Online Food Platform Seeks to Strengthen Sustainable Regional Food System in New England
May 31, 2012 | Noelle Swan
After 30 years in agricultural and horticultural distribution and retail, Greg Georgaklis grew tired of watching small farmers struggle to market their products. As far as he was concerned, “if sustainable agriculture was going to blossom we needed some new models.”
So Georgaklis created Farmers To You, a company whose objective is to rebuild a robust and sustainable regional food system in the New England area by using an online platform to connect Vermont area farmers with Boston area families. The goal, says Georgaklis, is to provide customers with access to fresher food than they have access to at the grocery store while providing farmers a means to expand their market with a minimal time investment.
From a business model standpoint, Farmers to You is a twist on the typical CSA that allows families to customize their orders to include offerings from 30 participating farms and food producers in Vermont. Customers can order a variety of goods, from fruits and vegetables, to eggs and milk, to freshly milled flour, baked bread, organic ice cream and artisanal cheese. Deliveries continue throughout the year, though many items are seasonal.
Farmers to You does not require families to pay for their food weeks in advance as many CSAs do. Instead, it asks customers to make a commitment to order consistently through the service. There is no formal contract for families to sign, instead they are asked for something of a virtual handshake agreeing to try out the program for 4 weeks and spend $40 per week. Families customize their order each week, unlike a CSA where customers have little control over what arrives in their box, says Georgaklis.
Here’s how it works: To get started on Farmers to You, customers go online to the company’s website, sign up by accepting the family agreement (virtual handshake referred to above) and browse items to add to their virtual shopping cart. As they fill their virtual shopping carts, they can see exactly where each item comes from, read a bit about the processes involved in production and visit the producer’s website directly. Customers then check out and choose either a delivery pickup location at one of several locations in and around Boston, or they can have their food taken the final leg of the journey to their downtown home or office by a bicycle delivery service (for an additional fee).
Costs for sustainably produced fruits and vegetable as well as other value-added products on Farmers to You may be higher than those seen in the grocery store, but Georgaklis says that the majority of the products available through Farmers to You do not have exact equivalents on grocery store shelves. Their ice cream, for example, is not just organic; farmers at the Strafford Organic Creamery make it by hand. Their Swiss chard comes in a rainbow of colors and their greens include dandelions, purple radish shoots, and pea tendrils.
Expanding the market for farmers
For Joe Buley of Screamin’ Ridge Farm in central Vermont, Farmers to You meant an opportunity to expand the reach of his market from rural Vermont to the more populated Boston-area. The farmer and chef already marketed his organically grown vegetables and homemade salsas, soups, and pestos locally and through a CSA before signing on with Georgaklis. He says that Farmers to You pays more than wholesale prices, but slightly less than what he would charge retail, an arrangement he says works well for the farmer. Georgaklis takes care of transportation costs, sending trucks to pick up the products each week, so Buley says he has little added costs.
Georgaklis maintains close relationships with each of his producers, visiting each farm 4-6 times a year. “We need to know the farmers and know that they understand their farm, soils, their environment, and their crops,” he says. Many partner producers adhere to specific sustainable standards such as organic, biodynamic, or pasture-raised, though there are no certification requirements to participate.
When selecting producers to include, Georgaklis says he looks for good soil practices and humane treatment of animals. His firm requirements are honesty and transparency. “At the grocery store I was constantly feeling betrayed when buying things labeled natural that turned out to be produced with processes I would not consider to be natural,” Georgaklis says, adding that he pays close attention to how products are marketed as compared to how they are actually produced.
On the business end, Georgaklis says that Farmers to You is a “mission-driven, for-profit business.” It has been a year and a half since he started the business and says that he hopes it will continue to grow…to a point. “In Vermont, we want to get up to 2,000 families and no larger,” he says. The goal in the long term is to establish several food hubs like this throughout New England. He believes that the model could be replicated anywhere in the United States.
“The key to our model is having a mission based on maximizing the needs and benefits for families eating, farmers growing, and communities.”