Firm thrives by bridging farmer-customer gap
WORDS BY GENEVIEVE RAJEWSKI / PHOTOGRAPHS BY KATIE NOBLE
Boston Organics’ Charlestown headquarters hums as 15 employees fluidly handpick crisp, brilliantly colorful fruits and vegetables and tuck them into the green plastic boxes. There are apples from Dwight Miller and Son Orchards in Vermont, onions from Porter Farms in New York, kale from Florida, bananas from Ecuador and Peru and sweet potatoes from North Carolina.
In less than three hours, the cavernous 8,000-square-foot space will go quiet as Boston Organics’ fleet of nine white vans takes to the road, destined for households and offices in Arlington, Winchester and several neighborhoods in Boston and Cambridge. It’s a ritual that repeats four days a week in order to bring all-organic produce to some 2,000 customers across metro Boston.
The scene is a far cry from 2002, when Jeffrey Barry started the delivery service.
At that time, Boston Organics served only 13 customers, who were recruited through flyers that Barry had posted around Boston, Cambridge and Somerville. The company had no official office space. (Red Tomato, the local nonprofit that helps our region’s farmers get their produce into grocery stores, allowed it to operate from its back loading dock.) And Barry was alone except for his wife, Beth Pfefferle, who took off from her marketing job at a medical-device company to help him pack the boxes and make the deliveries on Boston Organics’ first delivery day.
“The deliveries alone took us about eight to 10 hours to do with me driving and my wife navigating with a map in hand,” recalls Barry, whose lack of a sense of direction is a standing joke in his family. “A few days before, we had bumped into old friends from the San Francisco Bay area who’d recently moved to New Hampshire, not far from our Newburyport home,” says Barry. “The husband, who’s a tech geek, had told us about this new device—called GPS—that tells you where to go in your car. After that first day of deliveries, my wife told me I better buy a GPS right away if I was going to survive.”
He did before it came time to make the following week’s deliveries and the rest, as they say, is history.
For a year and a half, Barry spent one day a week distributing organic produce to his customers and the other six days getting everything organized. By 2004, Boston Organics had outgrown the original warehouse space Barry rented from Red Tomato, and the company moved to Charlestown, where it has been located ever since. Still not drawing a salary, he finally hired one employee to put the orders together and another to take over the deliveries. (“I hired the driver because my wife was expecting our first child and I really couldn’t afford to miss that delivery,” says Barry with a laugh.) Little by little, the fledgling company grew to a staff of 20, as its service area expanded to 17 other cities and towns.
Today, Boston Organics offers customers a choice of three sizes of produce boxes featuring various allotments of organic vegetable and fruits.
Clients with food allergies or aversions can opt to never receive that type of produce (setting up a permanent no-fly zone for bananas or broccoli, for example). Customers also can add on other types of organic foods, most of which have local or regional ties. Perennial packaged goods include coffee from Equal Exchange in West Bridgewater and Dean’s Beans in Orange, chocolate from Taza Chocolate in Somerville, freshly baked bread from Nashoba Brook Bakery in Concord and eggs from Pete & Gerry’s in Monroe, New Hampshire.
Boston Organics purchases 30% to 35% of its products directly from a grower or a co-op, with 35% to 37% of the produce originating in New England or the Northeast. Barry says he thinks the service complements CSAs offered by local farms.
“For many of our customers, we are a gateway CSA,” he explains. “They start by trying Boston Organics, really get into the local food movement and transition to a CSA so they can more deeply live by the seasons. Others are people who have tried a CSA and decided they need more control or variety, but still want to support the local food system in a meaningful way.”
From the start, Barry sought to both support local growers and encourage them to use certified organic farming methods. He believes that reducing the use of chemical pesticides is particularly crucial in a state as densely populated as Massachusetts, where farmland frequently abuts residential neighborhoods, wetlands and seashores.
However, at the beginning, “most local growers were not set up to do wholesale,” says Barry. “And if they were, restaurants could afford to pay a lot more than I could for their products. The wholesale price was just too high to mark it up at all and still have a price that grocery customers would pay.”
Barry continued to look for ways to support the local food infrastructure and, in 2005, began a longstanding relationship with Atlas Farm in Deerfield, Massachusetts.
“Boston Organics has been a great customer for us,” says Gideon Porth, head farmer at Atlas. “We started working with them pretty early on, when we were really small and mostly focused on farmers markets. We had a little extra of certain crops, and Boston Organics used to meet us at the Copley Square farmers market to pick up that produce.”
Since then, Atlas Farm’s wholesale business has grown to account for 60% of its sales, largely thanks to its partnership with Boston Organics. (Another 30% of sales take place at farmers markets and the remaining 10% come from the CSA the farm started last year.)
Most of the farm’s other wholesale clients are grocery stores, which Porth says can be challenging because “they want to have every type of produce on their shelves every day of the week” as well as consistency in fruits’ and veggies’ size, colors and shapes. Yet “farming is a very variable enterprise, and plants don’t always grow in perfect circles,” notes Porth. “Boston Organics is really valuable for us because they’ll utilize produce that doesn’t have as much of a wholesale market. If we end up with small lettuce, they’ll just give their customers two heads in a box instead of one.”
The mystery box nature of Boston Organics’ deliveries also benefits Atlas Farm, says Porth. “Everything we want to grow, they are pretty game to buy. Their customers like a lot of diversity, which is cool.”
The farm supplies Boston Organics with head lettuces, collards, kale and chard, as well as dandelion, mustard and turnip greens. Cucumbers, summer squash, tomatoes, peppers and eggplant round out the summer crops, while cabbage, winter squash, carrots, beats, turnips, parsnips and radishes bring local flavor to Boston Organics’ fall and winter boxes.
Porth credits this wealth of offerings to Barry’s commitment to working with local farms as true partners. “We talk a lot over the winter about our crop planning for the coming season. And when we’re actually in the growing season, we are generally putting together orders at least a week in advance. That allows us to really plan out our harvests. Most wholesale clients we deal with will only order maybe three or four days ahead.”
Barry says that “actively working with growers, making commitments and building trust” is critical to locking in local produce for its customers.
For example, just three years ago, Boston Organics had no access to root crops. “Now, we have a pretty decent supply available deep into late winter and early spring,” thanks to a partnership with Winter Moon Farm in Hadley, Massachusetts, says Barry. “Last spring, we started planning for this year’s purchasing needs. [Winter Moon owner Michael Doctor] was able to confidently buy the seeds and we were able to get winter crops from him up until early April. And [within a few weeks of that supply ending, he was pulling] up spring-harvested parsnips that we had committed to buying.”
The growth in the availability of local organic products allowed Boston Organics to start offering a year-round “Dogma” box ($29) about three years ago. The box contains a selection of eight to 10 items that have been sourced as close to Boston as possible.
“In summer, the Dogma box and the All Vegetable box are actually almost identical,” explains Barry, who notes that the availability of organic vegetables grown in Massachusetts is just as robust as what you’ll find out of state. But in the early spring, the Dogma box might contain Empire apples and hothouse tomatoes from Vermont, black radishes and sunchokes from Quebec and red cabbage and yellow onions from New York, for example, whereas the All Vegetable box would include collard greens and prewashed salad mixes from California, sweet or yellow onions from Washington and green bell peppers and green cabbage from Florida.
These days, Barry finds himself having to turn away local growers interested in getting their organic vegetables into the hands of Boston Organics’ clients. “That, more than anything, keeps motivating me to grow our business,” he says. “I want to help support even more of these farmers.”
A regular contributor to Edible Boston, Genevieve Rajewski writes about animal issues, food, science and passionate people. Read more at www.genevieverajewski.com.