Going beyond the normal channels

Getting local foods to local people sounds like an easy job. Turns out, it takes tons of work and communication, even community building. In the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, small farmers and a new delivery service are developing distribution systems beyond farmers’ markets and U-pick models.

A year ago, Marlo Capoccia launched Garden Gate Delivery, a local foods delivery service in Ithaca, N.Y., with her husband Fred and their three young sons.

With the slogan "Fresh Food to Your Doorstep," Capoccia drives her Freightliner van to bring an extensive grocery line to homes and workplaces on two local routes in the Ithaca area every week. Garden Gate also helps local farmers with their product distribution, including CSA (community supported agriculture) farms like the Full Plate Farm Collective.

Garden Gate Delivery’s Marlo Capoccia delivers CSA shares to Three Swallows Farm.

The Full Plate Farm Collective (www.fullplatefarms.org), a three-farm CSA, differs from a classical CSA by specializing in certain crops at each farm rather than raising all consumer produce on one farm. A typical CSA offers vegetables and sometimes fruit from spring to fall, often with an upfront seasonal payment and once-a-week pick-up at the farm or distribution point. At the Full Plate Farm Collective, the farmers pick up and combine each others’ produce, which takes planning and communication.

While the Full Plate Farm Collective does most of its own trucking between its farms, they hired Garden Gate Delivery to deliver member CSA shares to drop-off points and homes for a flat rate.

Inside Stella, the delivery van.

"I think originally there was kind of some trepidation about us—am I their competition?" Capoccia explained. "After a painful two or three months of going back and forth, we decided that I would try to deliver their [CSA] shares. That was wonderful. It was good for me and it was good for them."

Getting started with local delivery

Garden Gate delivers appetizers, breads and other baked goods, cereals, dairy (including ice cream), eggs, fruits and vegetables, kosher items, juice, meats, pasta, tofu, coffee, tea, soda, wine and beer, nut butters and jellies, prepared food and more to customers on their retail route. The company’s Web site (www.gardengatedelivery.com) makes ordering local food easy. Grocery items come from all over the state, but are mostly from within 25 miles of Ithaca.

Capoccia says, "The main service we offer is that we get the food from the farm and bring it to people’s homes and workplaces, but we also expect to help the farms move things around."

Katie Church, coordinator for the Full Plate Farm Collective, at a CSA fair in Ithaca in March 2009.

It all started when she was pregnant. Capoccia says, "I’ve been thinking about food since I was pregnant with my first one 10 years ago, and just thinking about where my food came from and what kinds of things go into food. People talk about local food like it’s a fad; I think it ultimately goes beyond that. If food systems break down, as they seem to be doing between contamination issues and transportation issues, then local food is the most practical thing."

Most people who want good local food go to a natural food cooperative or farmers’ market. Capoccia insisted on visiting the farms, and, while she was at it, decided to bring home food for her neighbors, too. With the wealth of small and diverse farms in the area, the Capoccias decided to get serious about local foods distribution. They purchased a large van with a 14-foot cargo hold on eBay.

Besides her cooperation with CSAs, she is starting to think about how to help her farmers get their crops to retail markets. After all, she already is picking up food for her own delivery clients, why not drop off those same farm products at stores?

Full Plate Farm Collective

Nathaniel Thompson of Remembrance Farm described his farm’s association with Stick and Stone Farm and Three Swallows Farm, the other two farms in the collective. "In our case, rather than one farm growing everything, there are three farms growing different things. And, we have lots of distribution options for the way our members can get their produce. They can pick up at two of the three farms, they can have it delivered directly to their home, [or] they can pick up at any number of central locations within the city of Ithaca."

Thompson said, "The challenge is getting the right produce to the right place at the right time. There’s a whole bunch of logistical issues." Two farms are on the west side of Ithaca and the other just south of town. The furthest two farms are 18 miles apart. One of Remembrance Farm’s three employees moves produce from farm to farm. In the summer season, produce from three farms must be available at two farms for pick-up on two different days of the week, and boxes need to be assembled for home and group delivery once a week.

Katie Church has been the collective’s coordinator for four years, handling the membership work, as well as publicity, advertising and a weekly member newsletter. She personally directs member pick-up at the farms during the summer season and handles member communication. Since Full Plate started five years ago, the collective’s CSA has grown to include 450 to 500 members in the summer share program and 200 in the winter share program.

Thompson specializes in salad greens, onions and root crops on his 90-acre organic, biodynamic farm in Trumansburg. He ran a large CSA in the Hudson Valley for years and found it hard to grow a multitude of crops, and do it well. He said, "When you specialize, you can do a better job of things. That’s what really drew me to this model." Stick and Stone Farm raises cooking greens, summer and winter squash, beets, spinach and heirloom tomatoes. Three Swallows Farm specializes in hot weather crops like eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and melons.

However, bigger does not necessarily mean better. Thompson said, "It’s important to stay small because of the communication issues. Once you start having four or five growers, communication becomes that much more complex. Communication is really, really critical. I think Full Plate mainly works because we’re all friends and we’re able to work things out because we’re friends."

He said, "Farmers in general tend to be very independent-minded and I think collaboration can solve a lot of problems that arrive from farming. It creates other problems—you have to talk to people, you have to give and take—but it really gives a lot more flexibility for the whole system. It gets more people involved. We’re finally up to the scale where other people can make money on our model as well, people who are selling meat or fruit. They can piggyback on some of the same membership. We don’t necessarily have to make that money. It’s a benefit for the membership. I’m a big believer in that kind of collaboration and I’d like to see it more."

Garden Gate Delivery’s involvement with the Full Plate Farm Collective helps make it possible for various small CSAs to get their food to the people.

Purity Ice Cream, an Ithaca institution for over 70 years, has invited Garden Gate Delivery to share walk-in cooler space downtown until the company can build its own warehouse. Capoccia says, "The local businesses have been just hugely supportive, contacting me with ideas to collaborate and do things together. Last year, the thing I kept being surprised about was how important those connections were." Personal connections are the glue that brings farmers, movers and consumers together.

The author is a freelance contributor based in Brooktondale, N.Y.