July 30, 2012
At a small table surrounded by a crowd at the Ynot Wednesdays? Farmers Market, Shannon Rice offered samples of her goat cheese infused with herbs or sun-dried tomatoes.
“That’s fantastic,” said Tabitha Lilly, who had strolled over with her husband and 2-year-old son. As she left Rice’s stand, the 31-year-old Virginia Beach mom said she tries to buy as much food from local purveyors as possible.
“In the summer, I think 80 percent of my pantry is local goods,” she said. “I’d rather pay a little extra and know what I’m getting.”
Small-scale growers, artisanal foodmakers and at-home producers all over Hampton Roads are finding success serving an expanding number of consumers like the Lillys, who try to buy their food from suppliers close to home.
Selling local has become a viable business proposition – no longer just a labor of love or a feel-good venture. These operators are starting up at a more rapid pace and watching sales climb as a result of their local flavor. Some are breaking even or making a profit for the first time after years of operation.
“We’re self-sustaining now,” said Alison Wilson, who operates Full Quiver Farm in Suffolk with her husband and nine children. Selling pasture-raised meat and eggs full-time since 2008, Full Quiver enhanced its on-the-farm sales with a table at the Old Beach Farmers Market on 19th Street and Cypress Avenue on Saturdays. “Our business has doubled here this year.”
Sales made from Virginia farms directly to consumers – mostly through farmers markets and community-supported agriculture programs – increased by 72 percent, from $16.8 million in 2002 to $28.9 million in 2007, according to “Virginia Farm to Table,” a report released this year by Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech and Virginia State University.
Those numbers likely have climbed to $30 million or more, said Eric Bendfeldt, chief author of the report and the extension’s specialist for community viability, though he had no recent data. Besides consumer purchases, more institutions such as schools and hospitals are emphasizing local products, he said.
“The trend for buying local has really taken off in the past four years,” said Bendfeldt, who works in Harrisonburg. “The growth is happening so quickly that it’s hard to keep up.”
A greater emphasis on food safety – spurred by reports of contamination at corporate farms in recent years – has contributed to the growing numbers of those who prefer to eat locally, said Rachel Burns, director of Buy Fresh Buy Local Hampton Roads. The belief that products that travel shorter distances generally taste better and a desire to support businesses in the local economy are other factors feeding the “locavore” movement.
FoodRoutes Network, a Millheim, Pa.-based group that launched the Buy Fresh Buy Local organization 12 years ago to support locavore activity, has increased its chapters by 50 percent since 2007, Burns said. Chapters now top 70 in 20 states.
“People are looking for it,” Burns said. “It is a lot easier to get your product to market than it was five to 10 years ago.”
In April, Rice quit her job as director of development for the local chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society to focus on Shady Goat Farm. Her husband, Tim, supports the venture by working as a government contractor doing software training, currently at a hospital in Afghanistan.
They estimated that their investments in milking and pasteurizing equipment, alterations to their Indian River Road property to meet state requirements, and animal care have totaled about $50,000.
“We had to know that it would be a marketable product,” Rice said. “We’re not huge risk-takers. We wanted to make an educated decision on our future.”
Rice isn’t the only Virginia cheesemaker who saw this as the right time to launch. For about 25 years, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services licensed only one or two operators under its Farmstead Cheese Program. In 2005, the program had issued 13 permits, a number that has since grown to 27 as of March.
Just as crucial as consumer demand to the small suppliers’ boom in business is having the channels to reach those customers – mostly through farmers markets. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of farmers markets operating nationwide grew 17 percent between 2010 and 2011, to 7,175 as of last year. That marked a 63.6 percent increase in five years.
In Virginia, the farmers markets listed with the Virginia Grown program of the state Agriculture Department have more than doubled since 2006, from 88 to 208, said Elaine Lidholm, the department’s spokeswoman. Most communities in Hampton Roads have at least one farmers market, and many have several that operate at least once a week.
This year, Jessica Harkness and Kristal Miller started the weekly Farmers’ Fare market in East Beach to give local food to that and nearby neighborhoods in Norfolk, where residents previously had few options other than supermarkets. “That was important to me, to fill the gap,” said Harkness, who lives in the nearby Bayview area.
The market has attracted shoppers who express gratitude that they can find items such as eggs and meat, seafood, produce, baked goods and ice cream near their homes and “not have to drive to Pungo to the farm itself,” she said.
Outdoor seasonal markets aren’t the only way for small suppliers to sell their goods. Year-round small grocers have popped up, such as Westside Produce & Provisions on Colley Avenue in Norfolk, offering local fruits and vegetables, seafood, baked goods, jam, honey and soaps made within 100 miles.
Coastal Farms LLC launched its online, year-round farmers market in April 2010 to gather the bounty across Hampton Roads. Members who pay a six-month fee can place orders and pick them up at locations in most of the region’s cities.
“We work with a lot of small farms that wouldn’t necessarily have the amounts to sell at a farmers market,” said Kimberly Atkinson, who left her job at Windsor Elementary School to start Coastal Farms, which she envisions helping those budding operators build a customer base. “Our business is just one more little tool that they can put in their pocket.”
Greater access to retail customers has changed the scope of Don Edmonds’ business. About 15 years ago, when Edmonds Farm started selling bison meat in Lancaster, on the Northern Neck, most of his customers were restaurants – many of which were reluctant to take his product.
“I would seriously have to put on a suit, show up at restaurants, bring the meat” and show them how to cook it, he said.
Now, his sales at three weekly farmers markets leave him with too little supply to commit to restaurants or stores, some of which have b
him for product. His herd has grown from about a dozen bison to more than 75.
At the Old Beach market, in the parking lot of Croc’s 19th Street Bistro, a pound of Edmonds’ ground meat costs $8.50, and filet mignon goes for $28.99 a pound. This year, Edmonds said, his sales about doubled from two years ago and he might cover his costs for the first time.
“I wouldn’t have the clientele base without it,” Edmonds said of the growth in farmers markets, as he folded up his Old Beach table at noon on a recent Saturday. “I have to do a lot of educating about the meat and the animal. I couldn’t do that on the farm.”
The value of selling local isn’t lost on big retailers and national restaurant chains. Discount giant Walmart, fast-food operator Chipotle and regional grocer Harris Teeter all have promoted programs for locally grown produce. Larger operators tend to define “local” as coming from producers within the same state as the store, while groups such as Buy Fresh Buy Local and some farmers market operators limit the “foodshed” to a 100-mile radius.
BJ’s Wholesale Club rolled out its Farm To Club program last year in Florida and worked its way up the East Coast, reaching Virginia stores just two weeks ago.
The chain added “locally grown” signs and package stickers on at least five products – including peppers, squash, eggplant and corn – identifying the farms within the state that grew them, said Dominic Viglione, a produce buyer for the retailer, based in Westborough, Mass.
BJ’s sales on those vegetables jumped after the “local” labels appeared, Viglione said. “Our sales were up 27 percent in units and 21 percent in dollars” in North Carolina. Georgia stores saw an 84 percent increase in unit sales and 64 percent in dollar value.
Some of those stores already were getting the vegetables from local farmers. “We never called out the fact that it was locally grown,” he said of the new marketing. “It has just drawn incredible attention.”
Laura Habr, co-owner of Croc’s and a co-founder of the Old Beach market, agreed that the marketing of the locally sourced elements of her menu “makes good business sense for us.” Customers frequently tell her that they come to the restaurant because of its local items, which include Virginia Pork Chili Verde using meat from Full Quiver Farm.
“They wanted to try us and support us,” she said, “and it has brought them back.”
On a recent Saturday at the Old Beach market, Rice sold out of her goat cheese in just over an hour. At her table, she displays several goat-farming and goat-cheese books, including her text from Goat School, a two-week class in Maine that she took in 2010.
That’s when she decided to try her hand as a hobby farmer, making her own cheese, butter and milk. She shared her chevre (French for goat cheese) with friends, who insisted that she should offer it commercially.
She sells plain and flavored goat cheese, infused with herbs or nuts and honey, in 4-ounce cups for $8 each and slabs of feta cheese for $9 or $12 marinated, plus goat cheese truffles in chocolate and lemon.
She now has 24 goats, as well as free-range chickens supplying eggs, and milks every day at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. It’s a hefty commitment, but Rice foresees a payoff, particularly with no other cheesemaking competition in Hampton Roads – for the moment.
“If there was anytime to do it,” she said, “it was going to be now.”
About Carolyn Shapiro