of innovative thinkers, dedicated funders, as well as producers and customers committed to get to know each other’s needs and stories. It will take a number of years to develop the new systems that are necessary, to establish them firmly and enlarge the foothold on a marketplace where inertia, or “the way things have been done” has great force behind it. MAI (who will now take the reigns of the program) is enthusiastic about continuing to develop a model program now poised to expand, increase its focus on education and training of producers, share its findings with other communities, and help create this new paradigm, guided by practical experience and effective systems.

Project Objectives:

The initial goal of the project was to increase revenue for participating sustainable farmers by a total of $700,000 in the first full year. The first full year (consisting of two or three days of delivery per week) is planned for 2009. The last year and a half has been dedicated to developing order management and accounting systems, improving these systems to make them more efficient, purchasing a truck, developing initial marketing materials, growing a customer base and a producer group for the program, and beginning to share our lessons learned with others.

After nearly two years of on-the-ground experience, the $700,000 target for next year is on the high side. However, the program can certainly expand and increase sales beyond this initial development phase. What is needed to expand and improve the program includes:

• Additional training for local food producers, both current participants and potential participants in the program

• Education and recruitment of additional customers

• Increased marketing assistance to local producers and for customers

• Additional improvements in efficiency in the current systems that are in place to run the program

The Marin Farmers Market Association designed Farm to Fork to accomplish five specific goals, as stated in our original proposal:

Goal 1: Promote stewardship of our natural resources by directly supporting small, local and sustainable family farms.

This goal is being accomplished by the project by helping support 70 local food producers, many of whom are certified organic, do not use pesticides, and/or who grow diversified crops on a small to medium scale.

Goal 2: Promote and improve the economic viability for our member producers.

This goal is being accomplished by the project generating revenue (to date $300,000) that contributes to the economic viability of their business with negligible cost.

Goal 3: Support a direct connection between customer and farmer, which increases the investment on both sides to support quality products and sustainable practices.

This goal is being accomplished through assisting customers with accessing locally grown product and by teaching them and their clients about the farms they are sourcing from. These educational programs involve signage at the customer’s sites, access to an informative website, a brochure and presentations about the benefits of buying from local producers.

Goal 4: Encourage product/crop diversification by increasing direct market opportunities for farmers to provide new products to educated customers.

This goal is being accomplished by the project through training and by adding more farmers who are participating in the Farm to Fork program. When educating producers, we let them know that a diverse product selection and planting practices are desirable to the customer. Participating farmers are learning that the producers with more diverse crop and sustainable methods are having greater success in the program.

Goal 5: Improve our understanding of the economic, social and environmental implications of adopting sustainable practices by demonstrating the economic and environmental benefit (revenue and miles saved) of purchasing from local farms.

This goal is being accomplished by the project through researching and reviewing published reports, by tracking the distance that each of our producers travels to the central drop off for the program, and by developing our own reports on the impact of our work.

Research

Materials and methods:

MFM, in out initial proposal, outlined four primary methods for developing this pilot program, which are included here:

1) Research distribution systems: The Marin Farmers Market conducted research on the following distributors: Veritable Vegetable, Marin Produce, and North Bay Produce, and did a general survey of other area distributors including US Foods and Sysco.

2) Develop easy-to-use ordering and delivery systems: Given the early stages of development of this program, the Marin Farmers Market initially developed a simple system using Excel, MS Word and Quickbooks to process data related to product availability, delivery, etc. We then began concurrently working with a consultant team to develop a database based order processing system that is more integrated, automated, streamlined and user-friendly. This process has taken longer than planned for, given that no prior local sourcing and distribution software existed. As of late fall 2008 we have been testing the software and began using it in-house in December 2008. We plan to launch the customer ordering interface in early 2009.

3) Train producers: Producers who were part of the initial team assisted in the design and development of the Farm to Fork program. We then provided other participating producers with individual mini-trainings on how to participate. On a regular basis, both the cooperating farmers and staff have helped other farmers learn and improve their packaging and labeling to match the quality and standards of the program. Farmers have been taught the systems of the program and are mostly well trained and effectively communicate their product availability and participation to make the program run smoothly.

4) Conduct educational outreach to producers and customers: Farm to Fork is a new program both for the producers in the markets and for institutional customers. Marin Farmers Market has developed and used handouts, brochures, fliers and emails, presentations, and marketing tools to reach out to and provide information for both producers and customers. Attached to this report you will find a sample of our activities, included in the photo collection and handouts provided.

The methods involved in successfully carrying out the program on a regular basis are described in this section. Farm to Fork works because it includes a number of precise, clearly defined steps, required clear and timely communication between the producers and the staff and the customers and the staff, and logistics management (including pick up and delivery). Accounting and marketing and education are done with attention to detail as well as with a clear message.

The procedures involved in successfully preparing for and delivering for a single day’s orders starts three to four days prior to the day of delivery. The first step in a delivery cycle involves receiving calls and faxed forms on three days before the order is to be delivered (in our case on Thursdays and Mondays). This “product availability” information is received by a designated time, for efficiency, and compiled into an order form, which is then sent to customers and potential customers by a specific time. The order window is set and customers have about 24 hours to review available products and place their order – this occurs two or three days before the delivery. Then, once all of the orders have been placed by the designated deadline, orders are processed, communicated to the appropriate farmers and entered into a series of forms – forms to fax and call in to farmers their orders, which serve also as a receipt for product at the time of drop off.

After all orders have been communicated, preparations for the day of delivery are completed, which include finalizing all forms, setting the order of delivery drop offs, making copies of any forms, etc. Customers have “packing slip” like forms that they also receive at the time of delivery which are generated by the program in duplicate. On the day of delivery, which is timed to coincide with the farmers market, pre-ordered and specially packed and labeled product is dropped to a refrigerated truck which has staff ready to organize and load the boxes of product. After all product is received and the truck packed, as well as all receiving documents given out in exchange for product received, the delivery commences. Delivery order is determined by location and traffic patterns. Deliveries are completed and all post-delivery reconciliation and invoicing occurs after the delivery day. Billing, receiving and processing payments, and paying out to farmers is all completed – after every delivery to customers and once a month to farmers.

Research results and discussion:

We have been developing and operating Farm to Fork with very positive outcomes for both customers and producers. Promotion of local products, distribution, product receipt, delivery, invoicing, and other functions are being provided as a service through this program.

The outcomes and impacts of Farm to Fork are both immediate and long-term. Farm to Fork brings additional income to producers on a weekly basis during the time they participate. This additional income averages about $4,500 per producer annually. Local customers are learning more about local food production, which means, ideally, that we are generating long-term loyalties to purchasing from these local producers.

In order to determine the perceived value of the program and to evaluate its success for both farmers and customers, in August of 2008 we conducted two short questionnaires. Although the limited number of respondents means it is not statistically rigorous, personal comments were especially informative about the program. Ten customers out of about 26 regular (weekly or bi monthly) customers responded, and about 10 producers out of about 25 participating at the time we evaluated the program. Due to the timing of the survey — August is a very busy time for farmers — fewer than desired food producers responded to the questionnaire. To receive more input in further inquiries, MAI plans to complete its second survey at a slower point in the growing season, and will couple this modification with an incentive to respond.

Summary of Program Survey Reponses
Scale of 1-5 (1=poor, 2=ok, 3=good, 4=very good, 5=excellent)

Farmers Responses:

Rate the benefit to your business (r = 11): 3.2 out of 5

Rate the quality of the program (r = 11): 3.7 out of 5

Note: One farmer gave a very low number for both because his product diversity was low, what he offered was not desirable, and he was not in the program for a longer period to evaluate from much experience. Because of the small pool of respondents, this skewed the response to be lower.

Comments made by farmers:
See Attached Farm to Fork Survey Responses

Customers Responses:

Rate the quality of the product (r=10): 4.3 out of 5

Rate the quality of the services provided (r=10): 4.9 out of 5

Comments made by customers:
See Attached Farm to Fork Survey Responses

Impacts

Farm to Fork was developed with the guidance of a planned timeline that shaped the activities of the project. We have noted progress and impacts made for each planned activity.

Summer 2007: Meet with producers to finalize distribution program and marketing plans; develop software program and systems

Progress: We met with producers participating in the program in late winter, spring, and summer 2007. Producers involved in the initial development were engaged in conversations to envision the program’s structure starting before the application was submitted to Western SARE. We developed a simple system for processing orders and invoicing and have been working with a consultant to develop a more efficient system that we have been pilot testing and will launch January 2009.

Fall 2007: Launch pilot program with a small group of farmers and 2-3 business customers

Progress: Farm Direct was renamed Farm to Fork. It was launched with a small group of producers that quickly grew to on average 18-30 receiving orders per delivery day and a total of 70 farmers in 2008. We currently have two delivery days, and some of the farmers participate in both, while others are unique to one of the days.

In order to be a service that meets the needs and interests of customers, a diversity of product choices is essential. Also, there are many producers in the market who became interested after the program started up.

Winter 2008: Evaluate what producers need to know for successful participation; create outreach materials; do educational outreach about program to producers

Progress: We have been constantly updating the communications, handouts, and training to producers, with the input that we receive from both customers and producers. In anticipation of Farm to Fork being a program of the Marin Agricultural Institute starting late 2008, Marin Agricultural Institute developed a brochure on how to buy local foods and uses the program Farm to Fork as a model.

Spring 2008: Evaluate efficiency and income development; offer program to producer membership; provide training on ordering system; market program with brochures

Progress: Farm to Fork instituted a mark-up to be able to cover a portion of the operating expenses starting in 2008. The total dollars from this mark-up was about $26,000 in 2008. This means that the program is moving toward greater self-sufficiency. However, this still needs work to balance out the cost to run the program.

All involved staff were trained on the new ordering system that has been developed and tested. We have begun using the new system in-house and plan an early full launch in 2009.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Farm to Fork, while developing a program that has new systems and a unique model for connecting local institutions and businesses with local farm products, has begun to share some of its progress and accomplishments, as well as process and lessons learned, through a variety of media. We have utilized the Internet, e-newsletters, newspaper, paper newsletters and presentations to tell the story.

Farm to Fork has been featured in publications, including those listed below:

Marin Independent Journal – Newspaper article
“Initiative brings locally grown food to schools, nonprofits,” by Jennifer Upshaw, Marin Independent Journal: November 2007

Marin Independent Journal – Newspaper article
“Grocer Connects With Local Farmers,” by Nancy Isles Nation, Marin Independent Journal: January 2008

Comcast Local Television Channel 26 – Local Public Access Television
A taped interview about Farm to Fork, to be included in a story for public access TV.

Roots of Change – E-newsletter/Online Publication:
Farm to Fork: Delivering Another Piece of a Sustainable Local Food System, June 23, 2008
By Leah Smith, Marin Farmers Market Association

Marin Agricultural Institute Website – Press Release
Farm to Fork Delivers Fresh and Local Produce to Community at Large 05/04/08

Marin Farmers Markets Website – Press Release
Farm to Fork Delivers Fresh and Local Produce to Community at Large, San Rafael, June 12, 2008

Grown in Marin – Online and Mailed Newsletter Publication
Farm to Fork Delivers, January 2008
Grown in Marin Website and mailed to nearly 500 people and organizations, including many local producers Article:

Grown in Marin – Online and Mailed Newsletter Publication
Article: Marin Agricultural Institute and Farm to Fork Update!
Grown in Marin Website and mailed to local producers and food systems community Article: Dec/Jan 2009

How to Serve Local Food – Marin Agricultural Institute Brochure
Designed, published and distributed by the Marin Agricultural Institute to hundreds of people

Outreach to the public about this program has started, with the support of Western SARE. Presentations about Farm to Fork, a developing model, have been made with groups including following:

Healthy Choices Healthy Communities Seminar, San Rafael, CA September 2008

CA School Wellness Conference Presentation, Anaheim, CA October 2007

Catch the Wellness Spirit, San Rafael, CA a school wellness event in which we presented about Farm to Fork on November 2007

Nutrition Event with Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, San Rafael, CA October 2008

Innovative Trends in Marketing Farm Products, Pt Reyes Station, CA UC Cooperative Extension’s Grown in Marin Workshop, Spring 2007

We would like to present this model further and hope to raise funds to support our ability to attend national conferences where we can share the lessons learned and best practices of the program discovered to date.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Measuring the accomplishments of this program includes both quantitative and qualitative assessments.

Both farmers and customers have given positive feedback about Farm to Fork. Below are two quotes published in an article put out by UC Cooperative Extension’s publication Grown in Marin titled “Farm to Fork Delivers,” January 2008:

“The logistics work out really well for us because we are already harvesting for the Thursday Marin Farmers Market at the same time as for Farm to Fork. It’s great because we already know we’ve sold product before we get to the market. Distribution of our product wholesale is key to our business model. Beyond benefiting us directly, Farm to Fork is a way to decrease our carbon footprint by adding more product to the trucks that are already heading to the market,” said David Redsky, farmer of County Line Harvest.

“Previously when I wanted fresh local products to serve for our lunch program or a special event, I would have to take my wagon and a stack of cash to the farmer’s market. Now it comes to our back door via the Farm to Fork program, which enables us to better support local farmers and offer their wonderful products to our students daily,” said Branson School’s Chef Richard Bartlett. The convenience, freshness and quality of product, sustainable growing practices and distance from farm to fork appeal to our customers.

Other notable customers include Autodesk, Comforts Café, Katie Powers Catering, Acre Gourmet, Kentfield Rehabilitation Center, Walker Creek Ranch, Branson School, Guide Dogs for the Blind, Marin County Health and Human Services and more.

Qualitative accomplishments to date include:

• Average number of producers receiving orders each week: 18-30
• Average number of customers placing orders each week: 10-25
• Weekly average income per farmers (using 22 as the number of farmers): $189 per week
• Average estimated annual income generated per farmer: $4,500
• Total income generated for farmers March through Dec 2007: About $100,000
• Total income generated through the Farm to Fork Program through Dec 2008: About $200,000
• Total Producers who have participated in Farm to Fork: 70

More than 70 culturally diverse local food producers have participated in the Farm to Fork Program in 2008, this is an increase over 2007 during which 61 producers participated
Although this total matches the targeted number of participating producers, many of them are seasonal and therefore only participated for a few months of the year. Therefore their income reflects a shorter time period of participation.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

The contributions of this program are unfolding and will continue to be apparent as the model becomes more fully developed and the range of people we reach with what we have learned grows.

To date, we have shared our activities and lessons learned with the following:

Chef’s Collaborative: We participated in interviews with a researcher for the Chef’s Collaborative who was examining local distribution models for communities they work to consider emulating. Chefs Collaborative works with chefs and the greater food community to celebrate local foods and foster a more sustainable food supply. The Collaborative inspires action by translating information about our food into tools for making knowledgeable purchasing decisions. Chefs Collaborative currently has two active chapters in Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon.

UC Cooperative Extension: Farm to Fork has had two articles included in UC Cooperative Extension Publication called Grown in Marin, which is shared with agricultural organizations, food producers in Marin County, politicians and decision-makers, funders and other food and farm related organizations. Through this sharing and exposure, we believe that readers of all variety can benefit.

UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP): In 2007, Farm to Fork Program Director was interviewed by Tracy Perkins, UC Berkeley Labor Center, UC Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education Program, Community Development Graduate Group who was interested in our developing model for local food procurement.

Center for Food and Justice (CFJ), Urban and Environmental Policy Institute, Occidental College: For their March 2008 publication, CFJ included the “Farmers Market Hub” model as a potential model for the Los Angeles region to replicate. This model description was based on the Farm to Fork program and was learned about through an interview with the Marin Farmers Markets.

Om Direct/Farmsreach: Marin Farmers Markets has worked with Om Direct/Farmsreach over the last year and a half to help them develop their local food procurement software. In working with them we have shared our program, which they, in turn, have shared with other communities they are working with and with clients they work with across the United States.

Future Recommendations

Farm to Fork plans to expand the number of producers and the number of customers served in the coming months and year. Our goal is to have a fully launched program by 2009, which would include 2-3 days of delivery from the Marin Agricultural Institute working in partnership with the Marin Farmers Markets. We look forward to fully integrating our newly designed custom software to manage this program. We will continue to evaluate and invite input from producers and customers to improve the program. We also look forward to sharing our lessons learned, challenges and opportunities, and accomplishments with other organizations.

Model programs like Farm to Fork are spurring a new way of connecting local institutional customers with local sustainable food producers. This new paradigm will take time and resources to set down roots and develop momentum to reshape our food system in the United States. As a visionary, unique program, Farm to Fork steps out into exploring the question of how to create new systems that will serve local and sustainable food producers to be able to market locally. We recommend that the financial support for developing local distribution models, which have positive consequences for health, local economic vitality, the environment, local farm communities, and much more, continue to be directed toward shaping this new paradigm.

For other communities interested in developing a local food procurement and distribution program, we recommend working with a group of experienced and big-picture thinking farmers, engaging and surveying local institutions and businesses to determine the level of demand for local food, developing simple and effect systems that work to serve the specific needs of the community, and enlisting partners who have experience, infrastructure, and resources.

What we believe is both unique and what really works about this model is the “stacking functions” aspect to this project. Farmers are already coming to one location to sell their product to individuals and families at the farmers markets. They are packing, preparing signs, driving to a location by a certain time and more. These efforts do not need to be duplicated for a farmer to participate in Farm to Fork. It is easy for the farmer to add presold boxes to their farmers market-bound trucks. It is easy for a customer to get one delivery and one invoice from a group of local farmers, rather than what is often the alternative to be able to get local food, which either to go to a farmers market (like some chefs do) or they have to receive multiple deliveries, deal with different payment schedules, place many orders and deal with a number of invoices. We encourage other communities and groups interested in local food procurement to consider how to save energy, resources, time, labor, and fuel while accomplishing the goals of your program.

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.