Freshly Grown

The folks at Farm Fresh RI discuss the present and future of local food systems


The past decade has been a great one for local food, due in large part to the tireless work of Farm Fresh RI, which was founded in 2004. Most people know the organization, if not by name, than at least by the many farmer’s markets it operates around the state. But there is much more to Farm Fresh than just farmer’s markets: its Market Mobile program delivers local foods directly from farms to restaurants, cafeterias and other wholesale customers; its Harvest Kitchen puts youth in the justice system to work in food processing; its annual Local Food Form brings together farmers, restaurateurs, vendors and a whole network of food industry professionals to network and compare notes; and there are still many more plans on the way. We caught up with Executive Director Noah Fulmer and Program Director Sheri Griffin on the eve of their forum to talk about their progress.

So what is this local food forum all about?

Sheri: This year’s conference, our 9th Annual Local Food Forum, was the “Center of the Plate” and it focused on sustainable proteins, such as beef, poultry and seafood. We had a panel discussion with a professor from Johnson and Wales, Pat McNiff from Pat’s Pastured, Jared Auerbach from Red’s Best Seafood in Massachusetts, Sarah Schumann, a local fisherman, and Mel Coleman from Niman Ranch. We tried to mix the panel between a national sustainable meat supplier and a local farmer, a national sustainable fishing distributor and a local fisherman, to get a good view of the issues.

The Food Forum began as a way to connect farmers and buyers – a B2B meeting for the local food sector. Over these past nine years, there has been so much growth!

Farm Fresh has had an impressive first decade. How far have you come? How far do you still have to go?
Noah: Yes, we have a strong network of summer markets across Providence, Pawtucket, Woonsocket, West Warwick and Newport. Making the bounty of RI farms more accessible in urban communities has been at the core of our mission. It’s a win for farmers to have a market in a population center and it’s a win for city folks who get access to healthier, fresher foods. So much of the dysfunction in our food system today can be traced to the disconnect between people and where their food comes from.

We’ve also been looking at other ways to increase the amount of locally grown food available in Rhode Island. Market Mobile is a delivery program that allows business customers to order in wholesale quantities from local farmers, and Harvest Kitchen engages youth in the juvenile justice system in processing farmers’ seasonal harvest into foods like applesauce and pickles that can be sold year-round. So much of our work is about rebuilding ways to get local food to local eaters. The demand is huge and we used to be good about connecting local supply and demand, but we’ve let things get rusty in the past few decades.

Sheri: There has been so much progress in the awareness of our local agriculture economy, its challenges such as high land and tax costs, as well as the great quality and variety of local vegetables, fruit, meat and seafood. We love the strong connections Rhode Islanders have to their growers and fishermen. But there is still a long ways for us to go. We estimate that just 1% of the food consumed in Rhode Island is locally grown or caught. That is 99% opportunity! Grocery store shelves, cafeterias, schools, senior meal sites – there are so many ways to tie in local food better.

With the Market Mobile program, you’ve pulled off something that a lot of people in the industry thought was impossible. How did you make it work?
Sheri: Market Mobile, our local farm-to-table distribution program, continues to be a great success. Program success has come about from great enthusiasm from local chefs and buyers, great products to work with, a fearless and energetic staff, and some wonderful volunteers. The program’s foundations are based in some quirky skills of Noah’s and mine. Noah is a fantastic coder and has made this amazing software that runs online ordering system. I grew up in a citrus farming family in Florida and my father designed and managed commercial citrus packing houses; he and I worked together on the design for Farm Fresh’s packhouse in Hope Artiste Village.

Noah: It really comes down to the incredible community of chefs, grocery stores and food service purchasers who have believed in local farmers. Every week Market Mobile helps 50 farmers sell to nearly 100 customers from Westerly to Boston. It all started here in Providence with restaurants like New Rivers and Gracie’s and larger cafeterias like RISD and Blue Cross Blue Shield. Many of the farmers we work with never grew for wholesale customers before and few grew year-round, but Market Mobile has opened new doors. There’s now a RI chapter of the Chef’s Collaborative, focused on sustainable food, coordinated by Derek Wagner of Nicks on Broadway and Jake Rojas of Tallulah on Thames. Pretty impressive what RI can do when everyone works together.

Farm Fresh has really become a national model for developing local food systems. Are other organizations trying to learn from you? Are you still learning from others?
Noah: Market Mobile as a system of multi-farm ordering, product aggregation, delivery and billing is fairly unique. That stuff might not sound exciting, but “food hubs” are one of the biggest focuses in local food development across the country right now. The core issue is making it efficient for family farms to sell to nearby wholesale customers. We’ve had a lot of success with Market Mobile and have a revolving door of groups from Seattle, New York and Philadelphia coming to see what we’re doing here in Providence.

Sheri: We’re also learning a lot from groups, like the Western Massachusetts Processing Center, which helps farmers flash freeze some of their summer crops so they can be sold later in the year.

How has having a winter market changed things?
Sheri: One of my motivations in my work at Farm Fresh is to make local food access easy, affordable and obvious. And that is not really possible when there is no local food available for eight months per year. When we began the Wintertime Market in 2007, there were no other local wintertime markets. We just knew there was still local food to sell and no place for the public to find it reliably. It wasn’t clear that the market would last the winter, that there would be enough products to sell. But, we lasted with seafood, stored apples, stored root vegetables, eggs, greenhouse greens. Each year, the supply of food that farms and fisherman bring to market increases, our customer numbers increase. It has been delightful.

Most really successful local food scenes have a big public market like Pike Place in Seattle or Ferry Plaza in San Francisco. Could that happen in Providence?
Noah: The Wintertime Market was a big change in paradigm, normalizing the idea that RI could produce its own food the year round. In many ways, the Wintertime Market is just a stepping stone towards rethinking the way we connect food with the city. We’ve been inspired by trips to other mid-sized cities like Cleveland and Grand Rapids. Both of these cities have bustling public markets that have anchored neighborhoods and spurred new classes of local food businesses. A public market enhances community, vibrancy and livability, and ultimately makes the city a place people want to live. There are great examples nearby. Montreal has the most impressive public market I’ve seen, and its committed customers are a big reason why farmers much farther north than us are growing year round. Boston has realized this too and is spending $10 million on a new public market site for farmers near South Station. RI has an incredible culinary scene, thriving neighborhood markets and local farms and food artisans that produce a wide bounty of foods. I think we’re more than ready for a Providence public market too.

What's on Farm Fresh's to-do list for 2013?
Noah: We’re working right now to get the word out about a bill in the General Assembly to legalize local wine and beer at RI farmer’s markets. Similar legislation in Massachusetts boosted about a dozen local vineyards and brewers’ sales by 66%.

There are also exciting possibilities with the new RI Seafood Marketing Collaborative. Being the Ocean State, we have a great harvest but most of it immediately leaves Rhode Island after it’s landed. We’re trying to apply some of the farm-to-table magic to seafood by opening up more opportunities to sell locally. Fishermen would get a better price and eaters again would get fresher seafood. Look for a new “RI Seafood” branding campaign starting in April.

Sheri: We are hoping to break $2 million in sales on Market Mobile in 2013. In order to do so, we are expanding cold storage in our pack house.

We are looking forward to another great season at our outdoor markets – even though it’s 25 degrees now, we are planning our summer, and I know that farmers are too!
The Rhode Island Farm to School Project is looking towards seeing local veggies served in all of RI’s public school cafeterias!