Story by Kate Petrusa
Vancouver’s urban population provides an essential customer base to many rural farmers, who readily commute from all over southwestern BC to access this market. Compared to their home communities, the sizable summer customer base in Vancouver often makes a 3-hour, one-way journey for a farmer well worth it. One small business has been gearing up local food distribution in a particularly clever fashion. Based in East Van, Your Local Food Pedalers is successfully bridging the gap between urbanites and local farmers – all on their bicycles.
Chief Executive Pedalers Gavin Wright and Chris Thoreau are graduates of UBC’s Faculty of Land and Food Systems, and both have close relationships to the UBC Farm. Together, they run Your Local Food Pedalers as business partners and co-owners. From June to December, the two pedalers offer a weekly Community Shared Agriculture (CSA) box to their customers filled with organic and local items sold at the Trout Lake Farmer’s Market. They deliver each box by bike to their customer’s doorsteps.
While they knew each other peripherally through the UBC Farm, Gavin and Chris had not worked together prior to their current enterprise. In early 2011, they both heard and inquired independently about investing in ‘Your Local Food Pedalers’ business opportunity. After speaking with the previous business owner, Gavin proposed the idea that he and Chris tackle this idea together, and Chris readily agreed. “Since we have taken [the business] over, we are also interested in including urban agriculture produce, because that is what we are really involved in. We kind of kept the things about [the business] that we liked, and tweaked the things that didn’t make sense to us. We changed the name, decided to pick up and deliver on the same day, we brought in urban farms, and we expanded the variety of vendors [21 different farms and processors].”
Each Saturday morning, Chris and Gavin bike to the Trout Lake Farmer’s Market, pick up their produce and other goods from the market, and return to their packing area to fill the CSA boxes. After all of the boxes are packed, Chris and Gavin deliver the boxes by bike, hauling large trailers full of produce behind them. For Gavin, “Coming back with piles of awesome food from the Farmer’s Market and getting to sort through all this amazing food, it just felt like… Well, I literally have that image of Scrooge McDuck digging through a pile of gold, you know? It just feels like so much wealth. It is a cool feeling to just go to a stall and get a huge box of great stuff, and I come back here with all of it and get to have a nice morning sorting all of it out.”
Your Local Food Pedalers’ target market is people who love local food, but have trouble getting to the Farmer’s Market each week, or at all. Gavin explains, “My neighbours across the lane are really cool community folks and are super interested in local food. They totally want to support local farmers. My neighbours also described how they struggle with going to the Farmer’s Market, because of the high volume of people and lineups.” He stated there are also potential Farmer’s Market fans that don’t attend due to a Saturday work schedule, or living further away.
Over and above benefiting customers who can’t attend the Famer’s Market, there are unexpected benefits to this innovative business model. Firstly, Gavin and Chris are establishing ‘partner farms,’ with whom they work closely and have a committed relationship. By being included in Your Local Food Pedalers CSA, early in the season these ‘partner’ farmers have a much better idea how much of a particular crop to plant. For example, they know in early spring that Your Local Food Pedalers will be purchasing 100 units of Butternut squash from them for four weeks through October. It makes planning for the season easier for the farmers and more secure. “The [farmers] are actually planning ahead, in order to sell to us. They are doing some of their crop planning around the fact that we are going to be moving their stuff […]. And through our CSA, the farmers we partner with are getting customers that they wouldn’t necessarily get.” In effect, Chris and Gavin extend partner farmers’ existing CSAs by committing to take produce at a specified time. Through their own farming experience, Chris and Gavin know how much stress it can relieve when growers can comfortably cover early-season costs such as seeds and soil amendments. They opted for a CSA model largely because farmers receive share payments in the spring, which cover the cost of weekly boxes for the whole season.
Furthermore, Your Local Food Pedalers’ business model opens up a new customer base to processors who sell their goods at the Trout Lake Farmer’s Market. Processors include vendors who sell items such as cheese, meats, fish, pesto, bread and more. Because Gavin and Chris source from the Farmer’s Market, their customers can request ‘add-ons’ of processed goods to be included in their box for a given week. While processors aren’t able to plan their sales in the same way as primary producers who are partnered with the CSA, the vendors are still able to sell to customers who aren’t at the Farmer’s Market. “It’s going to be relatively easy to facilitate this for us, because there are some items, like pesto, that is frozen, so we can buy a larger quantity and won’t have to pick that up each time. There will be a few products like that, which we can keep stock of,” says Chris.
Notably, Your Local Food Pedalers are distributing food to urban dwellers by relying completely on burning calories, rather than burning fossil fuels. “I feel like our business encompasses the whole picture. It’s being sustainable. It’s keeping the fumes out of the air, keeping cars off the road; it is easier to get around on a bike taking different routes. If there are folks who aren’t able to make it into the Farmer’s Market, or don’t want to drive another single-occupancy vehicle down to the Farmer’s Market, then we can get it out to them on bikes. We stay fit, which is a big part of it. Local, organic food and biking are a good mix,” says Gavin.
With one successful season under their belts, Gavin and Chris are expanding substantially for the 2012 season. Over the winter, they modified their bike trailers to make them taller. Now, the trailers can haul almost 300 pounds of weight. “This season is kind of nerve racking. We are also scaling up quite a bit this year in terms of the number of shares. We are going to scale up from a peak of like 25-27 customers last year to 100 this year,” says Chris. Such a large increase in customers begs the question of how Your Local Food Pedalers plan to handle a threefold increase in customer base. Two words: electric bikes.
Sponsorship by Elite Bikes will enable Chris and Gavin to use electric bikes for their deliveries. Based on last year’s experience, this improved mode of transportation seems vital to the success of their expanding business, states Chris: “We really think that this model can be super successful, but especially by using electric bikes… There were days last year where I was literally exhausted, just so tired. And there was just no recovery time. I am so happy to have these electric bikes!” In addition to electrifying their bicycles, this season Gavin and Chris have invested in a software program to help manage the customer increase through an online ordering system. Customers can modify their weekly orders online to include an “add-on” and special delivery instructions. Your Local Food Pedalers has a devoted following of volunteers who contribute to packing the CSA boxes, and they will also be hiring an intern to help manage the delivery numbers.
As Farmers Markets grow and farmers strive to reach new audiences, innovative responses to distributing fresh food to our cities are essential. Your Local Food Pedalers is one such response to an overwhelming demand for locally grown, organic food. This summer, if you notice an electric bike humming by, hauling a loaded-down bike trailer bursting with greenery, be sure to cheer on Your Local Food Pedalers!