By Lorrie Baumann
A California produce company has found a way to make the Farm to Fork movement a reality for customers in urban areas across the state – including those who live in food deserts. Farm Fresh To You is a service that delivers produce from Capay Organic, the company’s own farm, as well as from about 50 other organic farms across the state directly to customers’ doors in the San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan areas each week. “Our philosophy is that for local produce to be successful, we need to make it as easy as possible for people to make the best selection of local produce show up at their door each week,” said Thaddeus Barsotti, one of the brothers who owns the business. “We’ve been very successful at keeping customers happy because we’ve made it really easy to fit into their lives.”
Capay Organic and Farm Fresh to You were originally founded in 1976 by Martin and Kathy Barsotti, Thaddeus’ parents. Martin was a student at the University of California, Davis when he began developing his ideas about how to create direct relationships between farmers and consumers. He got a permit from the city of Davis to start a farmers market that’s now one of the most robust in the country. Then, he and his wife decided that they wanted move out of the city and onto a farm, where they would use organic methods and make it their full-time careers.
Eventually, Martin left the business, but Kathy carried on. She heard about the idea of Community Supported Agriculture from another farmer, and in 1992, she adopted some of those ideas and started delivering produce directly to her CSA customers out of the back of her parents’ Buick station wagon. Kathy kept track of her customers and what they liked and didn’t like in binders full of account records. By 2000, the company was distributing about 500 boxes a month.
About 15 years ago, her sons, who’d grown up with the business, took it over after Kathy’s death just after Thaddeus had graduated from college. Since then, the company has been growing aggressively throughout California, expanded its network of family farms, has added value-added farm products to the offerings and penetrated into food deserts with a business model that Barsotti says is scalable and adaptable elsewhere outside California. “We are serving food deserts in the Central Valley, Manteca, Stockton, some rural communities that are classified as food deserts. We can go there; we just need to have enough people to justify sending a driver out there,” he said. “All of the food deserts in the Bay Area and Los Angeles – we go to all of those places.”
Contents of the boxes change according to what’s local to those regions. A purchasing team stays in touch with the whole network of farms to find out what’s in season and available in their area, and they build local menus for each region each week. “It is a full-time job for a whole team of people,” Barsotti said. The weekly boxes are packed in two facilities, one in Sacramento and one in Los Angeles. Sourcing and distributing season produce that’s mostly local to each region across the entire state is the most difficult piece of the model – Barsotti calls it “ pretty complicated and logistically rich,” but the result is that Barsotti can sell the regular-size box that will feed a family of four for a week for $33. “We’re pretty good at what we do. We’ve been doing it for a long time. The owners grew up doing this, growing produce and hustling produce at farmers markets. We understand it quite well,” he said. “We’re in the business. We know each week, what the best local organic produce is, and we make that selection for our customers, and they don’t even have to think about it.”
Customers can choose to be surprised by what shows up in their weekly box, or they can log onto the company’s website to find out what the company plans to send and alter their box according to their own preferences. A customer might cancel this week’s carrots, add more fruit or opt for spinach instead of kale.
Recently Farm Fresh To You began offering customers a few direct-from-the-farm processed food products sourced from farmers who also provide fresh produce products to the business, including jams, granola, juices, dried fruit, nuts, olive oil and tomato sauces. “We’re excited about the specialty flours we have,” Barsotti said. “Our niche is focusing on products that come straight off farms, and that includes processed things that preserve a crop.”
Customers can also decide before they go on vacation, they’ll donate their weekly box to a local food bank instead of suspending the service. Farm Fresh To You works with food banks in San Francisco, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego that serve the communities in which the company’s customers live and the affiliated family farmers grow. We’ve been able to get tens of thousands of pounds of fresh local organic food to our customers’ local food banks, and we’re really proud of that,” Barsotti said. “We believe that everyone should be able to eat healthy food, but we recognize that not everyone can afford it.”
New customers find out about the service either through meeting with Farm Fresh To You sales representatives that set up shop at local events such as home and garden shows or green festivals, through word of mouth from existing customers or by learning about it through the media exposure that the business has been attracting since a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote about it in the mid 1990s. These days, customers sometimes find the business online at www.farmfreshtoyou.com, where customers can sign up for deliveries of various sizes of boxes that contain fruits and vegetables, all fruits or all vegetables in a seasonal mix that varies according to the specific area in which the customer lives, depending on what’s in season there.
“What ‘local’ means exactly also changes with the season. Summer and fall, most of the stuff’s coming from our farm,” Barsotti said. “In the winter, we want to make sure our customers still have a good selection, so they don’t go back to using the grocery store, so we’ll source in southern California for vegetables. Apples come from the Pacific Northwest.” All of the produce, except bananas, is grown in the U.S. by family farmers. Barsotti probably wouldn’t offer bananas at all, since they’re strictly a tropical fruit, but Farm Fresh To You customers want them, so Barsotti compromises a bit by offering them fair trade organic bananas. “Our customers sign up because I’m a farmer. I know what’s good,” Barsotti said. “I take the health of our farmworkers seriously, and we make sure that all of the products we grow comply with U.S. labor laws.”
While some customers are aware of the social justice aspects of Barsotti’s purchasing, not all of them either know or care about anything other than that the business provides a dependable supply of fresh, local, organic produce. “I know we’re doing that, and when a customer signs up, whether they know it or not, they’re affecting my planting schedule and the jobs that come out of that. We’re connecting customers directly to our field,” Barsotti said. “We are trying to transform the food system. It can’t be done on a tiny scale. It’s a big thing. There are millions of people who need to eat better. Our objective is to find how we can get local, organic food to people at an affordable price.”