Oregon Startup Links Local Farms to Local Folks with Competitively Priced Bounty of Fresh Food
January 24, 2013 | Susan Botich
Shopping at Farmers Markets or participating in the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) system of picking up weekly produce boxes from a local farm are both great ways to enjoy locally grown produce. But once the growing season is over, generally, so are the Farmers Markets and the CSAs. So, how can people buy local produce and other farm products year-round? From out of this dilemma, the seed for a new business idea was planted.
In 2009, Andrew Adams saw the need in his Bend, OR community to get local, organic foods during the “off season.” So, he decided to fill that niche. He believed that if he created a link between local farms and local folks, people could be supplied with a year-round bounty of fresh, organic foods. Out of this idea, grew Agricultural Connections (AC).
Adams started by connecting with a farm in nearby Junction City, Cinco Estrellas. With the goal of providing customers with a similar model to the CSA “food box” type of distribution, he developed a connection with other farms within an approximate 100-mile radius of Bend. By connecting with multiple farms, AC could commit to providing year-round fresh, local, organic produce to Bend locals.
In 2009, Adams hired Liz Weigand to manage the company. She bought the business in the spring of 2010 and, since then, has incorporated other local, organic farm products while working on an even wider variety for the future.
“The produce box is still our main product,” Weigand says. “Right now, I’m getting garlic from Bend, potatoes from Terrebonne and most of everything else is coming from the [Willamette] Valley.”
Diversity and year-round products are the main thrust behind AC’s success.
“One of the things I do is try to find farms that will give me more diversity to put into my boxes,” says Weigand. “I look for gaps in the produce I’m supplying and look to fill those gaps. Since midsummer, I’ve been working with Ground Works Organics, which grows a lot of different produce.”
Though most of AC’s suppliers are Certified Organic, Weigand isn’t so much concerned with that as she is with all the farms she works with employing all-natural methods of farming. Much of how she determines whether a farm might be right for AC is by personally going to the farm and meeting the owners and workers.
“I don’t have a formal checklist; I have personal contact,” she says. “That’s really important. I look at their product selection, meet the farmers. It’s pretty informal. There’s only one farm [in our line] that I haven’t met with personally.”
When asked about the cost comparison between AC’s produce and produce found at major supermarkets, Weigand says AC is actually competitively priced.
“But our produce is much fresher,” she says. “Our produce is picked the day before our customers pick it up; but in a major supermarket it’s usually picked several days or even a week or more before. And that’s giving a cost-comparison for those customers who order by the week. If you order for four weeks at a time, my price is actually less.”
Weigand is always working on expanding her products. Recently, AC has added locally grown hazelnuts, ground beef and buffalo, as well as yak and stewing hens. An orchard in the Willamette Valley supplies organic applesauce, and a black cap raspberry puree is new to the list. A proactive attitude is necessary to keep adding to AC’s product list, she says.
As for adding to her customer base, Weigand says that face-to-face contact is a big part of it. Right now, though she does have some volunteer workers, she’s the one placing the orders, driving to the farms, putting customer orders together and packing produce boxes into her refrigerated truck and then delivering her products to her customers at the designated drop spots. It’s a lot of work but she has the direct contact with both the growers and the buyers. Getting to know her customers, talking with them about what they like and don’t like and listening to their questions and ideas are all part of looking at how she may expand her line or make certain changes, she says.
Due to AC allowing customers to buy produce boxes on a week-to-week basis as opposed to requiring a seasonal commitment such as most CSA programs, it makes it a little more difficult to project profits, but Weigand says it’s worth it so that her customers can have that freedom. And AC is profitable.
“I generate income solely from the customers buying the products,” she says.
In about three years, Weigand plans to extend AC’s regular services to include home deliveries. Right now, the home delivery fee is $8.00. Her new delivery model would allow her to have the delivery cost absorbed into the product cost.
“I’d like to decentralize the dispersing of the food, to make it as convenient as absolutely possible,” says Weigand. “It would require a space to bring the product in, pack it up and into the delivery vehicle. That would require [further] investment on my part. But that way customers don’t have to be at a specific place at a specific time to pick up their boxes. That might unfold this year.”