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September 4, 2017 Focus on small business

Delivery companies bring farm to the table

Contributed Lynn Stromberg, founder, Lettuce Be Local

Farm-to-table produce has been a trend for years, but getting it from the soil at Central Massachusetts farms to the tables at area restaurants and homes isn't as easy as driving to a farmers market.

A growing number of Worcester restaurants feature local produce on their menus, and it's largely the job of one person who gets it there: Lynn Stromberg. Each Wednesday, she brings lettuce, tomatoes, flour and practically anything else grown locally to many of Worcester's most-known restaurants, including deadhorse hill, Armsby Abbey, BirchTree Bread Co. and Volturno Pizza Napoletana.

“I wouldn't have moved out here if it wasn't for people like her,” said deadhorse Chef and Co-owner Jared Forman, who came from Boston and New York City restaurants to open the Worcester eatery.

Buying directly from farms is especially popular in Massachusetts. Despite it's small size, the state was fifth nationally in direct-to-consumers farm sales at $136 million in 2015, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey.

The demand from restaurants and consumers has spawned farm-to-table delivery services like Stromberg's Lettuce Be Local in Sterling and Central Mass Locavores in Westminster, who are the early players in a startup market. Nationally, nearly half of direct-to-consumer farm sales take place at farms themselves, according to the USDA, while one-fourth are at farmers markets and only 7 percent online.

Knowing the players

Stromberg's job is more about creating relationships between farms needing to sell their produce and restaurants that would buy locally if only it were easier.

“The actual act of delivering produce is the last thing I do,” she said.

Lettuce Be Local is now five years into an operation by Stromberg's estimate has brought $500,000 to area farms that otherwise might not have happened. Farms produce enough supply they're often left looking for where to sell it, she said.

When Stromberg – the founder and chief lettuce officer – worked for a hospitality company, she'd pester kitchen staff about buying locally more. It wasn't so easy, she was told, but using her farm connections, she found farmers were looking for a go-between.

“I thought, 'Maybe there's something to this,'” Stromberg said.

Delivering the goods

Lettuce Be Local draws from a few dozen farms in an area from Fitchburg to Sturbridge and Orange to Milford. Stromberg also delivers farm-to-farm, helping fill out needed produce for farmers markets, and to breweries needing local hops. The business, which serves to verify fresh-produce claims by farms or restaurants, has spread entirely on word-of-mouth.

Deadhorse hill has a standing order through Stromberg for greens for salads, flowers and tomatoes.

“The products are here,” Forman said. “They pass by Worcester and go to the larger markets, and I don't think that's a very sustainable system.”

There's an unquantifiable benefit to what Stromberg does, she says, like being able to sit at a restaurant and know exactly where the steak or squash came from.

“That is legitimately living the dream,” she said.

Emily Harvey, the manager and sixth-generation member of Harvey's Farm in Westborough, met Stromberg at a farmers market shortly after Lettuce Be Local began. Stromberg, 36, and her husband, Lee, 34, needed eggplant for a large dinner they were planning, an event they hold occasionally. It turned into a partnership in which Harvey sells tomatoes, summer squash, cucumbers, herbs and other produce in a way she wouldn't have been able to before.

“It was harder to fit into what their scheduled needs were,” Harvey said of working with restaurants before. “Putting it together as she has wasn't really realistic for us.”

Stromberg empathizes with the farmers, who may often struggle with long hours and old equipment to make ends meet.

“How they are able to operate every day is one of the most amazing things to witness,” she said.

Delivering the goods, to home

Central Mass Locavore in Westminster delivers not farm-to-table, as an attentive diner might notice on a menu, but farm-to-door. Anyone can order online, and the company delivers to 15 communities across northern Central Massachusetts twice a week year-round.

It started with a suggestion by Andrew Hildreth. His brother, Tim, and Tim's wife, Jacki, were making regular trips to farms in the western part of the state to bring fresh produce home. Andrew asked, “Why don't you guys start a delivery service to make the trip worth it?”

“We looked at each other and nodded,” Tim Hildreth said.

Soon after, the couple bought two refrigerated vans and began an operation out of their garage. Now, two years later, they serve about 150 customers a week – mostly to homes, but also to a few cafes in the area.

Central Mass Locavore takes the couple's longtime hobbies of cooking with local produce and bringing it to anyone in their territory. They hope to expand soon to Worcester, Acton and Concord.

Anyone can go on their website and place orders for a few dozen items, from staples like apples and broccoli to hummus and pickles. Orders placed by noon on Mondays are delivered by Wednesdays, and orders in by noon Wednesday are delivered Fridays. If someone leaves a cooler on their front stoop, someone from Central Mass Locavore will come fill it with produce.

The food – mostly fruit and vegetables but also ready-made meals, meats, coffee, dairy products and bread – comes mostly from Central Massachusetts, but also from farms in Vermont and Maine.

The Hildreths, both 37, have a few family members and friends pitch in each week.

“We thought it would be a lot easier,” Tim said of the job.

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