It’s the height of the harvest season, and New Hampshire’s farmers continue to look for ways to make the business of small farming profitable in an age of industrial agriculture. On the Seacoast, one group of farmers is using technology and cooperation to expand beyond the farmers market.
Local Food Can Be Inefficient
At Flatbread pizza in Portsmouth, head chef Ryan LeBossiere chops organic California onions.
Last year, LeBossiere started trying to source more ingredients locally. It required juggling phone and email orders, plus pickups and deliveries from more than five farms. On Saturdays, he’d pick up more produce from the farmers market.
He says unfortunately, it just took too much time.
In the meantime, twenty miles away in Brentwood, farmer Kate Donald was struggling to get her produce beyond the farmers’ market. “Every week I was emailing out a list of the products we had available to chefs I was willing to deliver to,” she says, “which were in very close proximity to our farm.” She didn’t have the time to make many deliveries, or the quantity of food to guarantee everything would be available in bulk.
Other New England states, like Vermont and Maine, have long established distributors and and food hubs that help small farmers achieve economies of scale -- together. Not so in New Hampshire.
Until this spring.
The Three Rivers Solution
That’s when three farmers got to gether to form the Three Rivers Farmers Alliance. Donald, Heron Pond Farm’s Andre Cantelmo, and Josh Jennings of Meadow’s Mirth Farm each tossed about $1,100 in to buy a customized smartphone application.
Amy McCann runs the Oregon software startup, Local Food Marketplace, that developed the application. “We serve customers in 26 or 27 states,” she says. “Fundamentally, they all aggregate and distribute local food.”
How It Works
Twice a week, the farmers log all of their available produce. Chefs at restaurants, retirement communities and even grocery store managers select what they need on their phones. The quantities available automatically update so the farmers don’t oversell. Farm hands can print out updated pick sheets, harvest and pack the produce, and then the farmers converge on Wednesday mornings.
This way, if a tomato doesn’t have a buyer, it can stay on the vine.
At Meadow’s Mirth Farm in Stratham, Kate Donald slides boxes of red and green lettuce to Cantalmo, who’s organizing them in the back of his farm’s truck. This box is headed for Flatbread, in Portsmouth.
Software Before Hardware
Cantelmo says unlike other third party distributors and food hubs, who might start out raising capital to buy trucks or a warehouse – the coop has been able to scale with no additional overhead. All because they invested in software -- instead of hardware. They cover the New Hampshire Seacoast and Boston’s North Shore, and they’re still growing. On an average Wednesday, the truck makes 23 stops.
Head chef at Flatbread in Portsmouth, Ryan LeBossiere, says now that he has the the app, sourcing ingredients locally is as easy as buying from a large scale distributor. “Literally I can do this order while I’m walking down the stairs to get some chicken from the freezer,” he says.
For LeBossiere, that convenience is necessary if he’s going to source more ingredients locally. But not all chefs are all in.
Turning The Artisanal Into A Commodity
Moxy is a farm-to-table tapas bar around the corner from Flatbread. There, chef Matt Louis, another coop customer, worries what will happen if so many farmers get on board that buying local actually becomes easy. “Does it take away, if it’s too easy?” Louis wonders. “Does it dumb it down?”
Louis understands that local farms’ success depends on their ability to scale. But, he says, if you turn locally grown food into a commodity, by delivering it on a single truck at the click of a button --they will inevitably cook it like a commodity.
On the other hand, says Louis, “If you have a deeper understanding of where that chicken came from, you’re going to treat that chicken and care for that chicken and cook that chicken a lot more carefully than if it just came out of a bag.”
The farmers of the Three Rivers Alliance no doubt appreciate an artisanal approach to food. But co-founder Andre Cantelmo wonders – maybe there’s a technological solution that could help farmers maintain that personal touch with their customers. Perhaps through email, blogs... or social media.