A new revenue venue for your operation?

“Communication is key. As long as there are no surprises, it’s all good,” said Mikey Azzara, owner of Zone 7, a local food distribution service in central New Jersey. “Communication between farmer and chef is the biggest difficulty.”

Azzara’s company has been steadily growing since its inception three years ago. Its role is to move food directly from local farms and into the kitchens of area restaurants or onto grocery store shelves. It’s farm-to-table within days, and it is all distributed within an approximate 150-mile maximum radius, or an hour and a half drive, so local means local.

Mikey Azzara, owner of Zone 7, loads produce along with Tannwen Mount, of Terhune Orchards, one of the many farms supplying food for Zone 7.

Azzara is no stranger to the needs of farmers. For almost five years, he was the outreach director for the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey. An important part of that role was developing programs that provided farmers with new, local markets for their crops. He initiated a farm-to-chef program, but the same issues continually arose, limiting its success. It wasn’t too much of a leap for Azzara, who had developed working relationships with the region’s farmers, to jump in and fill the void, bringing food from the farm to the table by taking on the delivery, ordering and payment issues, which traditionally made farmer-chef relationships difficult.

From the ground up

“The 10 best growers that I know” served as the foundation for Zone 7, Azzara said. He then recruited the most motivated chefs – those who gave more than lip service to wanting to source locally – and Azzara was in business. He was well-versed in farmer-speak, and quickly learned how to translate the needs of extremely busy and demanding chefs to the realities of extremely busy farmers, many of whom grow crops exceptionally well, but don’t have any intentions of becoming salesmen, marketers or deliverymen.

A chef’s expectations of timely deliveries prior to rush times, standardized ordering, an advanced idea of product availability and a need for specific quantities of produce typically met with resistance from many farmers, who want to farm first and do business second, Azzara said.


Zone 7: www.freshfromzone7.com, 609-206-0344

Cherry Capital Foods: 231-943-5010, http://cherrycapitalfoodsllc.blogspot.com/

Farmers are famous for wanting to deliver on a flexible schedule, depending on the weather or other emergent conditions. Some are hesitant to estimate crop volume and availability. The lack of use of standard packaging on many farms, typically those who are primarily direct-retail oriented, and the general lack of interest in taking time off the farm to deliver orders or to set up an easy ordering system were some of the obstacles facing local distributors. Chefs don’t have the hassle of working directly with numerous farms, and farmers who don’t have the time to market and deliver to numerous restaurants during peak harvest can now access these markets hassle-free.

“It’s not surprising that these two parties couldn’t meet up,” Azzara said.

Evan Smith, of Cherry Capital Foods in Traverse City, Mich., agrees. “We work to act as a bridge or conduit between the farmers and the markets. Allowing farmers to do what they do best and minimizing vehicle miles while providing a single delivery and invoice for multiple products helps everyone.”

Cherry Capital Foods has been distributing food from farm to plate in Michigan for three years. Rather than a primarily restaurant focus, Cherry Capital has also tackled the hospital and school systems. With over 300 buyers, representing chefs of small restaurants to large food services, Cherry Capital Foods considers the entire state to be “local,” Smith said.

John Viltz, of Cherry Capital Foods, scans in produce at pickup.

Azzara hopes to expand Zone 7’s radius to include the nearby metropolitan areas of New York City and Philadelphia in the near future, opening up an almost unending supply of buyers, meaning more opportunity for area farms. While it may mean a few more miles from farm to table, the key to keeping it local includes representing farmers of all sizes; promoting each farm and its unique growing methods, philosophy and history; and forging a relationship based on keeping profits as close to the farm as possible, Azzara said.

New revenue venues

Farms growing for Zone 7 range in size from small, intensively farmed 5-acre organic enterprises to full-scale, 300-acre, commercial-sized farms. Likewise, Cherry Capital Foods remains grounded in serving local farms of all sizes, from 3 acres up to about 300 acres. Smaller farms might not have the volume to provide a restaurant with all of its needs, but by joining forces with other farms, via local distributors, these markets are now open to them. The larger farms are able to cater to the restaurant or institutional trade without having to assume ordering or delivery responsibilities. These farms are readily able to pack in quantity, and typically have long season harvests of staples such as sweet corn and tomatoes.

The mix works well for Azzara and Evans, both of whom draw on the strengths of their growers to meet the needs of buyers. They encourage the farms to sell whatever it is they specialize in growing. Because these distributors are pulling from a wide diversity of farms, no single farm has to fill all of a chef’s expectations.

“Technically, we are a wholesale business,” Azzara explained. Each farm sets its own price, and Zone 7 determines the restaurant price from there. Cherry Capital Foods operates similarly, with farmers setting the price to the distributor, and Cherry Capital Foods fixing wholesale prices. The minimal effort expended to participate, for both sellers and buyers, is crucial. The local distributor handles all the transaction details.

Food delivered by Zone 7 and Cherry Capital Foods is transparent in its origins – buyers know where it is grown and what growing methods are utilized. The farm’s identity isn’t lost on the way to the table, as it can be when product is sold at auction to larger distributors, or wholesaled via other venues. The farm’s brand is intact, which can play an important role in repeat sales.

Winter sales

Another benefit that local distribution has provided to farmers is the awareness of the very real demand for local winter production. Farmers are able to see that chefs will purchase winter storage vegetables, greens and cold-weather crops grown in high tunnels or with other season-extension techniques. This gives incentive to develop storage facilities and to increase production for off-season sales. Value-added products, such as canned tomatoes or frozen vegetables, are also needed during the winter season. Knowing that there is a readily accessible demographic of chefs and grocery stores that want these items can provide the incentive for farmers to take on these tasks and expand their business.

The goal is to establish “a decent supply of local produce through the winter,” Azzara said. Moving 1,000 pounds of turnips or other root vegetables is possible. “Each year, we have been able to get the growers to do more and more in winter production,” Azzara said, as the demand from the chefs is recognized.

Knowing that most chefs won’t touch a hothouse tomato means growers need not venture there, preventing a loss of time and resources. However, planting some of the crop on the edges of the planting window can reap big benefits, as can choosing earlier ripening or later harvesting varieties. Zone 7 has opened the lines of communication.

Smith has seen a similar response.

“We have seen an increase in the utilization of both hoop houses to extend the season and greenhouses using hydroponics for greens. The latter being obviously more expensive, but a good choice for those still interested in local,” he said. “I would agree that proper storage is crucial, and the planting and timing of the harvest helps push it back a bit if the weather cooperates.”

Working with a small distributor

One of the many benefits of working with a small outfit is the personal connection. It’s not just business: the common goal of getting local food into local establishments is more than increased revenue. It’s promoting recognition of the importance of agriculture to the region. It’s increasing the awareness of area residents, making them realize that a wide variety of food can be obtained locally. Both distributors promote the venues that purchase local as aggressively as they do the farms that grow the food.

Azzara is also aware of how each farm works. This insider knowledge translates into increased sales. He knows who to call last minute, who will consider pursuing growing an underrepresented crop, who might trial new varieties and more. He knows who is grading produce and who does not, so he can meet specific needs. He can find markets for nonstandard-size produce that a farm needs to move. And he pushes what is in abundance now, so that chefs are getting the freshest, peak product, and farmers can sell that volume while they have it.

Both distributors are growing. With a rapidly increasing infrastructure, which now includes three delivery trucks and a refrigerated warehouse, Zone 7 is proving that it does meet the needs of local farmers, and that local farms can supply area restaurants and stores with a good portion of their food needs. Cherry Capital Foods is moving into a new warehouse facility to help meet their storage needs.

Meeting food safety requirements

Farm food safety regulations have not been an issue yet, Azzara said. General best agricultural practices have been sufficient, focusing on washed and appropriately packaged product. On-farm, there must be acceptable postharvest handling and storage practices to retain freshness and sanitation. Because Zone 7 emphasizes the origins of the food, along with the growers’ practices, the food is transparent, and the short farm-to-plate chain is, in itself, some assurance of safety.

The distributors agree that any federal food safety mandates could impose major obstacles to smaller operations wishing to enter the wholesale market. Institutions, such as hospitals or schools, tend to have contracts with food service providers. These contracts many times place restrictions, including the need for third-party certifications, on vendor relationships.

Cherry Capital Foods does deliver to hospitals and other institutions where there are third-party audit requirements. In order to continue to source from small farms, the company itself was certified, initiating a farm-to-plate traceability system, as well as the documentation and record-keeping needed.

“These [third-party] certifications are quite extensive and require a bit of record-keeping, including the ability to track and trace products all the way through the system and recall them if necessary,” Evans said. “We can now provide the level of assurance required to bring local products into these facilities. This is a huge benefit to our small farmers, who could not meet the requirements on their own.”

Economic growth

Local distribution has economic benefits that travel much further than the farm. Independent farmers tend to purchase products and services from other local businesses, so farm-generated income typically stays in the community. When the agricultural base is thriving, communities save by not having to invest in the infrastructure required by new housing developments – schools, emergency and municipal services – which tend to be the ultimate fate of much of the farmland taken out of production. If the local food stays in the community, residents themselves are enjoying wider access to fresh foods.

At Cherry Capital Foods, sales range from $10,000 to $15,000 each week. Zone 7, which handles about 60 venues each week, is doing proportionately as much in sales. Both companies are also interested in larger food justice issues and rebuilding community food systems.

“We have a strong local food economy, with a regional goal of doubling the value of local foods consumed locally in 10 years. This would generate an additional $73 million dollars,” Smith said. “Whether it’s finding niche heirlooms or value-added specialty foods, local-to-local connections are the way to build a resilient and socially just food system.”

“Zone 7 has larger goals related to fixing the food system. So much of this is getting back to the older ways of doing things,” Azzara says. “We are all learning together.”

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey.