An emerging workplace produce delivery service in Baton Rouge could be a game changer for local farmers
Regular Red Stick Farmers Market vendor Eric Morrow is among a rising number of south Louisiana farmers who are increasing sales through a new “farm to work” program that delivers produce to Baton Rouge area offices. Photography by Brian Baiamonte
One thousand cardboard boxes sit on a conveyor belt at Eric Morrow’s Ponchatoula farm, ready to be filled with fresh produce harvested from his nearby fields. Throughout the day, Morrow’s employees will pack each box with about a dozen different fruits and vegetables, which vary with the seasons. This time of year, that means items like cantaloupe, cucumbers, tomatoes and blueberries.
Once the boxes are filled, they’re loaded into Morrow’s truck for delivery to customers across south Louisiana who have signed up for a workplace “farm to work” program, a sales model established in Austin a decade ago. The name is a play on the farm-to-table theme.
The Baton Rouge-based program was launched in 2014 by Healthy Lives, a wellness initiative of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, and has since tripled in size. The health care system oversees five statewide hospitals, including Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center in Lafayette and St. Elizabeth Hospital in Gonzales.
The impetus for the program was the system’s centennial anniversary, says Healthy Lives Director Jeff Soileau.
“The sisters really wanted to do something to impact our team members in a positive and healthful way,” Soileau says. “And in all our markets, they saw that employees were not eating enough fruits and vegetables. I think a lot of times, there’s a lack of ease of access that involves everyone in our community.”
The program takes place over two 10-week periods, between May and July and between October and December. Morrow delivers the boxes, which each hold about 20 pounds of fresh produce, to 10 participating worksites. He supplies the majority of the items himself, but sources crops he doesn’t grow from other local farmers to ensure his customers have variety.
The program is a new spin on community supported agriculture, or CSA, models, in which consumers become shareholders in a farm’s seasonal bounty. Typically, patrons pay a fee at the beginning of the season to help the farmer offset expenses. This entitles them to a set number of weeks of boxed produce from the farm, which they pick up from designated drop sites or from the farm itself.
“This is why I got back into farming in the first place, to do this kind of farming,” —Eric Morrow, Ponchatoula farmer
CSAs thrive in many areas across the country but have been slower to take root in Baton Rouge. Farmer Derek Luckett is one of the few who has been able to sustain large numbers. He says Luckett Farms CSA has about 300 members.
Having fresh, local produce delivered direct to the workplace brings a new kind of convenience to the experience, says Copper Alvarez, executive director of the Baton Rouge Economic and Agricultural Development Alliance.
“With both parents working today, people don’t have a lot of time to shop,” says Alvarez. “It doesn’t get much more convenient than picking up your produce at the office.”
While the new farm to work project was launched by a faith-based organization for the greater social good, it could also serve as a model for farmers looking to supplement what they earn in direct sales through local farmers markets. Alvarez says per farmer sales at the Red Stick Farmers Market range from about $500 to $3,000 on Saturdays, depending on the size of the farm. Morrow has been an active participant at the Red Stick Farmers Market since it opened in 1996. But until he started supplying the inventory for Healthy Lives’ Farm to Work program, he supplemented direct sales with wholesale strawberry sales to Walmart.
“We knew we would be reaching a whole new market segment. Customers who don’t normally shop farmers market or seek local food would now be able to conveniently access local food.” —Adrew Smiley, deputy director, Sustainable Food Center
Participating in farm to work has enabled him to stop selling wholesale and to focus completely on direct sales of specialty crops.
“This is why I got back into farming in the first place, to do this kind of farming,” says Morrow, who returned to Louisiana in the mid-1990s after a career as an investment banker in Chicago. “It’s been great.”
Each box costs $25, but Soileau says the equivalent value of produce even from big box stores is routinely $35 to $45. Participants sign up through an online portal maintained by Healthy Lives. They pay with a credit card or opt for payroll deduction, and they choose weekly or biweekly delivery of produce. Most opt for a biweekly membership, says Soileau, which means Morrow grows, harvests and sells enough produce to fill 5,000 boxes each season, or 10,000 boxes annually. Worksites include hospitals within the Franciscan Missionaries network and other large employers in the region like the City of Baton Rouge and the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.
The Healthy Lives Farm to Work program is modeled after a farm-to-work program established in 2006 by the Sustainable Food Center in Austin. Shortly after the launch, the nonprofit organization was approached by a Texas state agency to create a worksite wellness program that increased the availability of local food, says Sustainable Food Center Deputy Director Andrew Smiley.
Setting up a new onsite farmers market was considered but was ultimately seen as too risky, says Smiley. Farmers needed more assurance of sales before committing the time and crop space.
“Then we landed on this idea of ‘what if folks could preorder what they wanted and then have it delivered,’ which would give the producer a better sense of demand,” says Smiley, a Baton Rouge native who worked for BREADA between 1997 and 2003. “We knew we would be reaching a whole new market segment. Customers who don’t normally shop farmers market or seek local food would now be able to conveniently access local food.”
Today, the program has 10 participating farmers who deliver boxes to 49 worksites in Austin, Houston and San Antonio. The Sustainable Food Center coordinates the program and handles credit card transactions, keeping 10% of overall sales, which covers some but not all the administrative overhead, says Smiley. Worksite partners promote the program as a wellness opportunity and help enroll members through marketing materials and email campaigns.
Morrow agrees that a residual benefit of the program is the ability to reach new customers who have never shopped at the Red Stick Famers Markets, but who develop a taste for eating locally through their participation.
“When the season is up for farm to work, I’m seeing them at my booth,” says Morrow, who usually participates in the Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday farmers markets.
Indeed, Soileau says that when surveyed about whether or not they are consuming more fresh fruits and vegetables as a result of their participation in farm to work, 75% to 85% of participants respond positively.