For restaurant owner Molly Harris, losing two of her best suppliers in the fall of 2008 was a harbinger of things to come. She just didn't know it at the time. Two local farmers who supplied milk, butter, ice cream and pork to her then-popular Goochland County eatery, Edible Garden, couldn't make ends meet and cut off their supply.
“It was quite a heads up for us at the restaurant,” says Harris, whose restaurant had become known for featuring locally grown foods. “We had just come off a very strong summer. We had no idea that the winter was going to be as bad as it was.”
Concerned about the fate of her vendors in the looming winter recession, she began talking to the farmers about ways she could help them stay in business. Customers were asking about where they could purchase the local foods she offered on the menu — such as fresh bison, bread and goat cheese.
So Harris, 43, established a Richmond-area food co-op, Fall Line Farms, to hook up local producers with the ready-made demand in her restaurant's customer base. The foresight paid off: Edible Garden went out of business in November. But Fall Line Farms has skyrocketed.
While the economy continues to decimate the local restaurant industry and retailers abroad, the locally grown food movement and the proliferation of farmers' markets during the last few years have helped many small farmers and food suppliers stave off recessionary doom.
Fall Line Farms has continued to blossom. It's become a year-round co-op with about 50 vendors, 500 active customers, and up to 850 products offered each week with seven pick-up locations around Richmond and an average of $8,000 a week in sales. An operation that started via e-mail sells local foods through an online franchise Harris developed called Lulus Local Food (http://flf.luluslocalfood.com).
The venture has become a full-time job for Harris, who's talking with interested parties across Virginia and from states as far away as Vermont, Florida and Ohio about further franchising the Lulus Local Food software. The Center for Rural Culture in Goochland, the nonprofit that runs the Goochland Farmers' Market, was the first to purchase a license from Harris and now sells local products online through the Lulus Local Food Web umbrella.
Increasingly, diversification and cross marketing within Richmond's burgeoning local-food movement have helped prop up many small food suppliers, many of which have either held steady or grown in the past year.
“Our farm in particular is growing at such a rate that we can barely handle the demand,” says Joy Alexander, who runs Avery's Branch Farms in Amelia County with her husband, Tim, and their six children. The Alexanders, who sell at farmers' markets and online through Lulus Local Food, do not sell to any restaurants.
But even among local restaurant suppliers, sales have been stable or up. Jo Pendergraph, co-owner of Manakintowne Specialty Growers, a 25-year-old Powhatan-based produce farm that serves about 30 restaurants in Richmond, says her sales have been steady. “There are so many marketing opportunities for local growers,” Pendergraph says. Manakintowne Specialty Growers, despite the stability of its restaurant business, has expanded into farmers' markets and co-ops in the past several years.
Chris Vaughan, a Richmond farmer who supplies specialty lettuces to about 22 local restaurants, says he has lost five or six restaurant clients recently. But his winter business is on par with the past several years, and microgreen sales — such as baby lettuce and sprouts — are increasing. Vaughan credits his success to aligning with successful partners. “I don't want to be stuck with a lot of [failing] restaurants,” says Vaughan, who plans to expand into one or two more farmers' markets this year.
Some specialty farmers, however, are still having success sticking with restaurants. “I have to tell you that in the past two years our Richmond market has grown,” says Dee Scherr of Dave and Dee's Homegrown Mushrooms, a Southampton County-based specialty mushroom farm that supplies about eight restaurants in Richmond. Scherr says she and her husband, who grow mushrooms full time and also serve as brokers between restaurants and other specialty farmers, have had to cut back on appearances at farmers' markets to keep up with their restaurant business.
Not all local farmers, or farmers' markets for that matter, have emerged unscathed by the recession. Some local producers have seen a significant drop in sales, and farmers' market managers say the experiences of their vendors are mixed. George Bols, the manager of the city-owned 17th Street Farmers' Market in Shockoe Bottom, says foot traffic on Thursdays, historically the market's best attendance day, was “down significantly” in 2009.
Lisa Dearden, executive director of Goochland's Center for Rural Culture, reports that sales at the center-run Goochland Farmers' Market were down about 14 percent this past summer, with the average sale about a dollar less. Foot traffic also was down, Dearden says — although she attributes some of that to the recent explosion of area farmers' markets inundating buyers and producers with a plethora of options. Bols concurs: “With the advent of these markets opening up, there's a shortage of growers,” he says. “They can pick and choose what markets they want to go to.”
Jonah Fogel, a researcher with the state-run Virginia Cooperative Extension, characterizes Richmond's local-food markets as “pretty stable.” He considers local food as an emerging economic market, and by his observation, the mood among Richmond's local-food movement — the glue of which is a combination of personal relationships and word-of-mouth advertising — “is fairly positive.”
Still, Fogel notes that most Virginia farmers are not full time. “It's a lot of work and not a lot of financial reward for this,” he says. “A lot of people burn out.”