Food From Just Down the Road: Farm Table Delivery
In the days leading up to her wedding, Ellen Walsh-Rosmann of Harlan was more concerned with produce than pedicures.
“When most people get married, they spend the week before getting their nails done and stuff. I was calling farmers, making sure we’d have enough tomatoes and melons,” she says.
Walsh-Rosmann and her husband, Daniel Rosmann, treated their 300 wedding guests to a meal made entirely from local ingredients. It was a fitting celebration for the two farm-minded individuals, and an unexpected precursor to a small food start-up that’s since sprouted into something much bigger.
After studying agriculture at Iowa State University, working as a buyer at Wheatsfield Co-op in Ames and starting a Shelby County community-supported agriculture (CSA) business, Walsh-Rosmann founded FarmTable Delivery. The food distribution outfit connects small- and mid-sized Iowa producers with grocery stores, restaurants, schools and other organizations looking for local ingredients. Less than two years after its launch, FarmTable Delivery partners with clients and growers from Omaha and Lincoln, Neb., east to the Mississippi River.
“I always felt like I wanted to do something to really revitalize and strengthen the rural economy, and to get more farmers back on the land,” says Walsh-Rosmann, who started brainstorming business ideas after finding southwest Iowa store shelves stocked with produce shipped from California and Mexico.
The agricultural entrepreneur grew up in northeast Iowa, where her mother’s side of the family put down roots after leaving Norway. Walsh-Rosmann’s ancestors helped establish a former creamery in the town of Gunder, and today, her parents run The Irish Shanti, a local cafe known for its one-pound Gunderburgers (once written up in these very pages). She was active in Future Farmers of America (FFA) and worked on a dairy farm during high school, and she met her future husband while interning for Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI).
The newly married couple settled near Harlan, where Daniel grew up and now raises certified organic crops and livestock with his parents at Rosmann Family Farms. Ellen planted some gardens and established a small CSA; after studying the structure and sociology of small farming communities at Iowa State, she was interested in the ties between families and food.
“I was really fascinated with northeast Iowa and southwest Wisconsin, where farmers would bring their eggs and milk to little hubs...people are still connected to their food, and that’s why the local food movement is what it is in that part of the state,” she says.
Walsh-Rosmann grew heirloom vegetables for members and supplied a local grocery with some wholesale produce in her first CSA year. In year two, she expanded west to an Omaha farmers market and built brand recognition by wholesaling to restaurants. She also started raising chickens and selling eggs. But farming, running a CSA and traveling two hours round trip for weekly markets left her short on time – plus, Walsh-Rosmann and her husband were expecting a baby.
during her third year of business, she simplified her CSA with a restructured punch-card setup, and she scheduled pre-growing season meetings with chefs. Tailoring her plantings to their needs boosted her wholesale business, and Walsh-Rosmann continued making deliveries herself. At the height of the 2013 sweet corn season, with an eight-month-old in tow, she decided to change her business plan.
“Here I was, my car stuffed to the gills – Xavier surrounded by boxes of sweet corn – and driving one hour each way to make these deliveries. I would put on my Ergobaby carrier, put him in there, and then unload and deliver all the sweet corn to the different grocery stores and restaurants,” says Walsh-Rosmann. “It was really becoming challenging.”
She talked to an acquaintance who drives a delivery truck for a major organic produce distributor, but she didn’t have the volume to partner with a business of that size. Still, the conversation got her thinking about distribution on a local scale.
“A lot of the farmers here in our foodshed are an hour away from where their market is. I started talking to them, and asking, ‘If a truck showed up at your farm and just picked everything up, would that solve this issue for you? Would that allow you to scale up?’” says Walsh-Rosmann. “The answer was always yes.”
She started making pick-ups and deliveries and tacking on a small fee to cover her costs. By November 2013, FarmTable Delivery’s business was so brisk that Walsh-Rosmann borrowed a passenger van to carry more produce. Soon after that, she hired a part-time driver to assist, and when farmers asked whether she had access to a refrigerated truck for summer deliveries, she rented one. The closest rental options were in Des Moines, however, which proved inconvenient in terms of driving time and cost. So, FarmTable Delivery launched a Kickstarter campaign and crowdsourced $25,000 to support a vehicle purchase.
“Rita,” FarmTable Delivery’s refrigerated truck, hit the road last September.
“During the last quarter of 2014, our sales increased by 50 percent because of that truck. We quickly opened more routes, added more products and started carrying more refrigerated products,” says Walsh-Rosmann.
Today, FarmTable Delivery covers much of the Hawkeye State, hauling sweet potatoes from southern Iowa to Lime Springs and carrying cheese curds back south from Waukon. The business delivers to groceries, food co-ops, food hubs, school districts and stores in small towns and in cities like Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.
Katie Ruff sources products from FarmTable Delivery for By the Spoonful, her specialty foods store in McGregor. She calls the relationship “a perfect partnership.”
“Why have salsa, cheese or produce imported from the East Coast when you could have the same thing that is produced pretty much in your backyard?” Ruff says. “We get many out-of-town visitors coming through to check out the Mississippi River, Effigy Mounds and Pikes Peak. Many of these visitors also are looking for something unique, flavorful and Iowa-made to share with friends and family back home...FarmTable helps bring that unique product to my shelves.”
In addition to supplying her with yogurt, jam, pickled vegetables and pastas, Ruff adds, FarmTable Delivery shares the story of each producer.
“I love knowing this information and passing it along to my customers,” she says. “Many of them find it refreshing to know where their food was made.”
While growers and producers working with FarmTable Delivery benefit from a wider customer base, they aslo reclaim time spent on marketing and making deliveries.
“In the spring and summertime, when we get busy, it’s just good to be able to stay here,” says Dale Raasch of Bridgewater Farm in Adair County. He and his family sell certified organic vegetables and eggs through FarmTable Delivery, as well as through direct distribution and a seasonal CSA. Each week, they give Walsh-Rosmann a list of available inventory. Once the products are spoken for, her driver picks them up and delivers them to clients in Iowa City, Ames, Omaha and other cities.
“It frees up our time to be able to do the work here that we need to get done. It helps a lot,” Raasch says.
This spring, Walsh-Rosmann took another step to expand opportunities for Iowa producers. FarmTable Delivery moved from her family’s house to a Harlan business incubator, where Walsh-Rosmann is setting up a shared processing kitchen, cold storage and packing shed for farmers. She’s facilitating bulk orders for seeds, packaging and other necessities, and she’s incorporating a resource library and educational venue into the space.
“It’s always a question of do you build it and they come, or do you wait until they come and then build?” says Walsh-Rosmann.
She chose to build. She’s seen a number of new farmers establish operations over the past few years, and several have built business plans around the services and support offered by FarmTable Delivery. To help them succeed, she’s also orchestrating a supplement program that lets local operators add new produce and products to their CSA menus. And, she’s talking with schools and hospitals to determine how regional growers can help fill their food needs.
This outreach is making a measurable impact. In 2014, FarmTable Delivery recorded $42,000 in sales. In 2015, sales reached $37,000 between January and mid-April alone.
By helping small producers earn more, Walsh-Rosmann advances that dream of reviving Iowa’s rural communities.
“This money is going back to rural communities, small farmers and local producers. The majority of them are supporting small, rural businesses. They buy things at the local hardware store. They support the services that they need,” she says. “in five years, hopefully we’ll have more farmers here...hopefully more won’t have to work parttime jobs. Hopefully there will be more neighbors and playmates for my son. And, hopefully we’ll bring more people to Shelby County and southwest Iowa, in general.”
For more information on FarmTable Delivery, visit Facebook.com/FarmTableDeliveryIowa.