Kristy Skocik and her husband, Chris, signed up for a community-supported agriculture plan last winter to ensure they would have farm-fresh fruits and vegetables in the spring for the baby they were expecting.
Disappointed when that weekly plan was canceled, the Columbia couple searched for an alternative and found one, in Friends and Farms, that they say has exceeded their expectations.
"We hardly ever have to go to the grocery store now because we also get dairy, meat, eggs and bread," said Skocik, a NASA engineer now working part time from home to care for 9-month-old Samantha.
"And we know where our food is coming from, which was especially important to us since I'm making my own baby food," said the first-time mom, who picks up her family's $51 share every Thursday at Earth Treks in Columbia, infant in tow.
Having grown up on farms where neighbors exchanged their fresh bounty, the Skociks have "really, really enjoyed going back to food that actually has flavor," she said.
Friends and Farms co-founders Philip Gottwals and Tim Hosking had experienced similar frustration, but on the other side of the operation, knowing that farm-fresh foods weren't getting to market efficiently.
So the pair decided to combine their years of experience in finance and agricultural consulting to set up a regional network that connects consumers and farmers. The Columbia-based company launched from its 4,600-square-foot Gerwig Lane warehouse in mid-June with 20 customers and has since grown to 125 members.
"We've built a model for the way consumers buy and eat food," said Gottwals, 45, who lives in Hickory Ridge with his wife and three children.
Customers go each week to one of eight distribution sites in Columbia, Clarksville, Catonsville, Severna Park, Lutherville or Hydes to retrieve a collapsible bin of food items that are gleaned from among 70 farms covered by 11 suppliers in the mid-Atlantic region.
This week's basket will contain chicken wings, ground beef and bacon, along with butternut squash, butter lettuce, onions, cranberries and apple butter. Fish is included every other week, and all orders include milk, eggs and bread.
Such items as free-range turkeys and smoked hams are available a la carte for Thanksgiving menus, as are many other foods from the company's online market, where customers can supplement their weekly basket.
By doing the sourcing for their customers, the partners are ending a cycle in which "wonderful local food was getting put into a massive food-distribution system," Gottwals said.
By the time fresh food was reaching its destination, "it was 10 days older, and the customer wasn't getting the quality they wanted and the farmer was getting a price they didn't want," he said. "And nobody was trying to figure out how to marry the two [complaints]."
Friends and Farms incorporates elements of farmers markets and community-supported agriculture, in which customers purchase seasonal shares from a local farm, but with a couple of twists.
Subscriptions are year-round and include all food groups in calculated proportions. By sourcing food from farms in multiple states and growing zones, the company guarantees its members never end up dealing with an abundance of whatever a farmer has available any given week.
"Food gets to the consumer within 24 to 48 hours without being trucked a long distance, without sitting on ice, without being picked green," Gottwals said. "And there are no excuses from us that you're getting 50 pounds of turnips and nothing else."
The partners know weather-related events will rarely strike all producers of a specific food item at the same time, and thus the weekly reliability of the basket's variety isn't affected by uncontrollable circumstances.
"We recognized that the Chesapeake Bay watershed was a region that could produce quality food year-round, from the southern reaches of the coastal plain to the Piedmont and Appalachian regions," reads a statement on the company's website, friendsandfarms.com.
That consistency has become a Friends and Farms hallmark, said Gottwals, who hails from Annapolis.
"It's been really fun to see how we've surprised ourselves at the consistent quality and value we can offer," he said, noting that chef Peter Baldwin contributes simple recipe suggestions that are incorporated into a weekly electronic newsletter.
Currently, no Howard County farms are part of their network, but that could change, Hosking said.
"We have similarities [to community-supported agriculture and a farmers market,] but we also have significant differences by design," said Hosking, 53, who lives in Baltimore but travels frequently to New York, where his wife and daughter reside in the family's home.
"We're offering a week's worth of food that covers the full range [of food groups] and is the right amount of food" in the proper ratio of protein to produce, Hosking said. "Our reason for doing this is to effect change in the food market and to create a sense of community."
Hosking, a Seattle native, said he first experienced that community feeling when he moved to Greenwich Village in 1981 to attend law school, and he's never looked back from that model of urban interaction.
"I was shocked that there was a better sense of community in my segment of the city than what I'd experience growing up in the suburbs," he said. "I didn't have a car, so I was often on foot and got to know the people" living and working there.
Now, farm tours sponsored by the company connect farmers with buyers, who get to hear firsthand what goes on at the farms where the food they're purchasing is raised, reared or made.
Kathy Zimmerman, agricultural development manager for the Howard County Economic Development Authority, said a main key to Friends and Farms' success is convenience.
"That's what most of us want," she said.
"By bringing farmers and consumers together, they are providing an opportunity to eat what is locally grown within this region, while still cutting down on food miles and reducing the carbon footprint."
Item-by-item comparisons to grocery-store chains show the company's baskets' contents frequently cost less than their national counterparts, Hosking said. While they have yet to raise their prices, the partners say that making sure farmers are paid fairly is a priority, and membership costs will increase to reflect farmers' expenses.
Gottwals said growth has been good in Howard, Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties, but the company's goal is to reach 2,000 members throughout Central Maryland in the next three years, making Friends and Farms a considerable consumer force.
"Our food system is broken," he said. "Our desire is to have enough heft to actually change it."