Friday, October 15, 2010

Just an Idea...

Have you become accustomed to doing much of your food shopping at your local farmers' market? Is the market closing down soon for the year as winter approaches? Do you happen to live either in a densely populated neighborhood, or near a few major crossroads in a more rural area? If so, I have an idea for you.

See, our farmers' markets finish up after Thanksgiving here. Fruit and vegetable producers are pretty thin in the cold months of the year. But farmers producing eggs, meat, and dairy still have food. And they'd still like to sell direct to the consumer rather than a middleman, so as to keep more of the profits in their own pockets. Who can blame them? But with the markets shutting down until spring, these farmers have trouble connecting with their customers. Some will schedule on-farm pickup days. Some customers though don't want to travel that far, even when they know the quality is excellent.

In late 2008 I was speaking with a farmer I knew slightly who farms two counties away from where I live. My county is more densely populated, so he regularly attended markets in my immediate area. He said he was looking for drop-off sites for pre-ordered meats, cheeses, eggs, and other dairy products in my area. I immediately volunteered my home, and specifically, my garage. I live near a big hospital which is the largest employer in the area. Our home is also less than 10 minutes from two major highways that run through this region. That made my offer very attractive to the farmer.

The way it worked was that every other week, a few days before the delivery date, the farmer would send out an email to customers who signed up for his distribution list. He would let everyone know what he had in stock, and at what prices. He listed his own meats and eggs, and the raw milk dairy products and a few baked goods from the separately owned farm adjacent to his own. Orders from customers came back to him, and on delivery day he knew that everything that left his farm was already "sold." There was no guesswork involved for him. He headed home at the end of the day with an empty truck. Along with the delivery at my home, he made three other stops at delivery sites in other counties.

At our place, he put all the ordered food into one of his large coolers. This was kept in one bay of our garage. I simply opened that door on the day of delivery and he put the stuff in the cooler. Since it was winter time, there was no risk of food spoiling, even if the customers didn't arrive for a few hours. He also left a self-addressed and stamped envelope. All the customers who had ordered left their checks in it when they picked up their purchases. I put the checks in the mail to him the next day. There was little risk of theft, since he knew exactly who had ordered what and only had to compare the checks to his orders to reconcile. There was never any issue with that. Only once did we have a no-show, and that was for some beef jerky, which never spoils. So I just left that in the cooler until the next pickup date, and the customer got it then.

This was a hassle-free arrangement for us. All I had to do was make sure I was home at some point the day of the delivery, and open that bay of the garage. After all the orders were picked up, I closed the garage door, collected the envelope, and put it in the mailbox. For that little bit of effort, I got the benefit of local, pastured, organic meat and dairy delivered to my door for four months out of the year. It was a great arrangement for both us and the farmer.

At the PASA conference in early 2009 I spoke with another farmer about this arrangement. He was intrigued by the idea and thought it made a lot of sense. He said he'd think about replicating it with his own customers.

If you live where farmers' markets are seasonal and you have a home in a suitable location, why not run this idea by some of your favorite farmers and see if this idea might work for any of them after the markets shut down? If they've been collecting email addresses from their customers, they've already got a distribution list in the making. You might get free home delivery of top quality foods and help your local farmer at the same time!

13 comments:

Gardenatrix said...

Definitely!

Here in Austin, we have several farmers who work on that model individually, as well as a couple of companies that make a living buying from multiple farms and doing the coordination and delivery. I come home every second Wednesday to a box full of goodies, and the farmers have a definite revenue stream.

(As per usual, I'm amazingly grateful for where I live . . .)

Wendy said...

Great idea! I'll have to think about how I could work this idea for myself, given I don't have a garage or outbuilding, but that doesn't mean it can not be done. I'd just have to do it differently ;).

Annette said...

We have someone who does that from Lexington; perhaps I can become her drop off point in this County. I'll have to ask.

The Mom said...

What a fabulous idea. I'm going to have to see about something similar here.

Leon said...

That's a great idea! And as many great ideas - so obvious ... so difficult to see :)

Brad K. said...

Senate bill S.510 has cleared committee for debate on the floor of the US Senate; the House of Representatives passed their version last summer.

Without regard for whether you are selling or just providing storage - S.510 establishes the Food Safety Administration, and requires everyone that produces, processes, transports or stores food or components that might be used for food for people or animals, including farms and restaurants, to register with the Feds; keep records for audit by the Feds; be ready for scheduled and surprise inspections by the Feds; have a detailed plan on every food contaminant possible in the "facility" - how you manage to avoid contamination, and your procedures for dealing with it if contamination occurs. Fines and confiscation of "premises" (your home, if that is where the food is stored or processed) stiff enough to make the peanut butter factory that made the news last year, blanch. Oh, and you have to have written procedures for everything, using "scientifically valid" methods according to the whatever the head of the FSA/FDA decides is science. Monsanto helped write the original bill. So far there is an exemption in the Senate if you are certified Organic by the USDA.

You might want to watch the progress on this bill, and contact your state's Senators to express outrage and concern that the Feds are spending this kind of money, imposing this kind regulation and inspection hardship. (There are provisions about what kinds of labs you can use for the expected "routine" testing of stuff, I expect surfaces and foods.)

I have written my Senators. If you haven't been following the bill, you might want to be sure it won't affect your arrangement.

. . Um, have you discussed security and/or insurance coverage, for people slipping and falling, for thugs breaking in and ruining or swiping the food, flood, the garage falling down, or zombies making access to the garage difficult? Actually, the insurance part was the only "real" thing I had a question about.

Other than that - I expect your drop-off arrangement to be useful and even more important in the near future.

karen said...

In Vancouver, a man started a "club delivery" service (delivers to a volunteer house in my neighbourhood) that operates in a similar way to what you describe, only on a larger scale. It has since become a co-op, with a few paid people running it, and with each member owning "shares" ($100 minimum, returnable if you ever leave the co-op), which allowed them to pay for a central sorting location and a delivery truck.

The prices are very comparable to farmers market's prices, and they do bring in some produce from farther away, I guess to keep the thing running. It is a sort of middle-man scenario, but it is a step away from the bigger groceries.

It really works for me in the summer, when a farmer offers a CSA box that I pick up from a house two blocks away. I work at the summer and winter farmer's markets here, so I can get most of my stuff direct all year around.

If you are curious about the model, you can check it out at www.nowbc.ca

BTW, I totally LOVE your system, and am not suggesting you should do this instead. I am all about the simplest ideas, and that is certainly one of them.

Ronnie said...

Brad K., what a buzzkill. Assert personal soveriegnty, and refuse to comply with such nonsense. If she does not have her address on the internet somewhere listed as a pickup site, the odds of being discovered by the FDA are pretty slim.

As for someone slipping and falling, I suppose there is a risk of being sued. I would hope the individuals "breaking the law" (in quotes because it is an illegitimate law) by buying food from an unauthorized retailer would have a bit of common sense and realize if they sue, the cozy pickup deal they now enjoy would end....but sometimes people don't act with logic in mind.

Kate, you go girl! Rock the boat and carve your own path! I'm sure this sort of thing was standard before government bullies were involved in every breath we take!

meemsnyc said...

What a fantastic idea! I wish I could do something like that at my house, but our garage is so small.

Brad K. said...

Ronnie,

Two points - S.510 is still a bill, it hasn't passed the Senate yet, though it is scheduled for right after the election. As far as I know, until the FSA goes into effect, there is nothing illegal about the dropoff system. There is time to contact your senators - the leadership is claiming 90 plus Senators on board with this bill. I hope they share the fruits - just what you are suggesting, take food off the market and sell black market. I love Barry Goldwater's quote "You cannot legislate morality". (I am sure Mr. Goldwater had other contributions to American life and culture, too.) Myself, I would like to see a qualifier stuck in the S.510 bill, to only apply to people and enterprises with 60% of their sales outside the state the business is located in - or that produce, process, store, or handle enough product to affect 50,000 servings. The FSA has the potential to drive up costs to produce, transport, store, and process food. And also to drive producers and others out of the industry, with their punitive fees, restrictive policies, and expensive reporting and testing requirements.

The other point has to do with procedures. I worked Census 2010 last summer, and had several people tell me they didn't have to answer the questions. That rarely held up - we talked to neighbors, brought in the Sheriff, sent other enumerators, etc. I am just guessing - but it seems unlikely that "No, officer, I don't need a field sobriety test. But thank you for asking! You can go, now." would brighten your day for more than a few moments. Telling the Feds - or state FSA reps - to buzz off will likely not go any better.

The time to work for a better result is now, before the ink on S.510 dries. And before the "lame ducks" pocket their winnings and go home.

Ronnie said...

Brad K. Not to post off topic, but... " worked Census 2010 last summer, and had several people tell me they didn't have to answer the questions. That rarely held up - we talked to neighbors, brought in the Sheriff, sent other enumerators, etc. "

Good god! Truthfully, on my census paper that came in the mail, I put the number of people in the house, and for the rest of the information (phone number, etc) I put "got to hell" in the blank (or something "classier"). I didn't have a census guy come to my door or anything.

People don't know how to talk to the police in general I have found. Until you are sitting on the curb with your hands behind your back calling their bluff that they are not going to arrest you, they will bully you into believing anything they can.

In other words, you might not be able to say "buzz off" but asserting that you aren't doing anything wrong, and not being helpful goes a long way. Get a mean dog too. That way the snooping of your property is kept to a minimum if they do suspect something.

Hopefully, with the deficit we are running and the outlook of the economy, the resources for enforcement will be even more limited tomorrow than they are today.

Brad K. said...

Ronnie,

"Good god! Truthfully, on my census paper that came in the mail, I put the number of people in the house, and for the rest of the information . . . I didn't have a census guy come to my door or anything."

Thanks for illustrating how repressive governments create black markets, vigilantes, and organized crime, as people turn to less onerous means. Me, I would rather rein in the repression and tyranny.

Kate said...

Gardinatrix, yes, I've heard good things about food in Austin.

Wendy, I have every confidence in your ability to make this idea work for you if you can find an interested farmer.

Annette, and The Mom, good luck!

Leon, :)

Brad, yes, I'm on a listserve for PASA, so I'm made aware of much legislation regarding agriculture, and do contact my representatives when I think it appropriate. As for the zombie scenario/insurance concerns, basically I'm aware that I'm taking a risk. So far we've never had more than eight customers show up on any given day. We're trusting to their common sense and their interest in obtaining high quality food as indicators that they won't file a frivolous lawsuit if they twist an ankle on our property. Thanks for your concern.

Karen, we had a co-op start up in our area not long ago. I didn't find it useful for me, since they charged more than the farmers themselves did, while the farmers pocketed less than retail. Also, they wanted that $100 buy-in fee. Since I already know most of the farmers I buy from, I didn't see the value of the co-op to me, especially given those financial realities. But I'm glad it's there for others who find it worthwhile.

Ronnie, thanks for the encouraging words.

meemsnyc, any alternatives you could try? Or any neighbors you could talk into volunteering to be a drop off point?