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Columbia's Friends & Farms harvests the mid-Atlantic

Consumers

Janet Hirsch says she has always been an adventurous eater, willing to try new things.

But the Catonsville resident never ate pork ribs, Delmonico steaks or even turnips -- until last year.

That’s when Hirsch joined Friends & Farms, a Columbia-based company that connects consumers and farmers through weekly food shares.

“The quality of the meat we get is fantastic,” she says. “And it turns out turnips are really good. I like them.”

Hirsch, who picks up her stocked $51 food basket weekly, says she started with Friends & Farms in September to eat more local, sustainable foods and find new inspiration for mealtime.

Along the way, she has saved money by shopping less at the grocery store.

“It’s really affordable,” Hirsch says. “Most of the time, I don’t have to buy much else at the store.”

Bringing local fresh foods to customers at an affordable price is one of the reasons Philip Gottwals and Tim Hosking joined forces to launch Friends & Farms.

By working directly with the farmers, Friends & Farms enables customers to receive their food within a day or two of its harvest.

“In essence, that’s what we’re doing,” Hosking says. “Creating a connection between the two and giving them a better deal.”

How it started

Before Friends & Farms, Gottwals and Hosking worked in separate businesses. Gottwals, a Columbia resident, spent more than 20 years helping farmers improve their profitability. Hosking, who lived in New York, ran his own consulting firm.

But in 2011 their paths crossed on an agriculture project proposal. While the project never materialized, the connection between the two had formed.

“We came at the problems in the country’s food system from very different places and perspectives, but ultimately, we came to very similar conclusions on the likely solutions,” Hosking, who now splits his time between New York and Baltimore, says of his early relationship with Gottwals.

Gottwals wanted to create a system where food didn’t travel a week to 10 days before reaching customers, where farmers could grow more diversified crops while getting paid to do so and where customers could track where their food came from. And so the idea for Friends & Farms was born.

In early 2012, Hosking officially joined the effort, helping to finalize the company’s business plan. And on June 18, Friends & Farms delivered its first food basket.

How it works

Friends & Farms is a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program with a twist. Instead of working with one local farm as many CSAs do, Friends & Farms works with a network of more than 70 producers, with locations ranging from New York and Pennsylvania to Maryland, West Virginia and North Carolina.

This ensures customers get a variety of foods each week, all from local suppliers -- like vegetables from Richardson Farms in White Marsh, bread from The Breadery in Oella, cheese from Shepherds Manor Creamery in New Windsor, and fruit from Country Acres Cider and Produce in Waynesboro, Pa.

Subscriptions are for 13 weeks at a time, but Friends & Farms provides food baskets year-round. Most traditional CSAs run from spring through fall.

Each week, Friends & Farms selects fruits and vegetables, two proteins like chicken or beef, bread, and dairy like milk or yogurt from its suppliers. Seafood is included every other week. A new vegetarian option was added in March. In the winter months, when availability of fresh fruits and vegetables drops, Friends & Farms includes items like dried beans, granola and frozen, locally grown blueberries and green beans to round out the baskets, says Regina McCarthy, Friends & Farms spokeswoman.

Staff members then package a combination of the goods in reusable plastic containers at the company’s Gerwig Lane warehouse.

“This rutabaga is from Virginia,” Gottwals says, as he sorts through one of the week’s shares. “This white sweet potato: North Carolina.”

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest warehouse days, he says.

“It’s like Grand Central Station in here,” Gottwals says.

That’s because food items are only on-site for a day before being trucked to a pickup location. For example, the New England mussels pulled out of the water on a recent Wednesday arrived at the Friends & Farms warehouse Thursday morning. By Thursday afternoon, the mussels were packed and on their way to customers.

“If you want it to be good, you’ve got to move it,” Gottwals says.

Whom it serves

More than 140 customers pick up their baskets at one of eight locations in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties. Baskets come in three sizes: large for $76 a week, small for $51 a week and individual for $40 a week.

Misti Malone, of Columbia, is one of about 30 customers who travel weekly to the company’s Columbia Gateway Drive pickup spot near Earth Treks.

“We try to support local as much as possible,” Malone says. “Local just tastes better, especially the meat.”
Malone shares her basket with her husband, Drew, and their 4-year-old son, whose favorite part of the basket is the fresh-baked bread, Malone says.

Like Hirsch, Malone says her visits to the grocery store and weekly food bills have dropped since joining Friends & Farms.

“A lot of times, it’s more than we need,” she says. “If it is, we just cook for our friends.”

Hosking says the company has researched prices at area grocery stores, and Friends & Farms consistently comes in at or below the stores for the same products.

Plus, customers get to know exactly where their food comes from, he says.

Some even take field trips to see the farms firsthand. Friends & Farms recently led a group of customers on a tour of Pennsylvania-based Trickling Springs Creamery, which provides milk, butter and ice cream.
While there, customers visited the cows and learned about the milk production process.

“In many respects, it ends up being a learning experience for the adults,” McCarthy says.

“Ultimately, we believe the more informed the consumer is, the better off the farmer and the food system will be,” Hosking adds.

Eventually, Friends & Farms hopes to expand into Montgomery County, Baltimore City and even as far away as Boston and Atlanta.

“It just takes time to build a presence,” Hosking says. 

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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