Delivering the Goods

Food exchange gets farm products to market, hopes to add services

November 10, 2010 : The Boston Globe, by Kathleen Pierce

As soon as Bill Eldridge landed a contract with Whole Foods Market, the chief executive of Maine's Own Organic Milk Co. knew he had a problem.

“It would be way too expensive and would take me a couple of days to get to the stores,'' said Eldridge, who oversees eight family-run dairy farms from Kennebec to Aroostook County.

Finding the Boston food exchange Organic Renaissance was crucial to making his deal with Whole Foods work, he said. “It's all well and good to have the shelf space, but you've got to get it there,'' he said.

So starting this week, Eldridge will send a truck from Maine filled with organic milk and cream to a warehouse in Roxbury, where an Organic Renaissance driver will deliver the goods to a dozen Whole Foods supermarkets in the Boston area. Within 24 hours of his product coming off the production line in Maine, it will be available in stores, making it “some of the freshest tasting milk that anyone has had,'' said Eldridge.

And therein lies the renaissance. Started a year and a half ago by Jonathan Kemp of Jamaica Plain and Bruce Kirk of Lexington, the company has built a system for distributing food from small companies and farmers that has taken advantage of the locavore movement.

Now Kemp and Kirk are preparing to take the next step.

Through the company's website, (expected to go live Nov. 18), chefs and grocers will be able to bid on goods from small farms and other independent organic-food producers throughout the region. The products will be divided into categories such as dairy, vegetables, fruit, and herbs. Organic Renaissance drivers will pick up the orders from farms and deliver them to markets, according to Kemp.

“It's like eBay and FedEx mushed together,'' said Kirk, 64, the company's chief executive.

As president of the Organic Crop Improvement Association — a title he no longer holds — Kirk helped lobby Congress for the adoption of the rules of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, which established national organic standards.

“I want to create fundamental change for producers because they are the future of the food system,'' he said.

David Warner, owner of City Feed and Supply in Jamaica Plain, which specializes in local food products, calls the arrival of Organic Renaissance's system “a moment of foment.''

“People are inventing different distribution models in the region that create a relationship between the farmer and the consumer,'' he said. “I love to see that.''

Warner said that when he opened his first store 10 years ago, he bought directly from farmers and small food companies, which was time consuming on both ends. Using Organic Renaissance “gives us ease,'' Warner said.

Unlike commercial distributors that buy products to sell to stores and restaurants, collecting a profit along the way, Organic Renaissance cuts out the middle man to deliver direct. It charges 85 cents per minute or mile per pallet, depending on which is greater.

“What Organic Renaissance does is give us an alternative,'' said Barbara Hanley, a partner at Shy Brothers Farm in Westport.

To get her farm's artisanal cheese into bistros and specialty shops in Boston and Worcester, Hanley has used UPS, but she said it's cheaper and greener to hand a case of her thimble-size cow's milk cheese called Hannahbells to an Organic Renaissance driver who arrives at her farm in a refrigerated van.

“Styrofoam is a landfill clogger,'' Hanley said of the standard packing material (which Organic Renaissance does not use).

The company has seven vehicles and six full-time employees, but expects to hire 27 more over the next year. It has leased space in a 300,000-square-foot hydro-powered warehouse in Athol to be close to the state's 8,000 farms. For now, the space is being used for storage.

Adding advanced technology to the locavore equation has caught the attention of state agencies, which have given financial support to Organic Renaissance. In September, it received a $950,000 loan from MassDevelopment, Western Massachusetts Enterprise Fund, and North Central Massachusetts Development Corp.

“Their success with providing more and more online access for farmers and local food purveyors, should provide more stability in the industry,'' said Robert L. Culver, president of MassDevelopment. “This is a new initiative that should benefit both farmers as well as consumers throughout Commonwealth.''

Culver said it is too soon to tell if a company such as Organic Renaissance can radically alter the marketplace and food distribution system but he is optimistic.

“When I see this type of initiative and undertaking in an underserved industry in the Commonwealth, such as our agriculture sector, it leads me to be very supportive,'' he said.

© Copyright 2010 The Boston Globe.