ST. LOUIS — Helene Urvoaz Farrell grew up in France, where she could pop into a grocer or roadside market to grab local produce anytime. When she moved to St. Louis, she missed that.
Then, about a year ago, she discovered Find Your Farmer, a pandemic-inspired online-ordering system that links farmers to consumers. “I don’t have to run around town to find cheese curds,” said Urvoaz Farrell, of the Central West End.
Find Your Farmer and other made-to-order, fresh-from-the-fields delivery services tap a customer base already attuned to the environmental and economic impact of their purchases. Within the past decade, a burgeoning awareness of food sourcing and an increased priority on time-saving transformed how people buy groceries: Farmers markets multiplied. Subscription boxes boomed. And food-delivery apps like Instacart were downloaded by the millions.
When the coronavirus rattled the food chain, cooking at home replaced eating out. But people didn’t want to navigate picked-over grocery shelves. Online food sales jumped 80% from 2019, according to data analyzer eMarketer.
“The pandemic made a future reality come faster,” said Nick Carter, who founded the Indianapolis-based order-and-delivery service Market Wagon in 2015.
Pre-pandemic, Market Wagon had six Midwestern hubs. In 18 months, it added two dozen more, including one in Maryland Heights. Food producers list their available products on the Market Wagon website, customers place their orders, and the crops are picked and sent to a warehouse. There, they are sorted and delivered within 24 hours by a fleet of the company’s drivers.
Similar services in other cities — like Fresh Harvest in Atlanta and Good Eggs in the Bay Area — have been operating for the past 10 years.
In its early days, Find Your Farmer planned a different approach. When the world ground to a halt in March 2020, Noah Offenkrantz was in the middle of his final semester at Washington University.
Restaurants had shut down, and many of the small farms that supplied them — suddenly at loose ends — were testing out home delivery. Offenkrantz and four of his classmates decided to curate an online list to help consumers see what was available.
But that became unwieldy: separate ordering, separate shipping and a variety of delivery days. Find Your Farmer pivoted last summer, combining the trend toward seasonal, regional eating with the convenience of one-click shopping and home delivery. They rented a space on the Hill for aggregating and packaging, and set up a schedule: Customers order by Monday, food comes in Tuesday and is sent out Wednesday.
It seems straightforward, but even in the few days between order and delivery, problems crop up. A heat wave wilts all the red romaine lettuce. Shishito peppers drown in heavy rain. Corn comes in early. Or late.
“We really didn’t understand how big of an undertaking it really was,” Offenkrantz said.
‘A lucky bounce’
Find Your Farmer turned to Preston Walker, owner of wholesaler Eat Here St. Louis, for advice and connections. Walker sources produce for restaurants from more than a hundred small farmers and has witnessed the evolution of the local-food movement. Eat Here St. Louis started in 2008, when “farm-to-table” had not yet become a restaurant buzzword.
“Now, the number of restaurants that are sourcing locally is astronomical,” Walker said.
The concept has migrated to household eating. A quarter century ago, there were 200 farmers markets in the United States. Today, there are more than 8,600, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Large grocers, like Schnucks and Dierbergs, trumpet the products they stock from local growers and artisans. Small shops, such as City Greens and Local Harvest, build their identity around their geographical exclusivity.
Hubs like Eat Here provide Find Your Farmer with the majority of its products; it also has direct relationships with about 30 farmers. They dictate the price of their goods, and Find Your Farmer adds a transaction fee to each order.
The extra business provided a lift for farmers and food hubs after the pandemic decimated indoor dining. Eat Here lost 90% of its restaurant orders in spring 2020. So did Good Life Growing, an organic farm based in the Vandeventer neighborhood of St. Louis.
Good Life CEO James Forbes counts the partnership with Find Your Farmer as “a lucky bounce that came our way during COVID.”
Since opening in 2014, Good Life has expanded to six sites, including one in East St. Louis. But selling their organic crops through an online platform was new for the urban farmers. At first, purchases trickled in.
“It was a couple of these, a dozen of those,” said Forbes. “Then the orders got big.”
Leafy greens and tomatoes, especially, proved popular. The sales helped cover Good Life’s payroll while they waited for restaurants to recover.
‘Our North Star’
Kayla Wisdom of Spring Creek Farms in Salem, Missouri, partnered with Find Your Farmer this summer. Since the pandemic started, she and her husband have seen an increase in demand for their beef, chicken and pork.
But their costs have spiked, too. Animal feed and processing prices “shot way through the roof,” Wisdom said.
Most of Spring Creek’s direct-to-consumer sales had been at Tower Grove Farmers’ Market, a two-and-a-half hour drive for the couple and their four young children. Find Your Farmer has allowed them to expand their customer reach without eating up an entire day.
Lindsay Michalski of St. Louis tried Find Your Farmer after hearing about it from a colleague. She likes to buy local, but farmers markets overwhelm her.
“You never know what you’re going to find when you get there,” Michalski said.
And Community Supported Agriculture subscriptions — when she received a share of crops every week — proved too wasteful.
“This is a nice balance,” she said. “I can get what I need from them and fill in the gaps at the grocery store.”
In the past year, Find Your Farmer has built its customer base to about 90 orders a week. Offenkrantz and one other employee are now full-time. But to remain sustainable, Offenkrantz said, they would need about double those orders.
“We’re still figuring out how to reach more people,” he said.
The instability of the pandemic, which helped the business pick up steam, also keeps it off balance. It’s hard to predict peaks and valleys or know whether they are outside of Find Your Farmer’s control.
“We’re trying not to focus on week-to-week fluctuations,” said Offenkrantz. “Our desire for a more ethical grocery delivery service is our North Star.”