Local Food Strong

photography by Sarah Parisi Dowlin

There’s a major kink in the local food chain that people don’t talk about—one that limits the reach of many farmers and deters food entities, like restaurants, from sourcing more local products. This little secret doesn’t usually appear in the small print on menus: Local food is hard to make happen.

The logistical hopscotch that connects the farm and the fork is far from romantic, and it takes serious work on all sides. For restaurant chefs, there’s the time it takes to establish and maintain relationships with each local farmer, including figuring out what they have when and how it’s going to get from point A to B. It’s easy to see why a national foodservice supplier would be a tempting option. On the farming side, how do you balance the day-to-day workload of the farm with the full-time responsibilities of marketing yourself and your products, and delivering to the buyer? Pain points are rooted throughout the process.

Ohio Valley Food Connection has dug in deep to figure out exactly where they exist, why, and what it would take to alleviate them. This organization has built its mission around the concept of offloading the logistics that deter both ends of the farm-to-table path, and strengthening the heart of the local food economy so that it beats stronger than ever. And for that, area chefs and food suppliers, local food consumers, and farmers are raising their forks in gratitude.

Since starting in June 2015, Ohio Valley Food Connection has grown into a major artery that pumps local food from more than 70 area suppliers to approximately 800 households and 100+ wholesale buyers, including local restaurants, food centers, and retail markets. To put it into perspective, that’s roughly 5,000 pounds per week of local food during the height of the season, May to November.

The best part is that the demand is growing for OVFC’s service, with business doubling year-over-year since its inception, which means more food dollars are being spent locally. With an increase in interest, OVFC’s reach also is expanding, trickling from its Cincinnati core to areas like Dayton, Lexington, and Louisville. Local food in the Ohio Valley is very much alive, and its pulse is strong.

Designed to Fill a Gap
It’s 4:15 p.m. on a Thursday when I arrive to OVFC headquarters in Newport, KY. In an earlier conversation, founder Alice Chalmers was very specific about the time for my visit, promising that I’d see the whole process in action. I quickly meet the OVFC team of Carmelle Wasch, Patsy Funke Carter, Adam Cady, and Anna Haas, as there’s much work to be done: approximately 488 packages of produce, and meat, eggs, dairy, or other locally made goods from 42 suppliers to match with each buyer’s order.

The OVFC refrigerated truck quietly rumbles outside. It’s neatly stacked with same black crates that Carter and Wasch unload and then repack into new black crates to match products with orders. As he does most Mondays and Thursdays, Cady has spent the day collecting goods from suppliers at pickup locations throughout Ohio and Northern Kentucky. The following day, it’ll all be ready to be delivered to buyers, including many restaurants, as chefs anticipate featuring the just-harvested bounty on that weekend’s menu.

Each farmer checks an online list prior to the pickup day, so that they can harvest only what is needed to fulfill their order, resulting in fresher food with less time in storage or transit. Usually, it’s up to each farmer to label her product accordingly using an OVFC template that includes a QR code and all pertinent details, so that it can be matched up with other items to fulfill a particular buyer’s order. But today, Cady is helping out by completing the monotonous task of labeling cartons of eggs because the supplier’s printer was broken.

Finding solutions to roadblocks like a broken printer is heavily ingrained in this process. Cady is from a family with a farming background and previously worked with produce and in the restaurant industry. He gets why what OVFC does is so crucial: helping farmers expand their businesses simply by taking on the logistics that in the past may have hindered relationships from even forming. “They don’t have to drive restaurant-to-restaurant,” he says, noting that this alone yields more time they can spend producing more food.

Executive chef Jared Bennett of Metropole in downtown Cincinnati, an OVFC buyer, agrees that previously, it was difficult to coordinate among several local farmers, including keeping track of who had what and when. “Mostly all farms had different delivery days. So knowing that I could streamline when deliveries are made helped me order from farms that I couldn’t before,” he says. “It helps me save time because I can order from one place rather than try to seek them out on my own.”

Before he landed at Bauer European Farm Kitchen, chef Jackson Rouse used to drive an hour to work at a bed-and-breakfast in an Amish community in order to form connections to source local food. “The convenience that OVFC has with a simple website ordering is brilliant. It also aids in education of new products and it pushes the chefs to evolve with new ingredients. It makes restaurants better and their customers happier,” he says.

Growing a Food Hub
As the afternoon wears on, the OVFC walk-in cooler starts to resemble a meticulously stacked Tetris game as Wasch and Carter build each layer higher and higher while unloading the truck, making sure that each item is checked off the master list and finds its correct place in the puzzle.

Carter grew up on a farm and worked in the hotel and restaurant industry for 18 years, so she’s well-versed on proper food safety, prep, and storage. She also grows some produce, giving her insights from every perspective. Thanks to the care put into the process by all those involved, it’s clear that what could have been a logistical nightmare with keeping track of everything is a well-oiled machine.

They stop what they are doing as Louise Gartner with Foxtail Farm based in New Richmond, OH, peeks in. Rather than meeting Cady at a pickup point earlier in the day, it’s more convenient for her to deliver directly to OVFC during a specific window of time. She unloads and stacks OVFC-issued black crates from her truck that tote potatoes and the most gorgeous carrots ranging in color from vivid oranges to deep purples. She also has with her shishito peppers, which she just picked that morning. “They are my primary buyer,” Gartner says of OVFC as she heaves more crates forward from the back of her truck. “Every year, it just gets more and more.”

Helping local farmers increase profitability is a driving force behind OVFC’s mission—and it’s proving to farmers that there’s a year-round demand for locally grown food. Chalmers, who previously worked with a sustainable agriculture alliance in the Chesapeake Bay area, knew that there was a need for a system to connect local buyers and farms here in the Ohio Valley—a one-stop shop.

OVFC’s website (OhioValleyFood.com) is the hub: a sleek, user-friendly front-end view for customers to peruse what’s new and what’s in season. (OVFC recently expanded its customer base from wholesale buyers to individual households.) “It’s like an online farmers’ market,” Chalmers explains. The back end of the site is equally sophisticated, and it’s a business tool for the suppliers, where they can dictate their prices and quantities, upload product photos, access their pick lists, track payment, and print labels. “We don’t really negotiate at all—we take whatever price the farmer needs to make a living wage,” Chalmers says, noting that transparency is a key success factor. “The farmers see what price they are selling to us and they see what price we sell it to the end user.”

After looking over the goods from Foxtail Farm, Carter and Wasch sort it all before returning to unloading the truck. Anna Haas stops over to see how it’s all coming along. Even though it’s close quarters in the walk-in cooler, it’s all by design. “We have to be as efficient as possible,” Haas says. “It helps keep costs low.” Haas runs much of the day-to-day operations at OVFC, including communicating frequently with suppliers and buyers. “There’s a lot of responsibility for all of us,” she says. “You are taking someone’s beloved product and making sure it gets where it needs to be.”

Completing the Local Circle
Just as things quiet down and the sorting continues, a van with Carriage House Farm’s insignia rolls up. Out of it hops Codee Adams, with an apple clenched in his teeth and chin-length hair held back with a backward hat. The young farmer radiates energy as he rattles off in sing-song fashion what each label reads, as Wasch checks it off her list. When she’s finished, she asks: “I’m looking for Italian dandelion.” Adams looks up and remarks, “that’s why we do the checklist,” before retrieving the product from the van. I can’t help but think while watching the two young faces work together that the future of local food in the region looks bright.

Wasch thanks Adams and makes sure each item is sorted with its order. The very next day, it’ll find its way to a final destination, whether it be a household or restaurant like Cincinnati-based Maribelle’s eat + drink. “Farm to table has never been more real in this city,” says chef Mike Florea, noting that the food doesn’t sit in a semi while being shipped across the country, and that speaks for itself. More than that, though, Florea is proud to be fueling his local economy. “What local food also means to me is that it keeps Maribelle’s money in the [Tristate]. Keeping the money circle small is huge,” he says.

This fluid connection sustaining the local food economy is one of the reasons why Wasch, who is finishing her degree in sustainable economics and management at Xavier, sees this as a dream job. “This is it,” she says. “This is ecological, social, and economic justice happening in one location. I’m putting all of my energy into this.”

Armed with a passionate staff, and a concept that has proved itself over a couple of years, Chalmers is setting her sights on continuing to support the success of local farmers. That includes helping them grow their businesses and encouraging buyers to spend 20% of their food budgets locally. Whether they choose to do so with OVFC or not isn’t the point.

“There is room for everybody,” says Chalmers. “There are many ways to support local food, and we are just providing one of many paths to grow local farms and local food. We don’t want to compete with direct sales or farmers’ markets; we want to complement them to give another outlet for farmers and another way for buyers to get local.”