For some people, finding the shortest line at the grocery store is a small victory. For others, it’s getting out of line altogether. And for those who want to get off the grocery-store grid entirely, Massachusetts is the place to do it.
“We’re one of the top direct-to-consumer sales states. I’m dead serious, we’re good at this,” says Amy Mahler of the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture. “People really respond to knowing where their food comes from, and farmers are being more innovative about putting their food out there.” Direct sales — from farms, farmers’ markets, roadside stands, in Community Supported Agriculture shares, and at pick-your-own operations — have grown 8 percent in the state since 2007, according to Mahler. The number of CSAs and farmers’ markets here have more than doubled in the last 10 years, and with them the supply of local and organic food.
One of the newer producer-to-consumer innovations is Farmers to You, run out of Montpelier by onetime farmer Greg Georgakalis and his wife, Eva Cahill. The way it works is that you commit to placing an order of at least $40 for foods grown or produced on about 50 farms in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and New York. The Farmers to You website lists the products of these “partner-farmers,” as they are called. Customers shop from the 250-odd items, which include fruits, beans, vegetables, buttermilk, eggs, meat, jams, bread, syrups, and more. Orders are delivered weekly to 16 Boston-area dropoff spots, or for an extra fee, delivered to your door.
Since it began 4½ years ago, the operation’s partner families have grown from 50 to 750, which makes Georgakalis’s goal of 2,000 families “well on the way,” he says. He estimates that currently about 15 percent of his customers rely on FTY and other direct sales from farmers for nearly all of their groceries.
One of those families is Mia Moran’s. The Arlington resident, who writes the clean-eating blog staybasic.com, joined her first farm share as a way to lose weight after having children. But while her own diet trended vegan and gluten-free, she didn’t want to limit her children to vegetables. “That’s when Farmers to You showed up. I decided if we were going to have meat, I was going to make a ritual of it. Every week we get a chicken and eggs, and the kids are very conscious of where it’s coming from.”
They’re also very conscious of what they can get and when. “If it’s not available, it’s not available,” she says. “You can’t force chickens to lay eggs in real life.” A decade ago she would have laughed at the thought of buying solely from local farms, but last summer she relied entirely on FTY to do exactly that. “It’s knowing where your food comes from, and that it hasn’t been through various factory processes that I don’t know about,” she says. “I also feel that there are certain things you’re meant to eat at certain times of year. You’re not necessarily supposed to have peaches in the middle of January.”
Rebecca Altman, an environmental sociologist who also lives in Arlington, still makes some trips to the grocery store (“I have small kids — you need your Cheerios, you know?”), but she’s involved with several local farms and relies on Farmers to You for “things we can’t source locally in other ways.” For her, buying local was an environmental decision made with an ulterior motive: the need to feed her family foods “that have been raised cleanly.”
“My first son had severe food allergies,” says Altman. “We were already leaning toward the local farm, and soon it was clear that most foods in boxes were no longer an option for us. That led me to look beyond the supermarket.”
Joe Wright and Jennifer Stevens of Cambridge first joined Farmers to You for the convenience, bowing out of supermarket crowds in favor of picking up their grocery order from a neighbor’s home. “We’ve stuck with it because the food is really good, and we like the idea of supporting individual farmers,” says Wright.
He and Moran both think the cost of FTY food is comparable to Whole Foods, but the payoff to farmers is higher. Georgakalis says that farmers get about 60 cents on the dollar from FTY sales, compared with 19 cents on the dollar from supermarkets.
“A lot of the things that motivated us are practical things, but I definitely feel like agriculture should be configured differently than it is,” says Wright, a doctor who’s interested in health care and nutrition for lower-income families. “The idea that people are trying different models and trying to support small producers is a step in the right direction.
“We have the luxury of supporting an experiment in a different way of doing agriculture and food supply,” he says. He would like to see the program become a model for small producers and family farms to get food to cities or towns.
“Hopefully this isn’t just about getting your precious little Vermont chicken,” he says. “Hopefully in the longer run it’s about something bigger.”
FARMERS TO YOU www.farmerstoyou.comLucia Huntington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.