October 12, 2008
FROM THE FARM
By JAN ELLEN SPIEGEL
IT’S 8 o’clock on the nose, on a rainy Friday night, as Deb Marsden pulls her tangerine-colored Honda Element into her driveway here. The GPS unit, for the first time in hours, has stopped chattering. Coolers stacked in the car’s cargo space are empty. The Connecticut Farm Fresh Express has finished another week.
Started by Ms. Marsden in February, Farm Fresh Express (www.ctffe.com) is a conceptual cross between Stop & Shop’s Peapod and a personal shopper delivering Connecticut-grown and -produced items literally to people’s doors year round. With advantages for both farmers and consumers, it is another indicator of how deep the market for fresh, local, seasonal food has become in this state.
When she first approached farmers with the idea, Ms. Marsden said, she laughed when they told her, “You’re going to be so busy you’re not even going to believe it.”
Since then she’s up to a couple of dozen vendors. She has lost count but figures her distribution list is up to several hundred, netting three to four dozen deliveries a week — mostly individuals and a few restaurants. She has hired her son’s girlfriend to help handle the increasing volume. She is considering expanding her delivery area, currently New London, Middlesex and New Haven Counties, to other parts of the state. And she’s still laughing.
“Some people go to Wal-Mart and buy their food, and some people think that it’s better to do this,” she said. “I’m absolutely amazed at how many people actually want to be on the list.”
It’s not that Ms. Marsden, 56, a graphic designer by trade, is an evangelical foodie, though she did raise her two sons on organic food in the 1970s when it was difficult and costly. The idea came from a podcast about a California company that delivers community-supported agriculture produce. “I listened to the podcast — twice — and then I started to talk about it,” she said. “I thought I could do it better.”
Instead of giving clients whatever is available with minimal choice, Ms. Marsden offers a huge array of produce, cheese, meat, poultry, seafood, eggs, baked goods, honey, syrup and more, as well as specific farms to choose from. Items change based on availability and season. Some are organic, some not. She said she has been amazed by the breadth of what Connecticut has — year-round hydroponic greens, fresh figs, edamame, okra, homemade tofu, meats from lamb to duck to rabbit — plus all the usual fruits, vegetables and cheeses.
Customers are e-mailed a product list weekly. Their choices are forwarded to the farms, which charge Ms. Marsden wholesale rates. Consumers pay a farmers’ market retail price plus a delivery fee based on their distance from Ms. Marsden’s home — $5.25 to $15 (so far) and $25 for restaurants.
Once the orders come in, it’s a three-day blitz: farm pickups from the Hartford area to the southeastern shoreline; packing orders into coolers and baskets from the staging area in Ms. Marsden’s basement, where an antique spring scale is used for weighing produce; and then deliveries.
There is the occasional scrambling when farmers don’t have promised items. One week blueberries ran out, and on another particularly problematic delivery cycle, half the corn and a couple of dozen eggs were missing, the squash didn’t quite sort out the way it was supposed to, the baker had a batch of bread flop, and some of the seafood leaked, leaving Ms. Marsden’s Element smelling like low tide. The Connecticut Farm Fresh Express is at times more jigsaw puzzle than fresh food enterprise.
Which is one reason customers are happy to pay Ms. Marsden to handle the logistics. “It’s the idea that I could shop at all these farmers’ markets but not shop at all the farmers’ markets,” said Karen Anderson, 45, a freelance writer from New London as she unpacked scallops from Stonington, bread from Middlefield, greens from Hamden, cheeses from Lebanon and Colchester, and green peppers, zucchini and garlic from New Britain. “That’s a lot of gas mileage.”
Saving gas and time while being able to reach far-flung parts of the state are the biggest lures for farmers. “It pretty much opened a nice chunk of market for us,” said Ken Zaborowski, general manager of Urban Oaks, a multiproduct New Britain organic farm (including those figs) that does not deliver east of the Connecticut River. “We’d love to see someone else follow her model in other parts of the state.”
Perry Hack, the owner of a hydroponic greens operation called 2 Guys From Woodbridge, which is actually in Hamden, said Ms. Marsden solves his biggest problem, distribution. “If she could do more for me I would do it,” Mr. Hack said. “She’s filled a void.”
Ms. Marsden isn’t the first to try this. Last year, Mary Beth Draghi of Littel Acres farm in Glastonbury started a farm delivery service for restaurants, but gave up after one season. “The problem is that the Connecticut growing season is not consistent,” she said. “You’re promising items that you are not 99 percent sure you’re going to have.”
That is a problem for restaurants with a set menu, but not necessarily for individuals. Most say the convenience of the service and the assurance of getting fresh, local food are more important than knowing that they can get a specific item.
For many, Farm Fresh Express has been a revelation.
“It made me aware of how much I was spending at a big store that I didn’t need to be buying,” said Dorica Nevin, a psychologist in Moodus, noting the pitfalls of wandering up and down store aisles.
Denice Feeley, 41, a stay-at-home mom who also lives in Moodus, said the convenience was what initially attracted her to the service. Learning about new and fresh foods has been a bonus.
“My kids now eat beets,” she said. “My husband eats beet greens.”
Debra Southworth, 53, of Old Lyme, said that what was most important to her was knowing that she could get the organic items she wanted and support the local economy as well.
“It’s all good,” she said. “Win, win.”
For Ms. Marsden, the fun has been meeting farmers and customers and thinking that one day she will need a fleet of tangerine Elements. “I’ve always said since the beginning of this, ‘When I stop having fun, I’m not doing it anymore,’ ” she said. “I might have to change the way I say that. When I don’t like it anymore, I’m going to hire more people to do the part that I don’t like.”
And on that rainy Friday night, she didn’t hesitate: “Yeah, it’s still fun.”