Fresh & Local
The Fresh Link, Part 1
Column #5, Oct 21st, 2011
There is currently a food revolution going on, and locally grown food is making permanent inroads. In previous columns, I mentioned the emergence of local food wholesalers as an important development. This week I want to expand on why they are important.
A couple of years ago, Mollie Visosky and her husband John Paul started a locally grown produce wholesale business named The Fresh Link based in Locust Dale in Madison county (www.thefreshlink.com). My wife Terry and I had a small farm and we were growing produce, flowers and berries as a part-time business. We were growing for the farmers’ markets and began by selling the extra produce we had to The Fresh Link.
Last December, after working for 16 years at a large bank, I was laid-off from my job. I knew what I really wanted to do. We had some savings, but not much time. How is it even possible for us to quickly make the jump to full time? If we spend the time and money to ramp up production, what chance is there that we can sell enough of it to survive? That was a huge risk.
When I looked at the farm’s results for last year, I noticed that we actually did more business with The Fresh Link than we did at the farmers’ markets. So I began to wonder what would be possible if we started growing specifically for our wholesaler?
With that thought in mind, we gathered up all our budgets and financial spreadsheets and sat down with Mollie. We needed a guarantee that we would be able to sell what we grew.
Mollie, it turned out, had more demand for greens like spinach and leaf lettuce than she could supply. But she also really wanted a year-around supply. So The Fresh Link offered us an agreement to buy 240 lbs. of greens a week from us at set prices. In return, we had to provide a continuous supply.
We decided that agreement would work. We spent two and a half months building row-cover tunnels and ramping up production, and in February we started cutting greens for Fresh Link. Wholesalers can mitigate big risks for growers.
In last week’s column, I pointed out that the majority of the people in the locally grown food business are zealous about good food. Most of them could be making a lot more money doing something else, but they chose this business.
I recently asked Mollie why she got into the local food wholesale business.
“My background was the natural gas distribution business.”
“A completely unrelated business,” I figured.
“No! It’s the perfect background and skill-set for this job!”
“We started out thinking about becoming growers. But there was already an existing resource of growers. The biggest local food demand in this area is the Washington, D.C. area. Local growers can’t do it all, and we decided that what was really missing was a way for local growers to market their production in metropolitan Washington.”
“If you think about it, the problem is strategically exactly the same as natural gas distribution. In both cases, you are taking a resource from a rural area and efficiently transporting and distributing it in a major metropolitan area. A single farm is going to have a hard time developing efficient distribution channels.”
Who would ever have guessed that?
I’m out of space for this week. I’ll continue my conversation with Mollie Visosky next week.
Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County. His column on fresh and locally grown food runs every Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org