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Subscription produce business blooming

Posted: July 9, 2011 - 5:13pm
Daveen Booth, of Talkeetna, jokes with the other workers during harvest at Arctic Organics in Palmer, Alaska  on   June 24, 2011.   Business is growing fast in Alaska, say subscription produce operators, who charge anywhere from $35 to more than double that for a weekly box of fruits and veggies.   (AP Photo/The Anchorage Daily News, Steph Anderson)   Steph Anderson
Steph Anderson
Daveen Booth, of Talkeetna, jokes with the other workers during harvest at Arctic Organics in Palmer, Alaska on June 24, 2011. Business is growing fast in Alaska, say subscription produce operators, who charge anywhere from $35 to more than double that for a weekly box of fruits and veggies. (AP Photo/The Anchorage Daily News, Steph Anderson)

ANCHORAGE — When Sarah and River Bean cleared old timber to start their farm near Palmer more than two decades ago, one of their first chores was recruiting customers for the coming harvest. It was a way to build a base of buyers and make their love of farming a viable business.

Their customers, in turn, got fresh vegetables all summer long.

Turns out the Beans were on the leading edge of what’s now a hot trend in Alaska. In a state once known for dreary produce aisles and few fruit options, customers from Adak to Anchorage are turning to a growing number of farm-to-table delivery services. Some are spending hundreds of dollars a year in exchange for boxes packed with local or organic produce.

Maybe you’ve seen a Full Circle truck pull into your neighborhood. Or stacks of Glacier Valley boxes at businesses around town waiting for customers to pick them up. Or people lined up in a downtown neighborhood every Wednesday afternoon for just-picked produce from the Bean family’s Arctic Organics farm.

Business is growing fast in Alaska, say subscription produce operators, who charge anywhere from $35 to more than double that for a weekly box of fruits and veggies.

One outfit, Washington state-based Full Circle, is targeting customers beyond the urban core with regular shipments of organic produce to villages and hubs from Bethel to Barrow and beyond.

Palmer-based Glacier Valley, in its third season, now has about 500 customers. Full Circle, in its seventh year in Alaska, has 5,000. Arctic Organics is intentionally small, with a current cap of 125.

Business strategies, pricing, and produce differ for each of the operations, but all say they offer fresh food and a direct connection to the farms that produce it. It’s not like shopping at the grocery store — what you get depends on what’s growing at selected farms.

In Southcentral, the only service that operates with no middle man is Arctic Organics, Sarah and River Bean’s farm.

In greenhouses and on seven cleared acres of farmland, the Beans grow everything themselves: Easter egg radishes and mustard greens. Basil and chives and fennel. Arugula and radicchio. Sugary carrots and purple potatoes, crimson beets and little white turnips. Even apples.

Vegetable deliveries start in mid-June and continue until mid-September. This year subscribers pay $600, half up front, for a full season of fresh veggies.

“We benefit greatly,” said Jocelyn Paine, a long-time subscriber whose downtown home doubles as the Anchorage pickup spot for Arctic Organics customers. (A painter, Paine sells a line of greeting cards based on watercolor portraits of garlic whistles, Napa cabbage, brussels sprouts and the like.)

On Wednesday mornings, the Bean family and a small paid crew harvest enough vegetables for 125 households, most of them in Anchorage.

They hose the veggies down and rinse them in cold water, put them in big plastic totes and haul much of the week’s harvest to Paine’s place downtown. From 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., customers fill bags brought from home with the designated number of items from each bin.

The fresh-picked produce brings “an astounding difference in flavor and taste,” Paine said. Because the food is grown close to the customer base, much less fuel is expended to deliver it. Paine also likes to think about the early Mat-Su farmers and all they endured on those early farms.

“And I feel that I want to keep that going,” Paine said. “I don’t like to see farmland become suburban sprawl.”

Meantime, distribution days at Paine’s house are a weekly holiday for foodies. “They love the surprise. It’s like Christmas every Wednesday,” Sarah Bean said. “People are really excited to see what they’ve got.”

The Beans also sell directly off the farm and at the Anchorage Farmer’s Market. Subscriptions like Paine’s provide about one-third of their revenue and have been a core of their business since they started the farm in 1989, she said.

Despite the farm name, Arctic Organics is not certified organic. Sarah Bean said they don’t use chemical pesticides or fertilizers. But she said the federal certification system is weak and uses standards designed for big corporations like Wal-Mart. The Beans are conscientious objectors when it comes to the feds’ “organic” labeling.

The subscription business in Alaska took off after Full Circle came to the state by request in 2005. The company says Juneau resident Sue Walker emailed the company founder and chief executive, Andrew Stout, seeking its organic fruits and vegetables.

The Juneau market got going, then Anchorage and now Full Circle has 250 pickup sites around the state including in 100 villages, the company says.

Its prices start at $43 for a week’s worth of produce for a small family in Anchorage and vary in rural areas, topping out at about $74 including shipping, the company says. A typical box includes 10 to 12 items such as lettuce, beets, chard, peaches and cantaloupe.

Alaska now comprises nearly one-third of Full Circle’s business. It also operates in Washington state and part of Idaho.

“It was gangbusters as far as the interest,” said Bob McCarny, Full Circle’s general manager for Alaska. Its produce is all certified organic and most of it comes from farms Outside, including Full Circle’s 400-plus acres of farmland in western Washington. Two organic Alaska farms also supply it.

People can customize their boxes by getting nothing but fruit, or permanently rejecting cauliflower, or getting carrots instead of cucumbers one week.

Most of the produce is flown to Alaska and some is driven on trucks, the company said.

From the Bethel hub, the company quickly expanded into nearby villages. Its supply chain now reaches 27 villages out of Bethel alone.

Esther Bennett, 49, lives in Adak at the end of the Aleutian Island chain. She said she heard about Full Circle’s fresh produce being shipped to other communities down the chain.

“So we called them up,” Bennett said. “They said even though our map doesn’t go that far down we’ll go ahead and deliver out to you.”

Bennett, who is Aleut, grew up on Kodiak Island at a time when canned fruits and vegetables tasted better than fresh ones. She remembers being repulsed by mealy tomatoes and mushy watermelon.

Bennett was “produce illiterate,” she said. “I never heard of a zucchini until I went to college.”

She’s learning a lot with her Full Circle boxes, which arrive in the bellies of planes every other week packed with produce, recipes and descriptions. Her kids, ages 10, 12 and 14, have enjoyed unusual fruits, like pluot, a cross between a plum and an apricot.

At the same time Full Circle’s operation exploded, business slowed at the South Anchorage Farmer’s Market, said Alison Arians, who sells baked goods there from her Rise & Shine Bakery. She used to write the market newsletter and launched its website.

“All over town we were seeing these gigantic piles of boxes,” Arians said.

Full Circle boxes.

Customers said they liked the convenience of a pre-paid box already packed with fresh veggies every week.

So Arians, farmer’s market founder Arthur Keyes and their spouses decided to start their own delivery co-op. Keyes is a former Carrs produce manager who, with his wife Michelle, owns and runs Glacier Valley Farm in Palmer.

In the summer of 2009, the group launched Glacier Valley Community-Supported Agriculture, delivering boxes of produce to pick-up spots in Anchorage, the Valley, Eagle River and the Kenai.

The fledgling outfit is a hybrid of the other veggie-delivery services. It combines locally grown produce — including greens, squash and peas in the summer and early fall, storage vegetables like potatoes and carrots through the winter and spring — with certified organic fruits and vegetables shipped in from outside Alaska.

People can sign up for a box, which costs $35 in Anchorage and the Valley, every week or every two weeks.

“The difference between us and Full Circle is we are really trying to get as much Alaskan produce in the boxes as we can,” Arians said.

That means committing to Alaska-friendly veggies like cabbage and brussels sprouts.

“I’ve had to learn to cook yummy things with them,” Arians said. She includes recipes every week, as do the other suppliers.

Customers say they savor the Alaska vegetables.

“The carrots are so much sweeter. The cabbage is sweeter,” said Susanne DiPietro, who switched over from Full Circle to get the local produce.

“At first we thought this thing was going to be huge. And it’s not huge but it’s definitely sustainable,” Arians said. “It’s exciting to be supporting the farmers, giving them the chance to try new things.”

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