From “mobile farmers markets” to “veggie vans,” traveling produce stands can open new markets for farmers and increase consumers’ access to fresh, locally grown food. These vendors on wheels are finding new customers in underserved or unserved neighborhoods and communities. Farmers’ Markets Today takes a look at the marketing methods and operations of two different mobile projects, the Gorge Grown Mobile Farmers Market and Denise Baarda’s Veggie Van.

Small Towns Welcome the Gorge Grown Mobile Farmers Market

The Gorge Grown Mobile Farmers’ Market made its first delivery in July 2008, taking fresh blueberries, carrots, sweet corn, snap peas, tomatoes and other locally grown food to small rural communities in the Columbia River Gorge region bordering Oregon and Washington. The service helps area farmers develop new markets for their products and brings local, fresh food to communities that don’t have farmers markets – and in some cases – grocery stores.

Sponsored by the Gorge Grown Network, a nonprofit organization that connects local farmers and food producers with consumers, the mobile market delivers produce purchased from 16 area farmers to four rural communities for weekly scheduled stops. According to Sarah Hackney, Gorge Grown coordinator, the organization purchases the food for 75 percent of retail price, allowing a 25 percent profit to cover overhead costs.

“Our focus is on small farmers and beginning farmers, so we want to make sure they receive a decent price for their produce,” Hackney says. “We’re not purchasing in huge quantities. Many of the farmers also sell through a farmers market or CSA, so this helps those who have extra produce and don’t want it to go to waste.”

The mobile market travels in a 1995 Ford diesel delivery truck purchased with grant funds from the Oregon Investment Board, matching funds from the Washington State Investment Board and a donation from a local physician – for a start-up budget of $7,000. Income from the food sales covers fuel and operating costs. A paid assistant drives the van, accompanied by volunteers.

Coordinators secured a variety of produce by offering vendors of the Gorge Grown Farmers Market in Hood River, Ore., the opportunity to sell their products to the mobile market. Participating farmers deliver their products to a designated drop-off site each Saturday morning or Friday night, whichever is more convenient for the farmer. The produce is stored in coolers overnight.

The mobile market truck is not refrigerated, but coolers and a freezer are on board to store local meat and keep produce cooled. An RV awning mounted on the side of the truck provides shade over two tables set up at each stop. The truck travels on Saturdays and Sundays, making 60- to 80-mile round trips to two communities each day. Each visit draws 20 to 120 customers at stops in Stevenson, Wash., and Cascade Locks, Mosier and Dufur in Oregon, communities that range in size from 400 to 1200 people.

Hackney says staff and volunteers worked with community leaders to see if there was interest in visits from the mobile market and then they looked for a location with a willing land owner. Gorge Grown supplies its own insurance and provides publicity through news releases, newsletters, posters and word of mouth.

Mobile market encourages local farmers’ participation

“We chose places that didn’t already have a farmers market, and we welcome other small farmers to set up next to us,” Hackney says. “Many are backyard gardeners with extra produce, who are thrilled to have a place to go.”

One such farmer, Norm Haight, sells his items alongside the Mobile Market truck in the parking lot of the Stevenson Chamber of Commerce. In his first year as a fulltime grower, Haight says the mobile market is a convenient outlet for him to test selling his goods, and the market draws a steady stream of 60 to 70 customers during its three-hour visit.

“My focus is to get more people in the community interested in growing their own products and to raise awareness of why they should,” Haight says. “It’s about connecting to people and building their energy and enthusiasm to start growing.”

Hackney adds, “Having our truck there is a nice bit of stability for folks who are interested in starting to sell what they grow, but haven’t taken the plunge into fulltime farming.”

In its first year, the Gorge Grown Mobile Farmers Market has surpassed expectations in both consumers and farmers, coordinators say. Produce not sold at the market stops is donated to the local Meals on Wheels program, though Hackney notes that there is seldom much produce left.

Ben Zimmerman, a farmer from Snowden, Wash., who sells to the mobile market, says the project has opened up new markets for him and other local farmers. “If it weren’t for this mobile market, there is no way my produce could ever reach these towns,” he says. “As a farmer, I just don’t have the time to take it there and sell it myself.”

Gorge Grown coordinators hope visits from the mobile market will evolve into the creation of viable farmers markets in each town within the Gorge region. Bruce Bolme, a Gorge Grown volunteer, explains the rationale behind the project.

“The long-term goal in these four communities is for us to help establish such a vibrant farmers market that it no longer makes sense for us to come, and we can move on to another area of the Gorge.”

Veggie Van Serves Senior Communities in Pennsylvania

In the fall of 2007, Denise Baarda decided to take her family’s 40-acre farm “to another level.” With approval from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, she started a new “Veggie Van” service to deliver fresh farm produce to senior housing centers and retirement communities in the Northhampton County area of eastern Pennsylvania during 2008.

With 21 stops each week, it didn’t take long for Baarda Farms’ customer base to nearly triple in size and reach a level beyond anything Baarda expected. “It’s phenomenal. I can’t even put it into words,” Baarda says. “Our business has increased tremendously. Three weeks after starting, we realized we needed a bigger van. Four weeks into it, we realized we needed an extra hand.”

Baarda Farms, already known for its full line of fruits and vegetables, grows on 22 acres using integrated pest management practices. The farm sells daily from June through November at its farm market stand, in addition to Sunday sales at the Slatebelt Farmers Market, which Baarda manages. But Baarda also wanted to reach the senior population who could not easily get to the farm stand or farmers market.

She gained approval from Pennsylvania’s housing authorities to sell produce at the subsidized senior housing sites and made sure she was eligible to accept senior vouchers provided through the Farmers Market Nutrition program. After submitting a detailed explanation of her intentions, officials paid an on-site visit to Baarda Farms to verify that it was a producing farm.

“They saw our state-registered farm was not a fly-by-night operation and that I would not take advantage of seniors,” Baarda says.

With state approval secured, Baarda sent introductory letters to administrators of area senior communities, senior centers and shelters and invited them to host the Veggie Van once or twice a week on a set day and time. With 21 positive responses, the biggest challenge was working out the schedule.

“I had to make sure we had enough time to drive from place to place and to plan ahead for extra traffic during music fests and other community events,” she explains.

The service began in June 2008 and quickly outgrew Baarda’s mini van. She replaced it with a full-size van and then added a pickup truck and a converted topper with sides that can be opened to display produce stacked inside on shelves. The two vehicles are driven by Baarda and her father, Nathan Gould. They each make four to five stops Tuesday through Friday, traveling 215 miles each week over a 40-mile wide area.

“We try to stay at least a half hour at each stop, but we will stay longer if the residents need more time,” she says. “We try to make it convenient for them.”

In addition to vouchers, Baarda accepts cash, debit and credit cards, and personal checks. “I know what facility the people are from, and I can easily go back there if I have a problem.”

Baarda tries to keep the pricing low for seniors on fixed incomes. She also offers items in smaller quantities, such as a pint of strawberries instead of a quart. She says the most popular purchases are fruit, tomatoes, potatoes and other produce that can be eaten raw or cooked in a microwave.

“They buy $5 to $8 worth of food to get them through until the next week when they know we’ll be back with fresh produce,” she says.

Ginny Royer, building manager for the Northhampton County Housing Authority, oversees four communities that the Veggie Van visits. Although the average age of the tenants is 75 and a lot of them don’t do much walking, Royer says many tenants gather early on the porch to wait for Baarda’s scheduled arrival.

“It’s really nice to have this service, just like it used to be in the old days when you had your milk delivered,” she says. “I highly recommend it for any community.”

Veggie Van has become a family affair

Baarda’s whole family has pitched in to make the project work. Her parents, Nathan (who also drives) and Marianne Gould, now run the farm stand. Six family members pick produce on the weekends, and three new employees have been hired to help.

“Our routine is to fresh pick daily, early enough so if we run out we can run to a field and get more,” Baarda says.

Although the farm has not had to increase production for the van service yet, it may after Baarta reevaluates quantities for next year so her deliveries won’t run short of favorites like green beans. She attributes the mobile Veggie Van service with helping spread the word about her farm stand and the farmers market, as traffic to both venues has increased.

She admits that providing the van service is a lot of work and is tiring, and a flat tire on one trip and high fuel expenses of almost $1,000 a month have been drawbacks. However, Baarda says sales in one week compensate for the expense of gas, so she plans to keep the service going. It is likely that she will have to increase the number of stops because some facilities that turned down the Veggie Van service this year have already signed up for next season’s deliveries.

“As a farmer I want to make money any time, any where I can,” Baarda says.