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The State | COLUMN ONE

Forging Edible Bonds

Small organic food producers are finding a niche delivering directly to consumers, who offer strapped growers steady cash and devoted eaters.

August 06, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

As cutting-edge operations go, the one taking root at Tom Willey's organic farm in the Central Valley is surprisingly simple.

In the shade of a tin-roof shed, workers wedge bunches of sweet carrots, stalks of broccoli and other chemical-free crops into cardboard boxes headed straight to family dinner tables. Willey runs the equivalent of a home-delivery service for organic produce, a new way that small growers are making ends meet.

"I think there are ways to survive and leverage your smallness into something that corporate producers can't mimic," said Willey, 55, who delivers fresh-picked produce three times a week to more than 200 Fresno-area customers. "Educating people to eat locally, to eat seasonally, to have a personal relationship with the grower and the land the food comes from, I think that is the best [hope for] the future of the small farmer."

The grass-roots approach is rapidly winning converts. Thousands of Californians now pay farmers to pick, pack and deliver produce just for them.

The movement began in Japan decades ago and migrated to the United States in the mid-1980s. Nearly 1,000 so-called community-supported farms have sprung up across the country, and as many as 100 are now doing business in California.

In most cases, the produce is trucked to central distribution points, such as schools and natural foods stores, where customers collect their deliveries. Subscribers pay in advance by buying memberships in the farm's food club, which supplies a portion of a grower's production expenses upfront.

Some of the largest food clubs have more than 700 subscribers, and many of the programs regularly invite members to take part in life on the farm through tours, potluck dinners and cooking classes.

"It's like Christmas each time a package arrives," said Jo Tarantino, a 70-something grandmother who gets weekly produce deliveries at her La Crescenta home via UPS through a Fresno food club.

"The food is absolutely awesome -- I mean a carrot really tastes like a carrot," she said. "It's picked one day and you get it the next. You can't beat that."

The prices are pretty good, too. Researchers have found that customers generally pay less for produce through subscription programs than they would at supermarkets or organic food stores because there is no middleman.

Still, the food clubs are not for everyone.

Selection is limited to what is grown seasonally on any particular farm. In addition, some customers complain that they receive more produce than they can consume and that they often get stuck with food they don't like or can't use.

At Tierra Miguel Foundation Farm in San Diego County, manager Robert Farmer said he conducts twice-annual surveys to determine what consumers want and tracks turnover to find out why customers drop out.

"That's one of the good things about [the subscription program], customers have an active role in deciding how it runs," Farmer said.

The trend comes at a time when corporate growers have moved into the fast-growing organic industry, forcing some family farmers to shift to direct-marketing strategies.

But, at least in part, it is also a component of a larger movement aimed at changing America's relationship with food and farming -- in essence forging personal ties between environmentally conscious growers and consumers.

"It's really a philosophy of life," said Karrie Stevens, program director for the Davis-based Community Alliance with Family Farmers.

"Most [farmers] see it as an opportunity to make a connection with their customers," she added. "It's one thing the big guys can't do. And that's the only way that small- and medium-scale farmers are going to make it in the California market."

It's an approach that Willey and his wife, Denesse, embraced late last year at their 75-acre farm near Madera.

Although most of their business has come by word of mouth, they have also promoted their enterprise at special events and through brochures placed at local wineries and restaurants.

The pitch won over Sherri Lewis, who drives 30 miles each week from the Sierra foothill community of Tollhouse to retrieve her produce in Fresno.

"We want to support our small farmers," said Lewis, who arrived at a vitamin store recently with her three daughters in tow for her weekly pickup.

"I don't believe in using pesticides or chemicals -- it's bad enough we have to breathe it, we shouldn't have to eat it," Lewis said. "I wish all farmers would be this conscientious."

*

On a delivery route that takes him from the exclusive subdivisions of San Juan Capistrano to the edge of inner-city Long Beach, 46-year-old farmer Mil Krecu basks in the aroma of basil and soaks in the scent of sweet onions.

"I wasn't really looking for a driving job," said Krecu, who racks up more than 500 miles a week making deliveries in a big blue pickup better suited for a rutted road than an urban freeway. "But you've got to get your produce to the people who are supporting you or you're not going to make it."

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