18,000 Subscribers Strong, Washington-based Farm-to-Table Delivery Service Blankets West Coast with Organic Produce
March 6, 2012 | Oliver Lazenby
In the last 16 years, Andrew Stout went from farming three acres of rocky dirt to becoming the CEO of one of Western Washington’s largest organic produce businesses. His company Full Circle, a farm and organic food broker in Carnation, Wash., has 18,000 subscribers in four states, sells at 10 farmers markets, and has plans to begin distributing in more states by the end of the year.
Stout started out as an intern at an organic farm with a CSA program in Minnesota in 1995. The next year, he started his own farm with his now-wife, Wendy Munroe, and college friend John Huschle. They couldn’t find land in Minnesota, so they moved to the Northwest in search of land closer to an urban center with a large population. The first iteration of Full Circle took place on three leased acres in North Bend, Wash., 30 miles from Seattle and 10 miles upriver from Full Circle’s present-day farm. The young farmers found an eager market and sold as much food as they could grow. The following year, they started a CSA program. Marketing Full Circle’s products, said Stout, has never been much of a challenge.
The small three-acre farm that Stout started with has since relocated downstream, and grown to cover nearly 450 acres, 400 of which are cultivated. Full Circle also started sourcing product from partner farms to distribute to customers. Stout doesn’t have to worry about rocky soil anymore, but his business has new challenges. “Keeping 200 employees moving in the same direction is a big challenge,” he said. “Full Circle has offices in Carnation, Seattle and Anchorage, and delivers in Washington, Alaska, Idaho and California.”
Although Full Circle grows 200 varieties of more than 50 crops at their farm, the independent source farms that the company works with now supply the bulk of their product. Full Circle distributes products supplied by more than 40 partner farms, bakers, cheese makers, commercial fishers and other artisans. The partners are spread along the West Coast as far south as Mexico, allowing Full Circle to provide their members with fresh produce year-round.
“To change the food system you have to grow a lot of food,” Stout said. “The way we look at it, having partnerships and utilizing other growers lets us bring in the expertise of the many.”
According to Stout, Full Circle is profitable and successful because of the company’s desire to grow and his willingness to try new things, like partnering with source farms and shipping to remote regions.
“We strive to get bigger,” Stout said. “We’re constantly looking for other markets.”
Full Circle finds customers in new regions in a variety of ways. In some cases, marketing and press releases create a customer base. In October 2011, Full Circle expanded into California by acquiring Eating with the Seasons, a Bay-area based organic produce delivery company.
When they begin delivering in a new region, the number of customers in that area tends to explode; people see their neighbors getting fresh produce and they want it too, Stout said.
Full Circle also ships to several remote Alaskan towns that are only accessible by boat or airplane. In Barrow, Alaska, 320 miles north of the Arctic Circle, fresh fruit and vegetables in the grocery – when they’re available – are more expensive than Full Circle’s organic produce. “We get comments from the Native communities like, ‘this is the first time my daughter has ever had a fresh peach,’” Stout said.
Full Circle initially attracted criticism from small farmers in Alaska when they began distribution in Anchorage, said Stephen Brown, agriculture extension agent for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Alaska farmers argued that the term CSA implies local food, and didn’t fit Full Circle’s operation of shipping products from thousands of miles away. “In a nutshell, Full Circle has the largest CSA sales of anyone in Alaska,” Brown said. “Our growers don’t have anything against Full Circle, but they wish Alaskans would buy more Alaskan produce.”
Stout eventually dropped the term CSA and changed the description of the company’s offering to a ‘Farm-to-Table organic delivery service’. Stout isn’t trying to fool people into thinking they’re getting all local food, and he wants the business to be as transparent as possible, he said.
Stout doesn’t think his business has gotten too big, and he doesn’t plan to slow down either. In 2012, Stout plans to begin delivering in Portland, Ore. After Full Circle expands its reach to cover the entirety of the West Coast states, Stout plans to expand eastward.