In today's Food section, which was printed in advance, a photo caption with an article about Internet food sales misidentifies the father of Harry Dawson. His name is Christian Dawson.
New Businesses Deliver Farmers' Products to Customers in Town
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Twice a month, Laurie Smith and Mark Reinhardt load their refrigerated cargo van with stew beef and steaks, chickens and eggs, honey and salsa. All of it is produced by their Rappahannock and Culpeper County neighbors, and on this particular day all of it is headed to Northern Virginia, where customers who have placed online orders await the van's arrival at one of six scheduled drop-off points.
"I don't have to go to the farmers market or the farm anymore," said Mary Malina, whose home on a leafy Annandale lane doubles as a drop-off location. "The food comes to me."
Smith and Reinhardt's year-old business, the Local Flavor, is one in a wave of online enterprises cropping up across the country to connect eaters such as Malina, who want local, farm-fresh food without farmers markets' lines and limited hours, with farmers who would rather spend time working their fields than hawking their wares.
"Most farmers don't know much and certainly don't care much about marketing," said Cliff Miller, owner of Mount Vernon Farm, whose pastured pork and grass-fed beef and lamb account for the bulk of the Local Flavor's sales. "If somebody can communicate with the customers in urban areas and ideally even come and pick up at the farm and take it to the urban areas, that's a big deal."
Locally grown food accounts for less than 1 percent of total U.S. food sales, according to the Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, which hosted its first conference on local food systems on June 26.
But demand is growing. The market research firm Packaged Facts predicts local food sales will rise from $4 billion in 2002 to $7 billion in 2011. According to the USDA, there are 70 percent more farmers markets than there were a decade ago. About 12,500 farms offer community-supported agriculture (CSA) memberships, in which customers buy shares in the farm, assuming some of the farmer's risk and receiving weekly or monthly boxes of produce in return.
Demand for local food is growing so fast, in fact, that it exceeds supply, said University of Maryland agricultural economist Jim Hanson. That, he said, is encouraging producers and eaters to seek new channels -- including virtual farmers markets such as the Local Flavor and On the Gourmet, a Vienna business that launched last year -- for getting food from farm to fork.
The Local Flavor was born in April 2008 when Miller, who had been taking online orders for four years, handed over his customer list to Smith and Reinhardt, who have so far kept their day jobs as a freelance marketer and Web site developer. They recruited eight other farmers to sell their products, which vary according to the season, through a common Web site.
For farmers, filling Web orders is less risky than traveling to a market where they never know what's going to sell, said Joel Salatin of Virginia's storied Polyface Farm, who earns half of his revenue delivering orders made online to the D.C. area.
"This way it is nonspeculative," he said. "Everything is presold before we go."
Smith and Reinhardt deliver to Warrenton and Fredericksburg in addition to making the Northern Virginia run, which includes stops in Reston, Sterling, Alexandria, Arlington, Annandale and -- as of June -- Fairfax City. More than 1,200 families are on their e-mail list. There is no restriction on how often or how much they buy, and about 100 place orders in any given month, Smith said.
Orders average $100, she said, but range from $9 for two dozen eggs to $500 for weeks' worth of beef, chicken and lamb. Meat is by far the biggest draw, and Mount Vernon's thick-cut, uncured bacon -- more sweet than smoky -- is difficult to keep in stock. The Remington Pepper Co.'s salsa has also earned a following; the chipotle variety is made from home-smoked local peppers, the "gourmet" variety from a blend of herbs and spices, including ginger. "I just kind of fell in love," said Vicky Reiner, an Arlington court reporter who buys a half-dozen jars each month.