CAE Purchases Farm Delivery Service
The Center for an Agricultural Economy (CAE) has purchased a key piece of local food transportation infrastructure in order to keep it operating. Farm Connex, a farm product and food delivery service operated as a business by Don Maynard since 2002, will be run by the Hardwick-based nonprofit starting January 1, 2020.
Most food is shipped in Vermont by distribution companies that buy the food from producers and resell it to retail outlets. Farm Connex is unique in that it operates only as a delivery service for small and medium farms and food businesses that might otherwise not have a way to get their products to market. Farm Connex serves over 60 farmers - picking up products and delivering them to their markets. In addition, Farm Connex picks up and delivers products for Green Mountain Farm Direct, Deep Root Co-op and for CAE’s own farm product to institution program.
Farm Connex moves between $3 million and $3.5 million worth of local farm and food products each year and employs five people. In many cases, products shipped by Farm Connex represent all or most of a business’s wholesale sales. Farm Connex operates 15 to 20 truck routes a week in 12 of 14 counties in Vermont, all but Rutland and Bennington.
When Mr. Maynard told his customers he was ready to sell the service or end it, the reaction was swift and concerning. But none of the clients and participants was ready or able to take the delivery service on or buy it. Instead they turned to the CAE, which had been helping Farm Connex with business advising for 18 months before that.
“It’s filling an obvious need for producers and consumers,” said CAE Executive Director Jon Ramsay. He said the nonprofit will have the capacity to grow the service strategically to benefit small farms, small retail outlets and consumers in a way that would not be possible if a profit margin was the only measure of success. Mr. Ramsay said taking on the transportation service will allow CAE to work more strategically with the half-dozen other food hubs around Vermont to increase efficiencies and get more local food and farm products to local consumers.
“This is an exciting opportunity that has clear and direct benefits to farmers and consumers,” he said. He added that CAE appreciates the fact it was approached by the stakeholders in this case as an organization that would be able to keep Farm Connex operating smoothly.
Mr. Ramsay expressed appreciation for Don Maynard’s efforts in creating the service, keeping it going, and helping with the transition. His appreciation was echoed by farmers and drivers.
“He was ahead of his time,” said Paul Lisai, owner of Sweet Rowen Farm located on a back road in West Glover. “Just barely. Local distribution and access to markets is as important as the local farms to our food system. Without the thankless devotion of Don Maynard and his team at Farm Connex, northern Vermont's agricultural economy would not be what it is today. He was doing it because he liked the people he was working with and he liked the vision of what it could become.”
Over the seven or eight years that Mr. Lisai has been shipping products with the Farm Connex service, his business has grown from selling 25 cases a week of products to selling 250 cases a week. He’s supportive of smaller producers and wants to see Farm Connex be able to help smaller farms grow as well. “To me it’s about building community.”
Clients, the former owner, and CAE agree that the business has the potential to grow, and that growth would do nothing but improve the outlook for Vermont’s agricultural economy. Mr. Maynard said if he hadn’t been doing this work for 30 years already, he’d be more interested in keeping the business and trying to grow it himself.
“It’s been quite a ride,” he said. “There’s so much potential here. I know there is.”
Mr. Maynard started delivering milk and other dairy and food products in 1990 in a delivery route for a federal nutrition program for low-income families with young children called Women, Infants and Children (WIC). In the late 1990s he started adding some Hood and other products, and in 2010 he connected with Green Mountain Farm Direct to deliver some products while he was already on the road. In 2016 WIC stopped doing home deliveries, but by then Mr. Maynard was on the road and just kept rolling with deliveries for farmers.
Neil Urie, a founding board member of CAE and former sheep dairy farmer, works in the Farm Connex warehouse space on invoicing and staging products for the trucks. He is also one of the service’s drivers. He said he’s seen how important the service is and glad to see a solution was found to keep it going. “It’s good to have a whole organization behind it,” he said.
Amy Huyffer and her husband Earl Ransom own Strafford Organic Creamery. She expressed her appreciation for Mr. Maynard’s work to solve multiple types of problems in order to get food to markets all these years. She said she has been impressed at Mr. Maynard’s ability to be open and transparent when it comes to working out systems that require compromise at several levels in order to reach a goal. She has also been impressed with his ability to find and keep employees, which can be a huge challenge in the delivery business.
“Don has set a standard. It’s hard to find employees like he’s got right now,” she said. She said the drivers are people who can adapt to various issues along the way and keep rolling. Their farm and creamery on Rock Bottom Road several miles from an interstate in central Vermont and not easily accessible. She said while Farm Connex does not have a lot of clients in her neighborhood, it could. Similarly to Sweet Rowen Farm, as a food business of medium size Ms. Huyffer has done some deliveries herself but is very happy to leave all that headache to someone else. In those days, she delivered a neighbor’s goods when she realized that small business was driving along the same road she was to bring something to the same market. She is hoping Farm Connex will be able to work on that sort of efficiency because it’s better for the farms and saves money, but also better for the planet to have one vehicle going somewhere instead of two.
The local food movement has grown in Vermont steadily, and Farm Connex has the potential to help it grow considerably more, she added.
“People in Vermont care about food. People spend their last dollar on a pint of ice cream,” she said.
Mr. Maynard added his appreciation to the people who make up Farm Connex. “Kristy Scott, Neal Renaud, Neil Urie, Stephan Leikert and Michael Belizzi. The diligent work of these people before and during this transition have been crucial to the survival of the company. A special note of appreciation to the people who have been with me the longest: Neal Renaud for 15 years of dedicated service to both myself and the community; and Kristy Scott who seldom gets the credit she deserves. Her strong influence is felt not only in Farm Connex but with everyone we are connected with. She has played a strong role in shaping the company and has been critical in this time of transition.”
“One last thing to add is a thank you to all the producers we have in the past and still do work with. All of you ARE Farm Connex.”
Catherine Cusack, director of Green Mountain Farm to School which owns and operates Green Mountain Farm Direct (GMFD), offered her thanks to Mr. Maynard as well.
"We are so fortunate to have worked with Don Maynard and his crew over the years to bring fresh, healthy food to the residents of the NEK and beyond, all while supporting our local farms. And we look forward to deepening that relationship and growing our reach and impact as Farm Connex transitions."
Ms. Cusack described GMFD as a regional aggregation and distribution food hub working to increase access to healthy food for all Vermonters.
Mike Heath of Peacham has been hired by CAE as the general manager of Farm Connex. He ran Kingdom Crust pizza business for ten years and saw from the restaurant end just how difficult it is to access local fresh high quality farm products. He had been intrigued with the logistical and financial issues presented and is excited to get to work on them.
“I think this has huge potential,” he said. “Being under CAE’s umbrella opens up a number of doors for what could be done.”