Click your own: Online farmers markets offer convenience, customization and delivery

Beckie Gurley can’t keep asparagus on the virtual shelves at Chesapeake Farm to Table. It’s produce with the shortest seasons that goes the fastest for her online farmers market; strawberries will be the next to sell out in a flash.

Chesapeake Farm to Table is the newest online farmers market serving the Baltimore area, allowing customers to order farm-fresh produce, meat and dairy without leaving their homes.

In the never-ending quest for convenience, online farmers markets are growing and changing across the state. Chesapeake Farm to Table, which until recently worked only with restaurant clients, expanded its services to the general public this spring. And Hometown Harvest and South Mountain Creamery, two online farmers markets based in Frederick County, merged last week to combine their delivery of produce, dairy and meats. Other local options include Howard County Farm-to-Fork, which was founded in 2015, and LocallyGrown.net, which offers online markets in Maryland and across the country.

The concept is comparable to community-supported agriculture shares (CSAs), in which customers sign up for weekly or biweekly deliveries of local food. But online farmers markets offer more convenience and customization.

“Convenience is great, and our biggest thing with Chesapeake Farm to Table is transparency. If you order from us, you know where it’s coming from,” Gurley said. “We offer as close to the farmers market experience as you can get without going to the market.”

Chesapeake Farm to Table was established to connect local chefs with farmers.

“There’s a lot of restaurants out there that want to serve local and can’t always develop that relationship with a farmer because they don’t have time,” Gurley said, adding the same is true on the farmers side.

Gurley, who owns Calvert’s Gift Farm in Sparks, noticed she was making the same delivery trips as other farmers in her area, and it made sense to pool their resources. Their service was opened to the public this year to provide another avenue for the 25 farmers in its network to sell their goods.

“I am first and foremost a farmer,” said Gurley. “We just want our produce to get sold.”

Chesapeake Farm to Table requires minimum orders of $40 and offers three weekly Wednesday pick-up points at Towson Tavern, Culinary Architecture in Pigtown, and Remington Wine Co. Gurley wants to add another in Baltimore County.

Although Chesapeake Farm to Table does not offer home delivery, which Gurley’s team is considering adding eventually, it still allows customers to order throughout the week instead of relying on markets that are only open once a week. It also guarantees items they order will be available, whereas vendors at physical farmers markets often sell out.

Gurley’s operation is smaller than Hometown Harvest and South Mountain Creamery’s. The Middletown-based groups, which are owned by the same family and whose partnership launched May 24 under the South Mountain Creamery brand, have about 9,400 customers combined. They source from between 150 and 200 farmers, and deliver as far south as Stafford, Va., as far east as Annapolis and up to Northern Baltimore County. The trucks are in each delivery area about once a week dropping off orders on customers’ doorsteps.

Tony Brusco, South Mountain Creamery’s CEO, said his team sends out weekly menus highlighting their hottest offerings on Fridays, signaling to customers to start thinking about their orders for the following week. Customers have until midnight the day before their delivery to customize and place their orders.

Prior to the merger, Hometown Harvest focused more on produce, while South Mountain Creamery offered more dairy and meat products.

“We were both kind of offering similar products, we were competing on a lot of those products,” Brusco said. “We can now kind of have all the delivery drivers working as one team.”

The cost of the trucks and drivers was the main challenge. But offering home delivery is also the main advantage for the customer.

“We are in such a world where ordering something online and getting it delivered is just the way to go,” said Jen Braganini, a South Mountain Creamery customer.

The 35-year-old Frederick resident typically orders about four dozen eggs and a gallon of milk each week for her family of four. Every other week she’ll throw in chocolate milk, and she’s also bought meat and produce from the service, too.

“The good thing about this one is that it’s not a specific time. I can shop on my computer whenever I feel like it,” she said. “I do like the convenience of picking what I want and having it delivered to the front door.”

She estimates that she spends about $35 on her basic order of milk and eggs, and averages about $50 a week with the add-ons.

“To me it’s worth it,” she said. “I know the farm that it’s coming from and I’ve seen the cows that it’s coming from, and that makes a really big difference to me.”

For Chesapeake Farm to Table, farmers set their own prices. Gurley said prices are comparable to farmers markets, if a bit more expensive than those at the grocery stores. The food is also fresher.

“We do offer pick-to-order and absolute freshness and the highest quality, so the food’s going to have a higher nutritional value, its going to have a higher flavor profile,” Gurley said.

Similar to Chesapeake Farm to Table, Brusco and his wife, Abby, founded Hometown Harvest to take their farmers market goods to a new arena. They have learned how to mitigate risk for farmers in their network — in the winter, they plan the season with their farmers so everyone is growing what they need without much overlap. Advanced planning also keeps the menu more consistent.

Before that, their farmers would take their pickings from the beginning of the week and sell them at auction, while fresher produce from later in the week would go to weekend farmers markets. Brusco would buy their surplus.

“We take the early week’s pickings — that way they can utilize their crop the whole season,” Brusco said. “It creates a win-win relationship with us.”

On the customer side, online farmers markets also come without the commitment of CSAs, which typically lock in customers to weekly or biweekly deliveries for months at a time.

That’s been an advantage for Stacie Crawford, a 42-year-old Gaithersburg resident, who has used Hometown Harvest on and off for several years. In addition to the convenience of home delivery, she likes the option to customize — which CSAs don’t offer.

“I was such a picky eater at that time that I wanted to be able to go in and customize it, which I could,” Crawford said of her first orders.

She estimates that she spends about $50 per week through Hometown Harvest. Her orders are usually packed with fruit for her two kids, and veggies for the week, like green beans and broccoli. She’s also ordered chicken and eggs.

“I found that for the price that they charge it’s well worth it for me because I’m using everything that they send because I’m doing the planning,” Crawford said. “If I went to my local grocery store, I would probably be spending more and throwing away more, which is the big problem.”

Although she’s picky, it’s also allowed her to try different foods.

“We just get the things that we like and then I usually try to throw in something new,” Crawford said. “This week we got rhubarb. I’ve never even seen rhubarb in person.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the last name of Gaithersburg resident Stacie Crawford. The Sun regrets the error.

smeehan@baltsun.com

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