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August 30, 2015
ince late April I have been working as a Marketing Intern with the 4P Foods team in DC and getting to know the sustainable agriculture scene a little bit better. I’ve learned a lot throughout this whole experience (especially about how much hard work goes into running a small business), and I thought I’d share some of my experience as I prepare to say goodbye.
Prior to working at 4P Foods, I worked as a farm-hand at Willowsford, a neighborhood CSA in Ashburn. All of the food in the shares was grown by a single farmer and a team of 4 young farm-hands who were mostly first year farmers. Because of the finite space, manpower, and time, we could really only feed about 500 families plus a small amount of leftover vegetables sold at a farm stand. We never had to deal with sales or marketing, our issues were all on the supply side - could we let another 50 people sign up for next season or would that be cutting it too close with the amount of strawberry bushes we planted? Would there be enough broccoli to go around with the cold weather hampering our harvest? There was a waiting list for membership and it seemed like we were constantly fighting to keep up with the demand. Because the farm was part of the community, we had to do very little on the marketing and outreach side.
Upon joining 4P Foods, I realized that this situation is much more uncommon that I had assumed. Most farmers would rather be dealing with waiting lists than the problems they currently face trying to keep buyers interested in a world where large industrial farms offering lower prices are king. Some farmers are even forced into picking up part-time jobs to supplement their income or selling a family farm that has been passed down for generations because they are just not making enough to support their families. This is where 4P Foods is working to help.
4P Foods and other multi-farm CSAs fill a different niche from single farm CSAs like the one I worked on. The majority of the energy expended at 4P Foods goes towards marketing and sales because the more members that sign up, the more farmers they are able to provide a source of income for and the more families who benefit. If another 50 members sign up, instead of worrying about whether or not we have enough to harvest, we can just order another 50 pints to support another small farm. Plus, by taking some of the marketing pressure off of the farmer, they can focus more of their energy on growing good quality food. This was definitely an interesting switch for me, going from weeding and harvesting to meet and greets and lobby events. It never occurred to me that my interest in local food may lead me to a sales job!
Straight out of college, I was super idealistic and had never given much thought to the challenges of the business world. I was convinced that the hardest part of getting people to want to eat local food would be educating them on the obvious benefits. However, as I’ve come to understand more about the business logistics at 4P Foods, I’ve learned that there is a ton more involved in running a local food business than just explaining to people why they should make the switch. As a big picture thinker I always focused on the “why” instead of the “how”.
Now that I’ve gotten more experience in the “how”, I’ve realized that there are a lot more logistical issues than I had previously anticipated. Sure delivering local food to people at their homes and offices sounds like a pretty straightforward concept, right? Unfortunately there are a lot of places along the way where things could go wrong. From the delivery truck breaking down to power outage turning off the cooler with a week's worth of vegetables in it, I’ve learned that things don’t always go as planned and to always be prepared to put out fires. These are the type of things that you never prepare for in the classroom.
Additionally, I’ve realized that keeping 4P Foods alive means not only making sure the customers are happy, but that all of the people in between are happy as well. There are so many players involved in the process (management companies, concierges, farmers, delivery drivers, etc.) and all of them are essential to getting the food through the door, so it was important to us that they knew just how much we appreciate their support.
For example, the concierges at buildings where we deliver do a lot for our delivery drivers, so in return we gave each of them a pint of berries to thank them “berry much” for helping us out. We also had fun visiting the farmers we source from and building a relationship with them. We got to ask questions, play with goats, and try some food! From beginning to end, creating partnerships and working with outside individuals and organizations has facilitated our process. People are one of the four P’s of 4P Foods and this internship showed me just how vital they are.
Looking back now, I see that it's pretty easy to believe that local food systems can change the world but being a part of making that change happen is much more difficult. There are a plethora of challenges that the textbooks could never prepare you for and there is no step-by-step outline on how to solve most of the issues that come up. Being part of the 4P Foods team made me thankful that my trailblazing colleagues are working hard each day to change the conversation around food because despite the general scientific consensus that local food is healthier and more sustainable, there are still multiple barriers in terms of getting people to sign up and stick with it.
Whether it is by delivering shares straight to your home or office or by providing recipes and storage tips to help you make the most of every item in your bag, the team at 4P Foods is always looking for ways to eliminate excuses to eating locally. This approach will motivate me as I move on in my career and as I continue to promote eating local through my personal and professional networks.