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Northwest Farm Fresh puts local meat, produce at customers’ fingertips

Online farmers market puts local meat and produce at customers’ fingertips

Shelly Stevens runs down the list.

Arugula. Banana bread. Basil. Carrots. Cheese, Corn. Fennel. Leeks. Potatoes. Squash.

“I just want to make sure I’ve gotten everything,” she said, assembling the third order of the afternoon. It included something first-time customer Gay Witherspoon, 60, of Spokane, and her husband, Peter, had never eaten.

“We’re trying goat meat, so that’s kind of fun,” Witherspoon said while she waited for the rest of her order. “This is so convenient. It’s all online, and you just come pick it up.”

Tuesdays, the counter at Lasagna’s-On-Ya does double duty. Customers can order pans of layered pasta to bake at home. They can also get their groceries.

Northwest Farm Fresh, an online farmers market based in Chewelah, recently expanded its service area to Spokane, distributing foodstuffs from the take-and-bake shop on the North Side. Its mission is to make it easier for farmers to connect with consumers.

More than 70 farmers have signed up to sell their fare through the site, which Stevens – founder, owner and manager of Northwest Farm Fresh – sees as complementing rather than competing with traditional farmers markets.

“This is not meant to replace traditional farmers markets. I love traditional farmers markets. But some things, like milk, are hard to sell at traditional farmers market,” she said.

Stevens helped start the traditional farmers market in Chewelah in 2008 and still volunteers to do its marketing. But, she said, “Not every customer can make it to the farmers market.”

The online version gives shoppers – and farmers – another option.

Farmers – all of whom must be local in order to be involved – don’t have to pay to participate. Neither do customers. Unlike an online food co-op or buying club, there’s no joining fee at Northwest Farm Fresh. Similarly, customers don’t have to pay upfront, something many Community Supported Agriculture programs, or CSAs, require at the start of the growing season.

Instead, shoppers place their orders online in the week leading up to the pickup day, paying in person when they retrieve their groceries, many of which are organic.

Being organic isn’t a requirement. However, Stevens strongly sticks to her geographic rule. Products must be fresh off the farm, grown or raised within 100 miles of one of the three pickup locations: Chewelah, Colville and Spokane.

And that resonates with Northwest Farm Fresh shoppers.

“I like that it’s local and fresh and keeping money in the area,” said Jodi Magee, 46, of Spokane.

She bought meat, eggs and “a whole bunch of veggies” for $84.71 on the first Spokane delivery day.

She also figured she would be a repeat customer. “This is beautiful because I can shop from the confines of my living room,” Magee said.

While CSAs sometimes deliver boxes or bags of produce right to people’s welcome mats, many don’t allow customers to mix and match, swapping out fruits or vegetables they don’t like or know they won’t use.

“You basically get what you get,” Stevens said.

Through Northwest Farm Fresh, customers pick out what they please.

“I love it. It’s local, and you get to choose what you want,” said Steve Bodnar, 35, of Spokane. Before Northwest Farm Fresh expanded to Spokane, he tried an online food co-op, but it didn’t do substitutions.

The season is also often limited. Many CSAs operate through the growing season, typically June through September. Traditional, open-air farmers markets usually follow a similar time frame, from the middle or end of May through October. Northwest Farm Fresh is open year-round.

“People are surprised how much is available late into winter,” Stevens said. “There’s always milk and meat and bread and honey.”

Other winter products include baked goods, eggs, cheese, jams, jellies, spices, sauces and handmade household goods like soap and candles.

Stevens stumbled upon the online model a few years ago. Inspired by the direct-marketing message of farmer and author Joel Salatin, whose Virginia farm is featured in Michael Pollan’s 2006 book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” she decided to pursue the idea, creating a business plan to serve Chewelah, where she lives.

While online farmers markets have sprung up on the East Coast in the last couple of years, the idea is still relatively new in the Pacific Northwest.

In fact, “As far as I know I’m the only one on the East Side” of the state, Stevens said.

She founded Northwest Farm Fresh in 2011. The site went live in March 2012.

Early on, it only served Chewelah. In November 2012, Stevens expanded to Colville.

It was popular in both places. “But,” Stevens said, “the customer base is limited up here in Stevens County.”

Some 43,500 people live in Stevens County; compared with more than 475,700 people in Spokane County.

“Right now, the goal is more customers,” Stevens said. “There aren’t too many farmers that can farm and market, so hopefully this solves that dilemma for them. I can market their farm for them, and they can farm. There’s no risk.”

Stevens approached Jennifer Shorts, owner of Lasagna’s-On-Ya and an active participant in Spokane area farmers markets. Shorts agreed to allow Northwest Farm Fresh to use a cooler in her store as well as distribute groceries from her front counter for free.

“I’m just kind of passionate about small business,” Shorts said. “It’s all about helping us out: mom-and-pop shops, farmers, other small businesses.”

Farmers update the website weekly, adding descriptions and photographs of new items. They set their own prices, and the software automatically adds a 30-percent markup, Stevens said.

When the weeklong shopping period ends, farmers receive an itemized order via email, then deliver their goods Tuesday morning to one of the three Northwest Farm Fresh locations. Stevens takes the items to her base in Chewelah, where she sorts them for redistribution and pickup Tuesday afternoon.

On Sept. 24, the first pickup day in Spokane, there were 21 orders from customers who came from as far away as Nine Mile Falls, Colbert and Rathdrum. In all, they ordered products from 27 farmers.

Some orders were as small as a bunch of carrots and a dozen eggs for $7.10 or two gallons of non-homogenized, low-heat pasteurized milk for $9.98. Other orders topped $100. None is too big or too small.

“If all you want is a tomato, that’s cool,” Stevens said.

But there are more than 300 products from which to choose. And, there is a benefit to buying in bulk. Orders for $50 or more receive a 10-percent discount. Some also come with a handwritten thank-you note.

Semi-retired farmer James Smith, 56, includes one with every order, adding an old-school, low-tech touch to this online, digital-era business.

He grows vegetables, berries and flowers, and raises pork, poultry and eggs on his farm – Smith and Son – in the Kettle River Valley near Orient, Wash. (He’s the son.)

He listed about two dozen items for the first Spokane pick-up date. “Then we got hit with a frost. Wiped out all my vegetables, other than root crops,” he said.

Still, he said he thinks the Spokane expansion of Northwest Farm Fresh will be “very good” for business.

“It’s adding a larger market,” he said. “It’s just like a (traditional) farmers market – only difference is I don’t have to stand there. I don’t have to spend all afternoon standing at the farmers market.”