The calls had started at 6 a.m. Between extensive heat and torrential downpours, lettuce was lost, beets were bad, radishes were cracked, zucchinis were too big, there weren't enough red potatoes and in a final blow, the raspberries Marsden scrounged up to replace the ones that ran out were moldy, all of them.
But that's how it goes at the Connecticut Farm Fresh Express in East Haddam. Essentially a delivered-to-your-door year-round farmers' market service started by Marsden in late winter 2008, it has to roll with nature's punches.
Conceived as the local food movement began to grip Connecticut, Marsden's service has expanded from a few farmers with a dozen or so products to 68 vendors as of July, 2,000 constantly changing seasonal products, an e-mail list of 800 and once-a-week deliveries that generally hit the 125 mark. It has also fostered farm-to-table, farm-to-chef and other fresh food connections around the state that might otherwise not have occurred.
"When I started this I just knew that this was a service that I was looking for," says Marsden, who was a graphic designer at the time. While not a diehard foodie, she always had sought out fresh and organic products. "I thought if I'm looking for it, then other people are probably looking for it."
Costumers order online — the deadline is noon on Monday — from an array of farms, bakeries and other local producers of things like tofu, pickles and syrup. You can pick your products and pick the source, though glitches (like the raspberries) may mean substitutions.
Orders are transmitted to vendors in time for pickup, mainly on Wednesdays. Delivery is on Thursdays.
Once entirely handled by Marsden, with occasional part-time help, out of two refrigerators in her cave-like basement, the business now operates from a rehabbed barn, with about 15 drivers — some driving hundreds of miles a week — and a few office employees. On one side of the barn are computers that generate weekly orders two inches thick and labels that make sure everything goes where it's supposed to.
The other side is for staging: tables for sorting, about a dozen refrigerators (including the two original ones) and freezers (all soon to be replaced with a huge walk-in cooler, which Marsden says will be a "godsend"), shelves for non-perishables and mounds of picnic-style coolers, each with names, mostly cartoon characters, including "The Flintstones' " Barney Rubble and "Peanuts'" Woodstock. If a customer isn't home, the delivery is left in an ice-packed cooler, switched out for the empty one from a previous week.
'If I Had A Thousand Hours'
With a $5 to $15 delivery fee based on distance and retail pricing, Farm Fresh Express is not the cheapest way to get fresh, local food. But customers say time is a huge motivator. So is assurance — in the face of a stream of food scares — that what they're getting is safe, humanely raised in the case of animals, and organic or at least minimally treated. Marsden personally checks out every farm and vendor to see that it meets her standards.
"She's doing what I would do if I had a thousand more hours in every week," says Jennifer Sclar of Stamford, who says she is very concerned about food-source safety. "What I like about this service is that Deb has already vetted these people."
Sclar had waited for months until Marsden expanded into Fairfield County and now orders hundreds of dollars of products a week — meat, dairy, fish, fruits and vegetables — learning about new foods along the way. Garlic scapes were a happy introduction and she was delighted to discover her young children liked the sorrel she decided to try.
"My husband is big fan of reconstituted meats, sausage. I feel better knowing they come from a place I can find on a map nearby," Sclar says. "I just can't believe how much stuff you can get that's made right here in Connecticut."
Jude Levin of Haddam has been with Marsden since she started. "I'm willing to pay the extra, oh yeah," she says. "It saves me the time. The stuff in the grocery store, it says organic but is it really?"
New Customers For Farms
For farms and other vendors, Farm Fresh Express offers a way to tap into lucrative markets in far-flung corners of the state. It's a hybrid solution for people who don't want to or can't devote time to farmers' markets, and for those who do participate in markets, it provides an off-season outlet when most markets are closed.
Cato Corner Cheese in Colchester was one of Marsden's earliest vendors. Owner Mark Gillman says Marsden is now his second-largest account (bigger than Murray's Cheese in New York).