Consumers crave fresh, local food, and local farmers are eager to fill the demand, but a distribution bottleneck is strangling the supply chain—farmers’ markets can only go so far. But a new business model is slowly emerging to bridge the gap
His days were long, 18 to 20 hours on average, and he spent most of them covered in blood. It was January 2008, and for Jason Pleym, a former meat salesman, each step toward building Two Rivers Specialty Meats Ltd. was an uphill battle. It didn’t help that Pleym had no professional experience as a butcher, and four whole beef carcasses had just been delivered to his small North Vancouver warehouse space.
“I was like a deer in the headlights when that first order showed up,” says Pleym, who had installed a walk-in refrigerator and a cutting area but little else. Well aware that he was working with a perishable product, he started calling grocery stores in Vancouver, Squamish and Whistler to ask if they could buy portions of the carcasses. “If I had to cut all of it, it would have taken way more than two weeks,” he says. “So I was just chucking it in the van and delivering it.”
In the meantime his wife, Margot Millerd Pleym, was working a part-time job to make ends meet, and his father-in-law’s ranch, Pemberton Meadows Natural Beef Co. Ltd., was set to deliver four additional carcasses every two weeks. Like many small business owners in their early days, Pleym knew he was in for a rough ride.
In B.C.’s fiercely competitive food industry, Pleym is one of many entrepreneurs trying to translate skyrocketing demand for local foods, particularly those that can be traced directly to their origin farmer, into a profitable business. This same demand is fuelling a boom in farmers’ markets and a spike in restaurants catering to a pasture-to-plate philosophy. While the logic may seem simple—rising demand should drive more businesses and sales—the business of local food distribution is extraordinarily complicated, with numerous roadblocks between local farmer and store or restaurant. First of all, historically predominant food distribution networks are sprawling, top-down businesses with myriad middlemen and very tight margins: most mid-sized distributors more capable of catering to small, local businesses were bought out long ago. Secondly, B.C. farmers are increasingly expected to become marketers of their own product, a transition for which many don’t have time or the inclination. And finally, the nuts-and-bolts logistics of physically transporting food from a farmer to a consumer are tricky when the goal is to preserve the narrative of local produce, which is necessary when consumers are asked to pay more.
Andrea Carlson is the chef and co-owner of Harvest Community Foods, a Vancouver grocery store and eatery, and was formerly the chef de cuisine at Bishop’s—a restaurant at the forefront of the farm-to-table ethos—where she witnessed firsthand the soaring interest in local food and farmers’ markets. “The growth from five years ago until now is just incredible. I don’t know how the farmers do it, because they have to be in so many places at once, it seems,” says Carlson. “But every week, in every community, you’re going to find some kind of farmers’ market happening in the summer. That’s because of the demand.”
Direct farmer-to-consumer sales have risen 147 per cent in recent years, from $46 million in 2006 to $113 million in 2012, according to a recent study by David Connell, a professor at the University of Northern British Columbia’s environmental planning department in conjunction with the B.C. Association of Farmers’ Markets. As not all consumers, restaurants and institutions are physically able or willing to change their shopping habits in order to buy food from farmers’ markets—as much as they may want fresh, local produce—this is concrete evidence, says Connell, of new business opportunities in local food distribution. For him, the question is whether the system will adapt fast enough to accommodate the opportunities.
Despite all the excitement about local foods, Carlson says that from a chef’s perspective, she has seen the supply system hit a stumbling block when it comes to distribution. “There have been all kinds of people who have tried to start up new distribution companies and not all of them work out,” she says, citing the infrastructure, from delivery vans to storage space to administrative systems, needed to distribute food to restaurants. “There’s just so much input you need for that.” As a result, the province’s food-distribution system needs an influx of mid-sized businesses like Two Rivers, says Connell, or it’s unlikely local foods will ever be anything other than a niche market.