Written by Emily Glaser | Photos by Anthony Harden
The folks at Mother Earth Produce believe the merits of eating and supporting local are self-evident: It’s good for your body, your community, and your planet.
Despite farmers markets and co-ops, in spite of CSAs (community supported agriculture) and home gardens, only a negligible percentage of the food we eat is grown locally. Graham and Andrea DuVall, co-founders of local grocery delivery service Mother Earth Produce, are on a mission to change that.
“The research that we’re doing is that the most dynamic way, right now, short-term, to scale local food is through really innovative food hubs,” says Graham. His hand rises to adjust his hat brim as he surveys the bustling scene of his business, a half-dozen sets of hands packing fresh, butter yellow summer squash, pints of crisp sugar snap peas, and dirt-dusted roots into cardboard boxes. Those boxes, loaded with summer’s abundant produce, will be loaded into vans and deposited on doorsteps across the region.
This is an innovative food hub in action.
“These are the kind of pioneer businesses that are beginning to bridge the gap to get those local food sales,” he continues, noting the shockingly low percentage—he estimates it to be only about one percent—of total national food sales that are actually local. “It’s businesses like us and cooperatives, innovative food hubs, that are the ones that are starting to try to push that number into two, three, five percent. That’s what we’re all about: The more that we can create a resilient model, the more that we can scale and expand, which is a part of our vision. I feel like we have created something really smart. Not all food hubs can be the same; they need to be very authentic for the community that they’re in; but we are creating a really strong template for scaling locally grown food.”
For the Good of Mother Earth
The template of Mother Earth Produce, founded by Graham and his wife, Andrea, in April 2012, is not only replicable, it’s increasingly necessary, as science proves again and again the benefits of eating local, and the existing systems prove again and again that they are incapable of serving as a viable marketplace for local farmers.
In a community as conscientious as Western North Carolina, the merits of eating and supporting local are self-evident: It’s good for your body, your community, and your planet. Eating local means eating in-season, which our bodies have evolved to do; the hearty vegetables of winter ward off colds, and the juicy fruits of summer keep us hydrated in the season’s heat. It also means eating whole foods, free of the questionable preservatives and additives pumped into much of grocery stores’ fare. Plus, local foods are fresher, so they retain more nutrients, and with a shorter travel itinerary, they have a lower chance of contamination—think: the recent egg- and melon-borne salmonella incidents—too.
Graham recognizes that the cost associated with eating fresh, regional produce dissuades many, but argues that it’s less expensive when you consider the long-term effects. “Americans spend the least amount on food of any country in the world. That’s something that we really want to change,” he says, suggesting we replace the cost of pharmaceuticals with high-value, fresh foods instead. Not to mention, the extra pennies spent on local food fall right back into your community’s economy. By investing in local farmers and their products, you help circulate capital in intercommunal channels, rather than pouring dollars into the industrial food complex, and help to create a strong economic foundation for our region.
Choosing to buy local also has a positive impact on the environment at large. “It’s four calories of fossil fuel to produce one calorie of food in the industrial food model,” Graham continues. “Our model is probably more like one calorie of fossil fuels to four calories of food because it’s all supporting the local economy, the local infrastructure, and it’s locally driven.” Rather than shipping genetically modified and disconcertingly pretty produce back and forth across the continent, wasting gallons and gallons of fuel in the process, eating local disseminates products and their revenue in a tight radius for a much smaller impact.
Though eating local inarguably matters, it’s still an insurmountable challenge for many of us, even the health- and environmentally-conscious. We may shop at mindful grocery stores like Whole Foods or Earth Fare, but probably only one to two percent of their products are sourced locally. We may go to a farmers market (when it’s convenient, which often it’s not, depending on one’s work or school schedule), but only spend, on average, $35 or less per visit, by Graham’s estimation—a mere mite of our grocery budget. Even if we subscribe to CSAs, we’re only finding a solution to the local-foods problem during our region’s short growing season; plus, we have no control over weekly selections, driving us to the stores for necessities that can’t be harvested by our favorite farmers.
Eating local simply isn’t easy—or at least, it isn’t in the existing system, which is as pockmarked as old produce. That’s where ventures like Mother Earth Produce come in. “I feel like there is a great responsibility and a great value to our model because people can really spend a lot more of their food dollar right back into the local economy. And we make it so easy that we drop off on their front porch,” Graham says. Mother Earth Produce has found a way to take our best intentions—for eating local, for supporting farmers, for being kinder to our earth—and make them utterly realizable: practical, affordable, and, best of all, easy.
From Farm to Table
“Farmers put blood, sweat, and tears into their work every single day, and they do it because they love it. That’s been the same thing with us. Anybody that’s in the local food movement is doing it because they love it,” Graham says, as he plunges into the narrative of Mother Earth Produce, a tale not curved and branching like squash vines, but instead as linear and straight-rooted as a late spring tomato sprout.
When the duo moved to Asheville, Graham leaving a position as a horticulturist at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia, Andrea transitioning out of corporate publishing, they knew they wanted to find a path that dug deep into their new community. Buoyed by their mutual passion for local food, the DuValls began to devise a model for purchasing and distributing food from farmers that didn’t involve early morning trips to the market. After brainstorming with a D.C. area consultant with a similar venture, they committed to their idea: Andrea cashed in her 401K, Graham sold his house, and the two started Mother Earth Produce.
The premise of the venture was, and remains, simple: Mother Earth Produce serves as an aggregator and distributor for local farms, collecting fresh produce and distributing it to homes around the region. The online platform features some 200 products, but they specialize in local, organic produce from nearly 40 different local farmers, and 70 to 80 percent of their sales are produce (make that 95 to 98 percent in summer’s peak growing season). Customers can buy a box of weekly produce picks, which come at varying sizes and with free meal plans designed for the box’s current contents, or pick and choose their products for completely custom orders, filling their digital cart with a range of products from prepared foods like Bee Tree Bone Broth, to staples like eggs and milk (also locally-sourced), to consciously-sourced goods like bananas and avocados. The only requirement for shipping is that their order reach the $27 minimum.
Farmers from across the region deliver the fruits (and vegetables) of their labors every Wednesday to the Mother Earth warehouse, where they’re divided into individual portions. On Thursday, the produce is divided into delivery boxes, topped with order additions, and sealed for delivery. Then commences a four-day delivery cycle; boxes are distributed in Asheville on Thursday and Friday, then to the Upstate and Greenville through the weekend, over the course of long, 12-hour days spent on the curving backroads of our region.
Though Mother Earth isn’t an on-demand service like other grocery delivery models, it offers other advantages. “It’s a really efficient, strong system, but also gives us really good quality control, and that’s really what we’re known for: We’re the absolute best quality in Asheville for food,” Graham says of his retail cycle, in which fresh produce is meticulously packaged and hand-delivered to eager customers. He also argues that without the temptation of end cap displays or one-day deals, it’s more cost-effective than traditional grocery stores. “It’s a really great way for people to save money because they don’t impulse shop. They can plan accordingly, so they can have the premium organic food at an affordable price.”
Six years in, and the DuValls feel they’ve finally found their stride, a sentiment made evident by their growth. When they began, working out of a small warehouse in Arden, they were distributing just 50 orders a week. Now, their team of eight packs up boxes for some 400 deliveries weekly from their 3,000-sq.-ft. warehouse on the campus of Smith Mill Works, a WWII-era food hub, located in a rural section of West Asheville, that has been turned into a business incubator for Asheville growers. And with 600 square feet of cooler space, they have plenty of room to continue on their trajectory; Graham estimates the space could accommodate some 1,700 to 1,800 deliveries a week, a capacity that would generate some $3 to $4 million in revenue to drip back directly into our local economy.
The company’s growth has occurred not just vertically, in terms of scale and volume, but horizontally, too, as their list of products and growers expands. There’s a direct correlation between an increase in selection and a surge in customers, as the platform becomes a more viable option for a one-stop shop where folks can buy all their groceries and have them delivered.
Mother Earth’s growth has also been spurred by the expansion of an entire industry and marketplace. The DuValls founded their business at the outset of a new aeon, a time when digital agoras and quick-draw deliveries became the norm, and when grocery deliveries began to gain ground in the food industry. “In time, grocery deliveries are supposed to continue to be a greater part of the grocery industry; I think it’s supposed to be up to 22 percent in the next decade or so,” explains Graham. “As the consciousness changes with grocery delivery, that will make our service more and more valuable.”
Do it for the Farmers
The truest roots of Mother Earth Produce, as mud-caked and sun-drenched as their metaphor, are farmers. Through the DuVall’s rapidly escalating venture, local growers find a platform to accelerate their own growth.
“We’re the extension for the local farming community to be able to scale past the farmers market,” Graham explains. “There’s a big gap between the [farmers] market and selling wholesale at a type of scale that [farmers] can sell at grocery stores. And the standards and pricing at the grocery are getting more and more challenging for any local farmers to be able to work for them.” The solution then lies in the innovative food hub fostered by Mother Earth Produce; farms with production capacities too large for the farmers market but too small for grocery distribution—as he mentioned, a wide margin—can access a larger customer base through Mother Earth, and make a healthy living, too.
“Over this last seven years, we’ve cultivated relationships with growers that have and want to have their business plan at more of an economy of scale where they have more room to grow,” he continues. “We’re purchasing their product for basically 50 cents on the dollar; the grocery store is basically giving them 30 cents, or possibly less, because it’s still got to go through one or two middlemen. But since we’re a direct connection from farm to customer, they can get a good price for their [produce], and so if they’re growing on a scale, they can make a really great income for themselves.” He adds that currently there aren’t many farmers in Asheville producing at that sweet-spot scale, primarily because they were lacking the platform from which to sell—a platform like Mother Earth.
In their seven years, Mother Earth has already proven to be a profitable marketplace for the farms they partner with, fostering the farm’s growth as well as their own. The first farmers they partnered with, for example, were Steven Beltram and Becca Nestler of Balsam Gardens. “We worked with him for a few years, and we were their main customer because of the scale of what they were able to do with us,” Graham says, of the family. “They were actually able to move their farm into Asheville and scale what they are doing exponentially. A huge part of that was because of us and our work with them. We are kind of a long-term strategic partner, and so that’s a beautiful example of Mother Earth being a direct proponent in helping to scale a local farm.”
For farmers like John Rowland of R Farm in Weaverville, the partnership allows him to continue to do what he has always done: farm organically. “He’s been doing organic farming probably longer than anybody or as long as anybody in the region. He’s an old school organic farmer,” Graham says, with a laugh. “And so we’ve really been able to be a key [partner]. He doesn’t even do market. He’s been reliant upon Mother Earth over the years to be able to continue to do what he’s doing and be rewarded for that.” As for the smallest growers, partnerships with other aggregators like New Appalachia gets their hard-earned bounty onto local tables, too.
While some might worry that Mother Earth’s model competes with farmers trying to sell directly to consumers through CSAs or farmers markets, Graham points out that their demographics are just different enough to access a new market, rather than tug at either ends of the same one. “How we’re different is we’re a year-round service, and that our customers are able to customize their selection,” he explains. “We try to promote as much local food and local farmers as possible, and then try to build a reputation of giving fair value to our growers, and so basically trying to build a strong reputation with that.” He encourages folks to go to market when they’re able, to give the farmer the maximum dollar for the food they’re growing, but also recognizes that many people don’t have the time or luxury to do so. That’s his market.
“The demographic that we’re going after are young families that are not going to be necessarily going to market every week, and we support that, but it’s not necessarily a part of what we do.”
As for CSAs, Mother Earth fills the gaps left in the market. “The CSA model is, you get what you get throughout the season. In the middle of summer, you’ll have a tremendous amount of selection, but there’ll be certain times of the year that you won’t have a lot of selection, or maybe there’s certain products that you don’t like,” Graham says. “With our model, people can customize. They want bananas and avocados to go with all of their local veggies, then they can do that.”
It’s Not Easy Being Green
At first glance, Asheville might seem an ideal incubator for a business like Mother Earth Produce; upon closer inspection, the city turns instead into a tepid hatchery kept afloat by more urban, youthful locales like nearby Greenville, South Carolina.
“Our model works really well in high-density, metropolitan areas where there’s lots of people, so they can send a full truck out and do the route in six or eight hours,” Graham gestures widely to the mountains around the warehouse and continues. “But because we’re in a small community, we’ve had to really scrape and hustle to make it work.”
Rural routes are far from the only problems posed—and ultimately, overcome—by the business. As Graham mentioned, Mother Earth’s ideal demographic is young, employed families, a population that’s particularly low in Asheville compared to neighboring Southeastern cities. That’s why the company expanded their reach into Greenville and the Upstate in 2014; as this magazine was going to press they were also slated to begin deliveries in Charlotte by June 30.
Marketing has also proved challenging for the start-up, which relies primarily on word of mouth. “Over time, I know that Asheville can be a viable market with a strong marketing imprint, but that’s been our biggest challenge: Consistent, strong marketing in the community, and we haven’t had budget for that,” he adds. Without a strong marketing presence, the company is sometimes unable to hold the fickle attention of consumers, who easily fall back into their old buying habits.
Then there’s the challenges of the model itself; food delivery services have historically failed. “Delivery services have tried and tried for years to stay in business and make profit, and all of the big ones, almost all of them, have gone out of business, because what we’re learning is that the whole grocery store industry, the margins are so slim on food that when you add in the cost of delivery, there’s no profitability, almost zero,” Graham points out. But when you take the model outside of the industrialized food complex and place it squarely in local communities, it becomes more viable.
Mother Earth has prevailed through industry caveats and Asheville’s eccentricities, and they are arguably a stronger business for it. “It would have been easier to begin with a strong knowledge of marketing, and a budget for marketing, and have kept that brand presence consistent,” he admits. “At the same point though, it’s made us run a much smarter business… If we had not had [those challenges], I don’t think we ever would have been pushed to work as hard as we have to have such a strong, scalable, and viable model now.”
Food of the Future
With that very strong, scalable, viable model in tow, the DuValls are planning even bigger operations for Mother Earth produce. With Charlotte in their sights, they’ll soon be able to bring fresh, local produce to an even larger market, sourcing from Raleigh-Durham (already a hub of growers they utilize) and our own Asheville as they foster connections with the area’s artisan producers. Once they’re established in the Queen City, they plan to add a second hub like their Smith Mill Works location closer to Charlotte.
Graham says he also hopes to reach a new market within these existing Southeastern markets next year, when the USDA approves EBT for online purchases. “When we’re able to do that, we can start reaching at-risk communities a lot better, because that’s kind of a wide range of our mission: reaching everybody in our community and making the food affordable and accessible.” Food deserts could become a thing of the past, a fire doused by the availability of good, healthy food shipped to the doors of at-risk communities.
The projected impact of Mother Earth Produce isn’t just regional—it’s national. There are roughly 180 businesses similar to the DuValls’ scattered across the country, and the duo believe the key to success for them all lies in collaboration. “We have a larger plan of helping to collaborate and connect with more of this network to create kind of an entire ecosystem for local food,” he smiles, at the futility of such a plan, or perhaps at the potential of it. “What seems to be the disparity that makes it so challenging for us to compete in the market is that we’re disconnected. And so our idea is the more that we can connect in the food chain, the more that we can support each other to be able to compete strong with pricing, with marketing, with technology, with all the pieces that we really need to be able to compete with the industrialized food system and in the grocery industry, which is just like mass volume, cheap food, flashy, all that stuff.” He predicts that by banding together, the smaller co-ops and food hubs will finally be able to truly capture and keep the attention of consumers.
The more customers they can catch, the more accountability they can establish in the American food model—an attribute long absent from the American food complex. “Part of our longer-term vision is bringing technology and accountability for the entire food chain,” Graham says. “What we’re really wanting and are concerned about is we want people to grocery shop locally, to start putting a huge percentage of their food dollars right back into the local economy. We feel that this model is making it convenient and easy to order online; it’s dropped off on their doorstep. We do recipe planning for them. We’re doing tons of video footage on the local farms so they can get to know the local farmers. We’re trying to keep everything accountable in the food chain, where things are traceable and trackable, and they know exactly what they’re getting, and they know what their farmers are putting into the food, and what’s happening on the farm.”
Like the farmers he supports, it’s a venture of passion, but it’s also one of sensibility and innovation: “We feel like this is the modern way. We’re betting on this. We really feel strongly: This is the modern way for local food to get scaled.”
The entrepreneur’s eyes light on the boxes full of fresh, local goods, ready to be delivered around the region. “It’s not the only way, but it’s a really good way that we can do in both large scale metro areas and rural areas.”
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