Jim Harvey, the current owner and fifth generation of his family to farm, had his first roadside stand at age 12. That deep heritage in produce makes the garden center he founded — Harvey’s Farm & Garden Center in Westborough, Mass. — a natural fit for the booming farm-to-table movement.
“Over the past few years, people have really come to be aware, concerned and interested about where their food is grown,” says Emily Harvey, manager of Harvey’s Farm and Jim’s daughter. “Buzzwords including ‘local,’ ‘non-GMO’ and ‘naturally-grown’ are all very hot, and we’re proud to offer produce that fits into those categories.”
As the country returns to its roots, Emily Harvey says farms have gained lots of popularity, and more people are understanding farming’s importance in the food chain.
Growing its own produce ties in with Harvey’s other farm-to-table ventures, including a farmers market, a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program and a local food hub. These approaches, according to Harvey, help the company expand its produce offerings to the community, while showing its customers that “we are farmers through and through.”
It’s this last point that Harvey says is especially important for retailers looking to expand their fresh produce offerings. “If you can’t find ways to keep fresh produce perky during hot and humid days, don’t bother trying to sell it,” she says. “We have seen some very successful garden centers dabble with produce that they couldn’t maintain, resulting in a less-than-appetizing display of soggy fruits and veggies.”
Growing its own versus bringing in wholesale products gives Harvey’s an upper hand. “Customers enjoy seeing where their food is grown, and knowing their farmer is a huge part of their buying decisions,” she notes. “The relationships we have formed with our customers have created a following based on quality and trust. Many take the time to tell us how much they appreciate what we do and that they’re so happy we’re here working so hard for them. I can’t think of a better incentive than that!”
Here are three specific ways Harvey’s is making farm to table its own, and finding success along the way.
How Harvey’s Fine-Tuned Its Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) Program
Emily Harvey talks about how Harvey’s tweaked its CSA program to work better for both its customers and the store.
• How and why you got involved: Offering a CSA was a recommendation from a number of customers when asked what they would like to see from us. Our visibility at the weekly farmer’s market raised the topic of a possible CSA program, and we started to determine ways that we could offer one that would work for our production, staffing and schedule.
• How you’ve promoted it: We mentioned the term “CSA” in one of our winter eMail newsletters last year as a “What if we were to offer …” topic. We were blown away by the immediate response and interest. The eMails kept coming in (and still are) from people who want to be a part of the program.
• Feedback from your customers: We have had lots of positive feedback from our program after the first season. People love the convenience of knowing that every week they can count on a variety of our fresh produce and knowing where their food was from and the farmers that grew it. Shareholders love that we include recipes that encourage them to incorporate their weekly share into new meals.
• Lessons you’ve learned: After the first year, we found that our two share sizes ($25 or $15) could be easily streamlined into a $20 share. In addition, we started people the option of a pickup day to best fit their needs.
We also decided to slightly shorten the length of the season from 20 consecutive weeks to 18. We lucked out in 2014 with a mild fall season that allowed us to continue harvesting produce into mid-December. As farmers, we also understand that’s not always realistic, and weather plays a huge role in the making or the breaking of a season’s success. We want to ensure that we can fulfill our end of the bargain for our customers. Also, in creating a one-size-fits-all approach, we are able to increase our number of available shares.
More shareholders means more traffic into our retail location, and often results in add-on sales when customers are picking up weekly.
• Advice you can offer to other independent garden centers: If you’re not the grower of the produce/goods you’re offering in a CSA, we believe it dilutes the meaning/purpose of a CSA program. So much of our success with this program banks on our customers knowing and seeing where their food comes from, and being a big part of our farm community.
• How you’ve benefited: One of the biggest financial benefits of the CSA program is that it brings income in during our off-season (applications take place in January). It also brings in add-on sales throughout the season with their weekly share pickups. Another huge benefit to this program is that it offers our customers a sense of belonging to a community and of being a part of something. We were pleasantly surprised how popular the trend of CSA’s were and are. We wanted to make sure it worked for us in the short and long run and wanted to keep the program as simple as possible.
How Harvey’s Connects With The Community Through Its Local Farmer’s Market
Rather than hosting its own farmer’s market, Harvey’s has a booth at a popular local one. Emily Harvey shares how the garden center gets the most value it can from the market.
• How and why you got involved: Our reasoning for joining was based on the Westborough Farmer’s Market’s close proximity to our brick-and-mortar business. The market has been growing both in number of vendors, as well as in popularity with the public, and many of our current customers were requesting our presence there.
• How you’ve promoted it: The farmer’s market is promoted by word-of-mouth advertising in our store and among friends, through our eMail newsletter and Facebook (both through our page and the farmer’s market page).
This past season, the farmer’s market hired a social media person who ended up being a great asset to our growth at the market. We were one of the few vendors that emailed them our “weekly availability” and pictures of items to see at market. They would then post that produce list on the farmer’s market Facebook page. Many shoppers would show up the following day at market requesting specific items they had seen on the Facebook post. It just created another level of “buzz” for us that was a very obvious increase in traffic and sales.
• Feedback from your customers: We have heard great feedback time and time again on how attractive our display is. Customers also love that I help them with recipe ideas. I love cooking and trying new ways to enjoy our produce. So often, this is the perfect opportunity to connect with our community over recipe ideas, and it serves as a great follow-up discussion for the following week.
• Lessons you’ve learned: At first, we were hesitant to join because the market was so close (about a quarter mile) to our farm, and we thought that being that close might be overkill. Although there were many existing customers who frequented the farmer’s market, there were many new customers that have become regulars both at the market and at our retail location, as well.
One great feature of the market’s proximity to the farm is that if a customer requests a particular item we may not have at the market or have run out of, we can have Farmer Harvey (Dad) pick the item and send the customer over for “picked-for-them” produce.
Another lesson that we learned was that as the market itself grew and business increased at our booth, we were in need of another staff member to assist with sales, restocking, etc. Never would we have imagined the need for a second person to run a 10×10 booth, but it was worth the investment being able to serve customers more efficiently and keeping our booth attractive and stocked throughout peak shopping times.
• Next steps/anything new planned: We are always looking at ways to maximize our booth space by utilizing not only the table space itself, but also by creating vertical space above and below the table.
This season we are also paying closer attention to items that we need larger volumes of, varieties that sold well or items that we had a challenge selling, even when offering a bargain. We’re trying to grow smarter, so we can sell smarter.
• Advice you can offer to other independent garden centers: Involvement in a farmer’s market is a great way to promote your business off-site if the market itself is well-attended and attracts the right demographic of customers who want to support local businesses. Just keep in mind that it’s a lot of work, whether it’s packaging and loading items, staffing to go to market or coordinating businesses, permits, etc. for hosting your own. The benefits are great; just remember that it’s another part-time or full-time job that you’re adding to your plate.
• How you have benefited: By being a part of the local movement and becoming more visible within our community. It’s easy to assume that people know about your business when you’ve been there for generations. Our involvement in the market has quickly taught us how many recently new customers have become regulars for us. Although it’s a lot of work each week, it gives us another avenue for income during a quieter season for garden center sales, and the marketing pay-off is obvious to us throughout our season.
How Harveys Uses A Middle Man To Its Advantage
“Lettuce Be Local” is a program that connects local farms to chefs who have utilized the farm-to-table concept in their restaurants. Emily Harvey talks about how the program boosted Harvey’s reputation.
• How and why you got involved: Other than liking their page on Facebook, I wasn’t familiar with this farm-to-table food hub until this past summer at the farmer’s market. A young couple approached our booth, introduced themselves and explained how they were organizing a farm dinner where all ingredients were sourced from local farms. They had a farmer who was supposed to supply them with eggplant for their menu, but he ended up not having any available. It was early in the season for eggplant, so our supply wasn’t too extensive and their need was now. After a quick phone call to ensure what quantities I had available to them, I named our price. They agreed to come to the farm that next day for it, and at that point gave one of their co-founders a tour of our farm, fields and greenhouses. That was the beginning of a great grower-to-chef relationship over the course of the season.
• How you’ve promoted it: We have featured our relationship with Lettuce Be Local (LBL) in our eMail newsletter, as well as in-store to customers. We also connect through our farm Facebook and Instagram pages and “like” a lot of their activity (as LBL does the same to our posts).
• Feedback from your customers: We have some season-long produce customers who really appreciated the availability of locally grown produce at our retail location that supplemented our farm-grown produce. There were some crops we didn’t have enough supply to meet our customer’s demands, so we were able to supplement that with in-season produce grown at nearby farms. LBL conveniently delivers the goods to our farm and it’s a win-win for us, for LBL and our customers.
• Lessons you’ve learned: There can be middle people between the farms and the chefs that genuinely care about the relationships that they have created and the quality of the products they offer. We are able to sell surplus produce that may have otherwise gone to waste and help feed more in our community, all the while being viable ourselves. It’s a great feeling having someone that is the connection between the grower/consumer and takes all of the guesswork out of it for us (which saves lots of time and money in the long-run).
• Next steps/anything new planned: We are looking at ways to possibly team up on programs with LBL, such as a farm dinner at our farm or other event. With any opportunity like this, we have to make sure it works financially and logistically for all parties involved. We look forward to maintaining both our relationship with LBL as a grower supplying local chefs, but also for the opportunity to supplement our produce offerings on an as-needed basis.
• Advice you can offer to other independent garden centers: A local food hub similar to what LBL does for us farmers may be a great resource if you want to get into the produce market but don’t have the interest or space to grow produce the yourself. Once again, with emphasis on fresh and locally grown, LBL sets themselves apart from traditional produce wholesalers.
What “Farm To Table” Means To Harvey’s Farm
“It’s amazing that it’s taken this long for the dots to be connected between garden centers, farms and chefs on a mainstream level. Over the past years, there has been an increased awareness of how and where food is grown.This has invited our garden center customers to grow their own food and our farm-grown produce to be highlighted more in local cuisine among restaurants whose mission it is to offer locally produced items. This farm-to-table movement is huge both in importance and popularity, and I think more and more people are getting its importance. We have a strong feeling this won’t be a trend and will be a long-lasting lifestyle, and offer a sustainable food chain once again.”