by Sonja Heyck-Merlin
Josh Jennings is a New Hampshire vegetable farmer and co-owner of Three Rivers Farmers Alliance, a group of local farmers and food producers offering year-round delivery of their products to homes, restaurants, stores and other wholesale buyers. Their customers span southern Maine, New Hampshire’s seacoast region and Boston’s North Shore. Jennings’s farm, Meadows Mirth, is one of the original participating farms.
The alliance began in 2009. At this point, Jennings was selling to 35 restaurants and knew some growers looking to develop their own wholesale markets. He recalled they came to him and said, “We don’t want to step on your toes; we want to work together. One truck is so much better than all of our trucks following each other around. Let’s see if we can put something together.”
In the spirit of cooperation and with the goal of reducing the cost of distribution, Meadows Mirth, with three other farmers, launched an online marketing enterprise using the Local Food Marketplace platform. It is one of several software programs available for farmers and food hubs. “We started the Alliance with one shared truck operating out of an owner’s barn,” Jennings said.
The 2020 Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Farmer to Farmer conference took place remotely this year. Jennings participated in a workshop titled “Multi-farm Online Sales Platforms” and explained the Alliance’s strategy.
Pre-COVID-19, they were exclusively wholesaling but quickly pivoted to home deliveries early on in the pandemic. “The level of company expansion that came after COVID certainly wasn’t expected,” Jennings said. Now they have a fleet of five refrigerated box trucks on the road with more than 20 staff and 50-plus farms and food producers. Products are no longer aggregated out of the owner’s barn but from a rented warehouse. Jennings anticipates $3 million in sales in 2020.
Products available from the website include produce, fruit, canned goods, bakery items, mushrooms, fresh pasta, fermented foods and more. The majority of the produce still comes from the four original farmer-owners. They recently added some meal kits created by restaurants. Customers can log in, browse all the offerings through a user-friendly interface and have a three-day ordering window. They can make purchases from multiple vendors with just one charge to their card.
“We are not a distributer,” Jennings explained. “We are a shared resource company made up of independent producers.” Each week, the producers load their available products onto the platform, setting their own prices. Producers receive a bi-weekly pick ticket telling them which goods need to be delivered to the warehouse. A standard mark-up is automatically added – 27% for wholesale buyers, 30% for home deliveries. Home deliveries also have a fixed $10 delivery charge. The fees cover managing the Alliance, packing and distributing the orders. In turn, the Alliance pays a flat rate of $7,000 per year to the Local Food Marketplace platform.
Jennings said they also have a small number of businesses that the Alliance buys directly from, which he referred to as suppliers. An example is honey, which is non-perishable and saves the supplier the time and cost of delivering a product that is easy to store at the warehouse.
Whether it’s a supplier or a producer, Jennings said they don’t have a set way of taking on new vendors. “When we’re thinking of adding a new vendor, we try to look at products that don’t have a ton of overlap unless we know there’s demand. We want to make sure it’s worth it for the vendor,” he said.
Adding home deliveries has come with a surprising and rewarding benefit, Jennings said. “When we set up the online delivery system, we provided a local food donation option, to be used at our discretion.” They also provided a SNAP delivery fee donation because these federal funds can’t be used for deliveries. Since April, the two donation options have raised $70,000. With the money, the Alliance is able to buy surplus produce from the farms and distribute it to food banks who serve food insecure populations.
While Three Rivers Farmers Alliance has seen astronomical growth in both its number of vendors and its sales, Jennings said the model is easily replicated on a smaller scale. “You could go in as a group of eight to 10 businesses, go in on a truck together and run it off somebody’s farm,” he said.