For local food lovers, this can be a sad time of year. Most of the smaller neighborhood farmers markets have disappeared until late spring. The bigger markets that operate year-round, like Headhouse Square and Clark Park, have little to offer beyond storage apples and the hardiest root vegetables.
But there is a place to turn: Philly Food Works, an online market and technology-enabled farm share that has been working to connect farmers and shoppers more easily since 2014.
When the beloved Fair Food Farm Stand at Reading Terminal Market closed in mid-2018, Philly Foodworks stepped in to provision more of the area’s most dedicated locavores, especially during these darkest, coldest, least bountiful months of the year.
We checked in with cofounder Dylan R. Baird to get an update on Philly Foodworks and find out how to embrace local and sustainable food, even in winter.
We work with between 40 and 50 farmers, and then another 100 or so local makers — people who make things like baked goods and preserves, or roast coffee, for example. And unlike a traditional CSA, our subscription is flexible and customizable — you can deselect options if you get a box, you can customize an order to include only what you want, you can skip deliveries, and you pay as you go. And of course, we operate year-round, or at least 50 weeks out of the year.
We really see our farmers as our partners. We have the perspective as middleman, so we see both the supply side and the demand side. We help farms be more successful so we can be more successful. A really important way we do this is crop planning. Every year, we sit down with our core 25 farmers and go over what they plan to grow next season. Then we overlay that with our sales data to show demand. For example, I can tell a farmer almost exactly how much broccoli rabe or green peppers we’ll buy.
A traditional middleman will tell every producer to grow as much as possible and then pit growers against each other to get the lowest possible price. We’re not like that — we are totally transparent. We agree on pricing at the beginning of the season. It allows farmers to depend on us.
For agriculture, consistency is the most important thing. We always stand by our order. If we don’t sell as many peppers as we thought, we buy them anyway. They don’t go to waste. We’ll add extras to subscription boxes or offer bulk discounts.
We have a larger offseason selection of local food than anyone else I know of. Thanks to greenhouses that we’ve helped our farmers build, we have six types of greens, including baby kale, spring mix, and baby spinach. We’ve also got a wide variety of root crops — sweet potatoes, rutabagas, and turnips. Plus we’ve got apples, radishes, and squash. And we do have early and late runs of carrots and beets. These carrots are the best of the season. They have that winter sweetness.
Well, in the beginning we didn’t. We only sold local produce in the winter until 2016. It was actually a conversation with one of our farmers that changed our minds.
He was growing spinach, and he said he thought more would sell over the winter. We explained that because we were only offering local produce, we lost a certain amount of customers who would tell us, “I’ll be back in the spring!” So the farmer said, “If you sell avocados and lemons in the winter, you’ll also sell more of my spinach. You should do it.” And he turned out to be right.
We use two sources, [including] Farm Direct, a company that’s allowed us to build some relationship with farms in Florida. We hold those farms to the same standards we hold our local farmers to in terms of sustainable practices for the land and people. We also source from Procacci Brothers, a wholesale distributor in South Philly. From them, we buy only organic produce grown in the U.S.
We got their mailing list, so as soon as they closed, we started to talking to those customers. At first people weren’t joining. It was the springtime and farmers markets were opening for the season. But later in the year, that fall and winter, we saw a big increase. Especially around Thanksgiving — people were looking for local turkeys.
Really embrace the diversity of winter produce. For me, that looks like salads — I eat more salad in the winter than in the summer because I put four different greens in there. There’s so much flavor in there.
I’ll also chop radishes, carrots, and red onions finely and throw that in there, and that’s my all-time favorite salad. I also love a lot of different roasted root vegetables. There’s celeriac, turnips, and rutabaga. But I don’t ever cook with a recipe — you can do that when you have amazing produce.
The key is that it’s not exploitative. So much of our food system is about extracting value. Farmers are growing the same corn year after year, destroying the soil that they then need to pump full of nutrients so they can keep growing corn. That’s not sustainable.