- ACORN Food Hub manager Jessica Purks with an order of local produce for Bobcat Café & Brewery
At the height of the season at Reap & Sow Farm in Monkton, Matt Lasser hardly has time to eat. Lasser, 32, is the operator and co-owner of the two-acre diversified vegetable farm. With a tiny crew, he grows, markets, sells and delivers produce, such as green-and-purple striated dragon tongue beans and sweet honeynut squash.
The 4-year-old farm's revenue comes about equally from the Burlington Farmers Market, a 100-member CSA, and sales to Burlington-area restaurants and catering companies, Lasser said.
To sell to the last group, Lasser sends out a regular email detailing his current harvests to as many as 50 chefs at a time. "Some chefs like to email you. Some chefs like to text you. Some chefs like to message you on Instagram," he said. "It takes a lot of time and coordination."
A program launched in September by the nonprofit Addison County Relocalization Network (ACORN) aims to help farmers such as Lasser sell to more wholesale buyers in that county, including chefs, by minimizing the time and effort required on both sides of the equation.
Operating from the ACORN Food Hub in Middlebury, the new online marketplace is designed to facilitate one-stop shopping from a menu of local food products, such as vegetables, dairy, meat and specialty items. Wholesale customers place one consolidated order for pickup; a minimum order gets them free delivery.
"We're really trying to streamline this whole process," Food Hub manager Jessica Purks explained. "We really want to make it easy to buy from small farms. Hyperlocal farms — that's where we stand out."
Building critical mass is, well, critical for program success, Purks said. She's working on expanding the rosters of farms and food producers and of buyers; they currently number about 20 and 30, respectively.
Purks hopes ACORN can eventually help small and midsize farms sell to bigger regional institutions, such as school districts and hospitals. The program will allow a buyer to order local kale in quantity, for example, which might be sourced from several smaller farms. But as the marketplace gets established, early adopter accounts such as restaurants, farmstands and individual schools have been the "lower-hanging fruit," Purks said.
- Server Aiden Lavigne with Bobcat Café & Brewery's Big Salad, made with ingredients from ACORN's online marketplace
Bobcat Café & Brewery in Bristol is already a regular customer. When chef and co-owner Erin Wheeler, 42, spoke with Seven Days, she had just received an ACORN marketplace order, including a case of parsley from Reap & Sow for a gremolata vinaigrette and carrots, potatoes and cabbage from Lewis Creek Farm in Starksboro.
Like farming, Wheeler said, running a restaurant involves an interminable list of daily responsibilities. She appreciates how the marketplace has reduced the need to track item availability, deadlines for orders and invoices across multiple farms and food producers.
"This ACORN thing is something I've been dreaming about," Wheeler said. "It's all in one place. I can look at the list and plan our menu based on what's available." Plus, she added, "Payment happens automatically. It's better than any food distributor we work with."
Reap & Sow's Lasser said he looks forward to expanding sales in his farm's home county and planning next year's season with the needs of the wholesale marketplace in mind. "It takes very little effort on my part," he said. "And then we just get a check in the mail."