Environment
11:38 am
Tue August 30, 2011

Simple business model connects chefs to locally grown food

Michigan farmers grow the most diverse crops of any state besides California. Agriculture is Michigan’s 2nd largest industry and it’s growing. But many Michigan farms aren’t big enough to distribute through grocery stores.

Take Barbara Jenness for example. She owns Dancing Goat Creamery in Byron Center, a small town in West Michigan.

“I was asked by Meijer's to have my cheese, which is a joke," Jenness  chuckled, "He asked me, “How much can you give me?” And I said five pounds a week.”

Jenness only has 28 goats on three-and-a-half-acres; definitely not enough to supply all the Meijer stores.

Distribution is sort of a nightmare for small and medium sized producers. Jenness sells most of her cheese directly to restaurants around Grand Rapids. Her husband spends hours each week delivering it all. Then he helps her haul the rest to farmers markets.

Jerry Adams figured there had to be a better way.

“So much stuff is created here but because there aren’t easy distribution systems to get it into the hand of people that can use it, a lot of our food just goes bad.”

Last spring Adams and his wife started FarmLink, a virtual farmers market. It’s specifically aimed at chefs in schools, restaurants and hospitals.

Farmers list all of the produce they have on the virtual store shelves. Chefs login to FarmLink and build a virtual shopping cart with the local food that’s available.

A couple days later the virtual FarmLink store becomes a brick and mortar one. Chefs and farmers meet up at Adams’ office; an old furniture factory turned into an office space. People casually come and go, grabbing a pint of locally-brewed beer before loading up plastic bins full of produce.

“The real jist of this all is that we are too removed from our food,” Adams said, “I want you to talk to the guy growing your green beans or the woman making your goat cheese.”

Adams lists several benefits to the FarmLink model.

  1. Supports local small and medium farmers who tend to farm more sustainably
  2. Chefs and their customers get access to more nutritious, fresh produce
  3. Money stays closer to the local economy instead of going to farmers outside of Michigan
  4. The meet-ups create a community of people interested in food - that creates more possibilities 

I meet Steve Vanhaitsma, the guy growing your lettuce. Today he brought 57 pounds from Mud Lake Farm 20 miles west in Ottawa County.

“All this lettuce was picked this morning. And they have it today so it’s incredibly fresh.”

Chefs buying from normal wholesaler (think Gorman’s or Sysco) would likely get produce that’s transported in from California.

“You can ask any of the chefs here,” Vanhaitsma said, “there’s just no comparison.”

Chef Chris Perkey picks up pork belly, leeks and 20 pounds of Vanhaitsma’s lettuce. Perkey is executive chef at the Kent County Country Club. He says the food is so good, so fresh, he adjusts his menu to reflect what’s in season.

But he’s also got farmers adjusting to his menu. This year a local farmer starting raising ducks knowing Perkey will buy at least 6 a week.

“Our trouble is going to be…what happens in the fall and the winter,” Perkey said, “January is not exactly the greatest time of the year for Michigan produce.”

Chefs will still be able to get lettuce in January because Steve Vanhaitsma’s greenhouse produces about 600 pounds of lettuce each week year-round.

But Barbara Jenness’ goat cheese will be gone in the fall.

“As a mother of three boys I can tell you nothing was meant to lactate their whole life and so my girls all get the winter off,” Jenness explained.

FarmLink is still working through kinks like this as the seasons change.

The business model is pretty simple – FarmLink takes a 5-percent cut of farmer’s sales and chefs’ orders. Sales are still pretty small; $2,000 on a good week. But the business is growing almost every week.

Adams hopes to spread the FarmLink business model to towns throughout the state. So he’s giving away the software to people willing to start a FarmLink; just ask.