An Alliance for All Seasons
An App, A Truck, and Four Farms Delivering Efficiency, Ease, and Local Produce on the Seacoast
We have officially entered the season of excess, from indulgent second-helpings to extra purchases. To celebrate the power of keeping it simple, look no further than a group of small farmers making it big without going big—no monocrops, no factory systems. Three Rivers Farm Alliance is their story as told by Customer Service & Wholesale Coordinator, Erin Norton.
M: What inspired TRFA?
E: Andre Cantelmo (Heron Pond Farm), Josh Jennings (Meadow’s Mirth), and Kate Donald (Stout Oak Farm) were successful Seacoast produce wholesalers who realized they were following each other around in half empty trucks, driving half the day instead of farming. Chefs were also asking all of them for an easier way to order produce than calling eighteen farms for eighteen different deliveries. The three realized that if they joined together based on the premise of small-scale aggregate distribution, they could increase product variety, lower costs, and help the chefs. So in the summer of 2014, they created TRFA—one place to order from many farms on a single invoice.
M: How does TRFA work?
E: Fridays we post available product online. Chefs place orders by Monday. Tuesday each farm gets a “pick ticket” for what to harvest and deliver to Heron Pond Farm’s big walk-in cooler. Wednesdays and Thursdays I make deliveries, and chefs ordering over the weekend know to pick-up at the Newburyport or Portsmouth farmers’ markets. Either way the food is just one to two days out of the ground. Chefs tell me, “I can’t get this stuff to go bad.”
M: Who are TRFA’s customers?
E: Lots of restaurants, like Portsmouth’s Moxy and Black Trumpet, but we really supply a large range of clients, like Wentworth Douglas’ employee CSA in Dover and Frisbee Memorial’s retail space farmers’ market in Rochester. We also make a driveway delivery of herbs and microgreens to Kevin Johnson’s mobile wood-fired oven, Embers Bakery.
M: Enter the TRFA phone app.
E: Yes. It’s integral to TRFA’s success. Chefs want to walk into their coolers to review inventory and place orders right there on their phones. Close to 90% of our customers use the app. to order and see real-time product updates.
M: How did you join TRFA?
E: I came from Michigan where food distribution is based on efficiency, not food quality. And growing up, nobody questioned that. But in 2012, I graduated from UNH with a degree in hospitality and restaurant management with a focus on EcoGastronomy, which studies the effect that food has on humans and their environment. Finding TRFA two years later was finding my dream job. Now I get to help farmers use the sustainability of local food to work toward fixing our broken food system.
M: When did TRFA’s fourth and fifth farms join?
E: In mid-2015, Tuckaway Farm’s Chuck and Laurel Cox came on with 50 years organic growing experience, and the Rocha family of Kellie Brook Farm added our first humanely raised meat options.
M: Would the farmers have reached these clients on their own?
E: Take Tuckaway Farm. Chuck and Laurel worked hard at wholesaling, but when they joined TRFA, their orders doubled. They simultaneously had more time in the field and more exposure to restaurants. And since TRFA is farmer-owned, all the farmers make direct profit, even after wholesale prices and 15% overhead.
TRFA is uniting local farms with their consumers by providing the vital communication that keeps the movement of harvest running simply and smoothly. Although the symbiotic system provides some excellent benefits for local farms’ income, their mission runs deeper than profit. As produce wholesaler Kate Donald puts it, “This collaboration is about forging relationships. It's about the people—the farmers, the chefs, and the many partners we are finding along the way to move toward a stronger local food system.”