Cooperative Depends on Farmer Flexibility

8/9/2014 7:00 AM
By Linda McNatt Va./N.C. Correspondent

On Tuesdays, workers from The Farm Table are gathered in a Richmond warehouse cleaning, sorting and distributing fresh produce from farms across eastern Virginia, placing the foods into individual boxes for almost 2,000 customers from Fredericksburg to Virginia Beach.

By Thursday, the boxes will be delivered to homes and offices, and the company will have fulfilled its commitment: from dirt to doorstep within 48 hours. The cooperative, based on the value of fresh, nutritional foods grown near home, started — first in Richmond — in 2011 and has thus far expanded into a 150-mile radius from its home base in the state capital. Plans are to eventually expand into Northern Virginia, according to Duane Slyder, founder and managing director of The Farm Table. For now, his goal is to focus on his current customers.

The Food Table is Virginia’s largest food cooperative and food distribution company of its kind in the state, he said. He admits it takes a lot of hard work and dedication from the workers, cooperative members and the eight farmers involved in the effort.

The Food Table is more than a CSA, or community supported agriculture, company. The food comes not just from one location but from eight. The farms are spread from Westmoreland County to Virginia Beach. Several of the farms have specialties; others deal in various produce products and “grow to order” for the cooperative.

“We deliver every Thursday,” Slyder said. “We’ve pledged to get the produce to our members within 48 hours of processing.”

Slyder maintains that produce in grocery stores typically takes a week to get to the store after it is harvested. By then, he says, it has lost much of its flavor and about 60 percent of its nutritional value.

“Our food system is broken,” he said.

In addition to the health benefits, The Food Table’s system of 48-hour delivery benefits local farmers, the local economy and the environment. All of the farmers use sustainable farm methods, Slyder said, and since the farmers are close to their customers, transporting produce results in a smaller carbon footprint.

“Local produce is also a hedge against the possibility of losing access to food if there’s ever a transportation breakdown after a natural disaster or other crisis,” according to the company’s website.

There are several things that make The Food Table different from other CSAs. For one, customers are not obligated to take every box, every week. If they’re on vacation or gone from home for some other reason, they can cancel for a week or longer and aren’t obligated to pay. They can also substitute some items or refuse others. A weekly email on Friday from the headquarters makes all of that possible. All the customer has to do is make their wishes known in a return email.

Clif Slade, a retired Virginia Tech Extension agent and a third-generation farmer in Surry County, Va., about halfway between Norfolk and Richmond, said he’s been very impressed with the system in the few months his farm has participated in The Food Table.

“They sent people out here to look at the farm,” he said. “They told me what they thought I could do for them and then told me exactly what they wanted.”

Slade said he has four acres of his farm certified organic and two greenhouses. He uses only one acre to grow produce for The Farm Table.

The company isn’t necessarily looking for organic produce, but they do demand that farmers use sustainable practices on the farms.

“For example, we might hear somebody say that they spray every week,” Slyder said. “We’d rather hear them say they spray when they find it necessary to spray.”

Slade said his own farm in Surry wouldn’t still be in existence after three generations without sustainable practices. One of his most interesting assignments so far was growing collards in February. The large-leafed green is a traditional winter holiday meal in southern Virginia, but it’s unusual to hear about people continuing to eat them afterthe holidays.

“Collards? In February?” Slade recalled saying. “I grew them and The Farm Table bought them.”

The transportation system, Slade said, has also impressed him. If he has something to ship one week and another farmer in Smithfield is also shipping produce, he’s directed to take his contribution to the Smithfield farm, where it will then be shipped to Richmond. Smithfield is only about 20 miles from Surry County.

“It’s like car-pooling veggies,” Slade said.

Car-pooling veggies is exactly what 75 members — called “key-members” — do to assist in delivery. It’s like neighbor to neighbor, Slyder said.

Slyder has nine employees. The “key members” are part time, paid employees and also members of the cooperative. The company couldn’t do what they do without the dedication of the employees and the members, Slyder said.

Twenty-five-pound boxes of produce are delivered to customers each week after they have paid a $50 annual membership fee. The cost is $28.50 weekly for either the “Chef’s box” or the “Garden box.” Each recycled box comes complete with recipes, Slyder said.

“We want to be sustainable,” he said, chuckling. “Our goal is to support local farmers. We work with them in every way we can and pay on Fridays. We couldn’t do it without our members.”

In the beginning, The Farm Table delivered only from April through November, said marketing director Kat Costello. The delivery time has recently been extended through December. For an extra charge, members can also order specialty boxes, such as for holidays.

“In the colder months, a lot of the produce comes from our greenhouse farmers, and we are able to offer other add-ons like meats and cheeses,” she said.

When he was a boy growing up in Loudoun County, Va., near Charlottesville, Slyder said he remembers the family always having at least a small vegetable garden. That’s when he would eat raw green beans straight from the garden. He still likes to eat them that way.

“There’s nothing like fresh vegetables grown close to home,” Slyder said.

For more information about The Farm Table, see TheFarmTable.org and www.facebook.com/TFTRVA.


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12/18/2014 | Last Updated: 6:15 PM