Vermont Business Magazine On a cold Tuesday, music plays from a radio and workers wheel shopping bags around in a circle lined with incredible looking food items fresh from a farm or local producer, including meat, eggs, cheeses, milk, yogurt, baked goods, fresh bread, fruits and vegetables. The workers are like busy bees buzzing away in their hive. They take a list, grab a bag, and spin around the circle, grabbing items off the list and packing them into a reusable Farmers To You branded shopping bag.
It’s called a picking line but I like to call it super efficient grocery shopping. There is laughter and some smiles as someone makes a joke but it’s clear everyone takes their task seriously. This is a group that seems more like a family and there is warmth and happiness in what could easily be a cold, emotionless warehouse space.
Just knowing that the food they packed was produced by a local farmer and then packed by a hive of happy worker bees would be enough for me to say, “Yes, please. I’m all in. Give me what is being sold here. I’ll have what they’re having.” But there is more to this story. Behind it all is a person that deeply cares about plants, the Earth, the farmers that supply this partnership and the people that work with him to make it all happen. His name is Greg Georgaklis and he’s the founder of Farmers To You.
And according to Georgaklis, who’s providing this personal tour of what looks like an incredibly efficient workspace, every Tuesday after packing the orders, there’s a staff meal where the entire team can sit around and enjoy the same locally sourced food they are packing to be delivered to 30 locations in Boston and 3 in Northern Vermont. Today there’s a pork roast cooking in a large oven in their back office space. The smell lingers enticingly throughout the room while Georgaklis sits down to talk about this vision he realized and built.
The Origin Story Behind Farmers To You
Through Georgaklis’ work with the Vermont Farm to Plate Network’s Aggregation and Distribution Working Group, he recognized a huge scale mismatch between what retail demanded and what small sustainable farms could produce to meet the demand. In order to have the volume that's needed by the supermarkets, producers need to get huge or get out. Georgaklis realized a regional scale model needed to be created that was at a scale appropriate to the kind of production he really wanted to incentivize, which is small- to mid-scale, organic, sustainable farming. And thus, in 2010, the idea of Farmers To You was born: connecting families directly with farmers so they can know exactly where their food comes from, and giving consumers the power to build relationships with the farmers feeding them.
“I'm really a farmer at heart, even though I also have all this experience in retail and distribution and processing because of my past life,” said Georgaklis. “If we don't have that production and that quality of food out there, we're not going to have a food system that is going to heal us and heal the planet – because the industrial scale food system spells disaster for all of us.”
Looking further back at Georgaklis’ personal trajectory toward a man looking to realize a vision of transforming the food system into a more resilient, sustainable model, he started as a farmer of plants and that’s clearly where his passion for the planet lies.
Before moving to Vermont and birthing Farmers To You, Georgaklis owned and ran a sizable New England Based Horticultural Supply business that included an 800 acre farm, several distribution depots, and retail stores.
So How Does Farmers To You Work?
Typical supermarket fare travels thousands of miles before arriving at your table, taking a toll on the food's nutrition and flavor, as well as the environment. The food is also produced in a way that harms the environment, and does not nourish us. It's become a challenge for urban families to obtain vibrant, nutrient-rich food in a way that works for busy lives. Farmers To You enables families to be just one step away from a face-to-face relationship with their farmers.
Emails are sent out to customers every Friday to let them know what products are available. Orders are then placed online by Sunday, farms receive orders on Monday, food is packed on Tuesday, and delivered to over 30 drop-off locations in the Boston area and 3 in Vermont on Wednesday/Thursday. There, customers receive the meat, eggs, cheeses, other dairy products, baked items as well as fruits and vegetables, all direct from FTY partner farms.
1. Shopping is Easy – every week FTY selects the freshest food available from 80+ partner farmers.
2. Get What You Love – customize your order and add what you want from over 350 items.
3. They Do the Work – your food is harvested by FTY farmers and packed to order at their Hub in Vermont.
4. It's Simple – open your door or stop by a local pickup site to get your order.
Farmers To You now has over 1,200 family partners, with 350+ products offered each week, and 99% of the food is produced within 200 miles of the markets served. Since 2010, Farmers To You has facilitated over $7.7 million in new sales for Vermont and New England regional farmers and food producers.
Flexible Capital Fund Support
So how did Georgaklis find the capital to help really get Farmers To You off the ground and delivering? Georgaklis tapped into the Flexible Capital Fund (Flex Fund), a mission based fund that provides flexible financing in the form of subordinated debt and royalty (or revenue-share) financing, to growing businesses in Vermont’s food, forestry and clean technology markets. The Flex Fund focuses on those growing companies that strengthen or fill a gap in their supply chain while also creating quality jobs and sustainable products and services.
In 2013 the Flex Fund provided $305,000 in royalty financing to Farmers To You to support expansion and relocation to a new, larger hub facility, purchase additional equipment, add key staff, and streamline the website and ordering system. Additionally, Farmers To You was able to leverage Flex Fund capital to secure additional royalty financing from key Boston-area investors, including FreshSource Capital. Both investors brought not only their financial support, but access to their networks and connections as well.
Georgaklis said Flex Fund and Flex Fund President Janice St. Onge understood Farmers To You’s mission and the issues Georgaklis was trying to solve.
“At that time I was talking to other investors and impact investors and they just couldn't wrap their arms around what I was doing,” he said. “They thought it was kind of interesting, and quaint, but that it really wasn't a model that could last and I think, Janice and the people at Flex Fund knew me, knew what I was doing, understood the context behind what I was building and saw the impact.”
Be the Change You Want to See in the World
Georgaklis said you reach a point in your life where you realize, all of your struggles, triumphs, successes and failures were all training for what lies ahead. When starting his business, he realized that he had amassed distribution knowledge and retail knowledge, while his partner at that time had some of the other skills needed and so they just “did it,” building Farmers To You from the ground up, knowing it was the right thing to do.
“My dream is that we create a food system that truly supports the kind of farming that produces food that heals people and the planet. And that at least 50% of the food purchased is through this system,” he said. “Then I think we can actually reverse climate change and heal people. The chronic disease rate will start to go down because it's the food that's making us sick. People don't know where it’s coming from and how it’s produced.”
Hope for the Future
The secret to creating something new is to look for the things that we really want in our food system that don’t seem possible in the existing food system. According to Georgaklis, transparency in the food system is one, and the other is creating an incentive for good farming. And by that, he means farming at a scale where the Earth, the animals, the land, and the farmers are taken care of. Where farmers can make a living, and everyone, including the Earth, can be healthy.
At the same time, Georgaklis stresses that there is still a lot of work to do.
“We've created this model and that's great, but now we have to start to sell this idea because commercial agriculture and big supermarket retail wants us to believe that this large scale commercial agriculture and huge corporations are the answer to our problem when they’ve actually been the source of our problems,” he said. “We need to go back to more regional, smaller scale production and recognize that it's actually much more efficient on so many different levels, including in a social, environmental and cultural sense.”
About the Flexible Capital Fund
The Flexible Capital Fund provides creative financing in the form of near equity capital (subordinated debt and royalty financing) to growth-stage companies that strengthen the supply chain in food systems, forest products, and clean technology. As a mission-based investor, the Flex Fund is committed to helping portfolio companies grow, to help accelerate the rate at which Vermont, and the region, move towards healthy food systems and climate change solutions. www.FlexibleCapitalFund.com
About Farmers To You
Farmers To You (FTY) is a growing partnership of gifted farmers and producers creating the future of food production and committed families gracing their tables with life-giving foods. Farmers to You works with 80+ New England farms that provide fruit, vegetables, cheese, milk, meat and other locally made food products year-round. farmerstoyou.com
Source: MONTPELIER, VT – Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund. VSJF photos. vsjf.org | deltaclimevt.com | vtfarmtoplate.com