Innovative Food Distribution Co. in Oklahoma Brings Local Food to City, Sustainable Farmers Benefit
June 21, 2012 | Jessica Vernabe
Matthew Burch, the founder of Urban Agrarian in Oklahoma City, believes that farmers shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of these responsibilities all on their own. That’s why he started his company in 2008. The company purchases products from food producers within the state at discounted prices and then sells them to local retail shoppers and wholesalers.
“We’re trying to improve access to local foods to consumers and provide outlets to growers,” Burch said. “I love the farmer’s market, but in a lot of ways, that puts a massive amount of burden on the growers themselves. … It just seemed to me there were some kind of critical skill sets in there that didn’t necessarily have to be done by the farmers, that the same job could be done while giving the farmers more time to grow.”
Urban Agrarian currently has about 75 food producers it purchases from, though it usually only buys from about 25 at any given time, depending on the season, Burch said. Urban Agrarian conducts food pickups using its “Veggie Vans,” one fueled by waste vegetable oil and the other fueled by natural gas.
Burch says about 98 percent of the food Urban Agrarian purchases comes from a 100- to 125-mile radius around Oklahoma City (with a few exceptions). The bulk of the selling happens in and around Oklahoma City. Urban Agrarian sells the food products at a local foods market, its brick-and-mortar store and other locations in the area. The company’s wholesale customers include chefs, restaurants, specialty grocery stores, the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture for its Farm To School program and a few local companies, Burch said.
Urban Agrarian’s products include basics such as fruits, vegetables, herbs and microgreens, eggs, dairy products, meats, nuts, honey and coffee. There are also value-added items such as bakery products, dry goods, gift baskets and boxes, prepared foods and preserves. The company even sells live plant starts.
The products are bought at what Burch calls “farmgate wholesale” pricing, which is lower than wholesale. This allows Urban Agrarian to sell at wholesale prices and to pay for things such as transportation, insurance and manpower.
Burch’s experience in the food industry started right after he graduated high school in 2001. He got a job as a server at a French restaurant in Oklahoma City called La Baguette Bistro. He worked in the food service industry for about four or five years at various restaurants, ending up as a bartender.
However, Burch eventually wanted a lifestyle change. He started reading nutrition books on slow nights at the bar. He got tired of the late hours and living on fast food. So, he left bartending and went to work as a produce manager for Akin’s Natural Foods Market, where the employees were allowed to take home wilted produce, he said.
“I was really feeling good, just starting to understand more about nutrition,” Burch said. “The way it made me feel really kept me wanting to go further down the rabbit hole.”
In 2004, Burch moved to Savannah, Ga., following a group of friends who were moving there. There, he started working for woman who had taken over her family’s farm and was making it certified organic. To help manage excess crops, Burch decided to load up his car with a bunch of vegetables and start banging on the doors of area restaurants, he said. The plan was highly successful as he received interest from chefs.
Burch became plugged in with the Coastal Organic Growers, an association where organic growers could share ideas. When Burch finally returned to Oklahoma City in September 2007, he knew just what he wanted to do—start Urban Agrarian.
Getting the Wheels Rolling
In December of that year, Burch purchased a 24-foot former Frito-Lay truck that was already converted to run on the waste vegetable oil (something he had seen done in Georgia). Burch said he started making deliveries for Local Food Cooperative, a monthly online statewide food hub (which is sponsored by the Oklahoma Food Cooperative, according to the hub’s website). However, soon he longed to do even more.
Burch formed Urban Agrarian as an LLC in May 2008, working from his garage. He started selling products for farmers at farmers markets and roadside stands. Word eventually spread, which led to wholesale deliveries and weekend markets.
Now Urban Agrarian has a 5,000-square-foot warehouse with loading docks, a five-days-a-week retail market, warehouse shelving and cold storage space. The facility also houses Earth Elements, a commercial kitchen business that partners with Urban Agrarian. At the kitchen, Urban Agrarian’s excess food is transformed into things like jams and salsas. (Together, they create the Earth to Urban Local Food Hub.)
Burch said that while his warehouse is located in the historic farmers market district in Oklahoma City, there is not really a strong local food presence in the area.
“This region was kind of the birthplace of Walmart, these big mega-retailers. So a lot of that farmers market style, small grocery, mom and pop model went away,” Burch said. “We’re hoping to bring a lot of that back.”
Don Hansen, owner of Thunderbird Berry Farm in Broken Arrow, Okl., says working with Urban Agrarian makes his life much easier. Hansen owns a U-Pick farm, or a farm where all the berries are picked by the customers themselves. They can take advantage of a “two for me, third one free” deal where they can keep a bucket of berries for every two they pick, Hansen said.
That leaves the farm with a lot of excess berries, which is where Urban Agrarian comes in.
“They help us market our berries,” Hansen said. “They distribute our berries because they have a wider distribution. For example, a lot of them to go Oklahoma City, which is 100 miles away where we have zero capability at all.”
Hansen noted that working with Urban Agrarian cuts down the amount of time he and his employees have to spend at their area’s farmers market.
Jonathon Stranger, owner and chef at Ludivine restaurant in Oklahoma City, said he purchases produce from Urban Agrarian because it is convenient and falls in line with the restaurant’s local ingredient sourcing practices. He noted that buying local ingredients contributes to the local agriculture economy, allows the restaurants to develop closer relationships with its suppliers, leads to fresher products, and is less taxing on the environment. Plus, Burch has a good eye for choosing good products, he said.
“It has to be a really good product, and he’s (Burch’s) done a really good job of picking and choosing who he uses,” Stranger said.
Urban Agrarian has seen a lot of growth since its birth. It now has about 15 employees, which include both part-time and full-time, he said. Last year, Urban Agrarian brought in about $160,000 in revenue, compared to about $30,000 it generated in 2008, its first year of business, he said. Burch expects to bring in at least $250,000 in revenue for 2012.
The company is not yet profitable, but Burch says that’s only because of all the investment going back into the company (such as toward construction last year for its retail location).
“We’ve reached this point where I’m having to turn down a decent amount of food,” Burch said. “We’ve never had that problem. We were always searching it out and just pretty much buying as much as we could get our hands on. … But we’re to the point where we’re pretty much satisfying all our established markets.”
Burch said one of his next goals is to find some larger institutional purchasers that can take loads of produce at a time. He said he’d also like to bump up Urban Agrarian’s ecommerce activity (perhaps doing home deliveries), and he’d like to get more technologically advanced in his sales and inventory record keeping, which is currently his biggest challenge.