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Farmers say nonprofit that had stand at Reading Terminal owes them thousands

Fair Food was created to help farmers sell their food to restaurants. Some of those farmers now say the nonprofit owes them thousands.

The Fair Food Farmstand at Reading Terminal Market in April.
The Fair Food Farmstand at Reading Terminal Market in April.Read moreMIKE KLEIN

Fair Food began as a nonprofit aimed at connecting local farmers to chefs and grocers who could buy their products. It grew to include a farm stand that sold meat, produce, and dairy in Reading Terminal Market for 15 years.

Now, six months after that stand closed for good, some farmers say Fair Food owes them thousands of dollars for products that were sold there. Six vendors said that they are owed between $1,000 and $5,000 and that they know of others who also have gone unpaid.

But most were also reluctant to speak against an organization they said has been instrumental in supporting the local farming community and helping their businesses flourish.

Sue Miller, owner and operator at Birchrun Hills Farm in Chester Springs, said Fair Food was one of her first customers when she began making cheese more than a decade ago. Her clients now include restaurateurs Aimee Olexy and Scott Schroeder. There were times when Fair Food struggled with making payments, she said, but until recently, it always caught up.

"It's pretty crushing for the farmers," said Miller, who said she was owed about $4,000. "This was like an extended family. We'd all been growing this local food movement together. And Fair Food has done such a good job of connecting the farmer to the consumer that really, we'd do whatever it took to support that endeavor."

John Rhoads, interim executive director of Fair Food, did not return messages seeking comment. A phone number for the organization's Center City office appeared to be nonfunctional. Members of the board of directors did not return messages.

Dedicated to improving access to local food, Fair Food was a pioneer in a movement that has blossomed throughout the region. The organization was founded in 2001 by restaurateur Judy Wicks of White Dog Cafe and Ann Karlen as an offshoot of White Dog's sustainable food initiative, and was run by Karlen until last year. The farm stand began in 2003 with a table at the market on weekends, then expanded in 2009 to a larger stall.

Karlen said that when she stepped down, the organization had a plan in place to pay farmers in installments.

"I left with an assurance and full confidence in the board that repayment to the farmers was their top priority," she said. "It was a total shock to me that they closed the farm stand."

Mark Lopez, owner and operator of Wholesome Dairy in Berks County, said he's owed between $2,000 and $3,000 and believed that he might recoup some after the organization held its annual fund-raiser, the Philly Farm and Food Fest. After learning that Fair Food had canceled the event, Lopez said, he abandoned hope.

"I'll never get it. I realize that," he said. "It's over. We got burned."

The annual fund-raiser, which  featured food demonstrations and local products, was to be held Oct. 28 at the Navy Yard. A statement on the Fair Food website reads:

"Between a challenging funding environment, insufficient interest on the part of exhibitors and sponsors, and a challenging season of weather for many of our area's farmers, we must make the responsible, but very difficult decision, to cancel. … Fair Food will refund ticket purchases and encourages those who purchased tickets or intended to do so to continue making an effort to support our local farmers and producers."

After reading of the farmers' concerns, former Fair Food staff member Anne Steelman established a GoFundMe account to raise money for the farmers. Steelman ran the Fair Food Farmstand for three years and is now operations manager for Philly Foodworks, an online market that delivers local produce. She works with some former Fair Food vendors and said she'd heard rumors, but didn't realize until recently how many farmers were alleging nonpayment. Steelman said she has since contacted dozens of vendors in hope of learning what they're owed.

"It's gut-wrenching," she said. "We run a similar business, so we know the margins are tight. But for a small farmer, a few thousand dollars has the power to break you."

Cheese maker Pete Demchur of Shellbark Hollow Farm in Chester County sold cheese, yogurt, kefir, and milk through Fair Food for more than 15 years, so he said that initially, he wasn't worried when the money stopped coming. Fair Food owes him about $5,000, he said.

"It was a very trusted organization, so a lot of us didn't get concerned when they started getting behind on their bills," said Demchur, who sells to farmers' markets and high-end restaurants. "We thought we'd get paid eventually. … I thought they were loyal people."

Ben Wenk of Three Springs Fruit Farm in Adams County, Pa., said his unpaid bills go back to 2016. He estimated that he is owed at least $3,000 but said it could be as much as $5,000.

"They kept ordering; we kept delivering," he said. "They made some late payments, some partial payments. They said they had to get their books straightened out."

Karlen, who now has a wholesale cheese business and works with some vendors who previously sold to Fair Food, said the farm stand was supported by a combination of revenue and grant funding.

"Promoting sustainable agriculture was never the easiest sell," she said. "The money was always tight, and everyone understood that."

But by 2015, she said, with more competitors selling local food, sales were declining. In 2016, a grant that the group had received for years unexpectedly fell through, she said, precipitating a financial crisis that forced layoffs and cost-cutting. That's when Fair Food implemented a three-year repayment plan with farmers, she said.

Farmers who spoke to the Inquirer and Daily News said that they received some payments, though not consistently, and not always for the amounts they expected. Stefanie Angstadt, of Valley Milkhouse creamery in Berks County, said that she's owed about $1,000 and received checks as small as $8.

"Part of the problem is that lot of wholesale accounts just take a long time to pay, and so you trust people, you have these handshake agreements," Angstadt said. "That's how a lot of us do business."

Karlen said she discussed the organization's struggles openly with vendors. "This was very personal and very emotional," she said. "I put every ounce of my heart and soul into communicating with the farmers."

Local writer Alex Jones, who developed the farm stand's wholesale cheese program after she started working for Fair Food in 2012, said  the group's management seemed unable to address its mounting financial challenges.

"I loved the mission, and I loved working with the farmers," said Jones, who said that she and another staff member lost their jobs in 2016 after grant funding didn't come through. "But it became a place that wasn't doing what its stated mission was, which was to help those people."

In April, Fair Food announced it was closing the retail stand, citing increased competition from local food providers. In a statement to news site Billy Penn, Rhoads said that "From Fair Food's nonprofit perspective, growing competition is proof our overall mission has been successful." The comment rankled some farmers.

"We resented this idea that it was a victim of its own success," Wenk said. "Those of us who had a front-row seat to it and were owed lots of money didn't appreciate that they would cast it in that light."

After the stand's closure, farmers said, the payments stopped.

Wenk, a seventh-generation farmer who sells fruits such as apples and peaches, as well as Ploughman hard cider, said that being a few thousand dollars short is painful in a year when he and other farmers were faced with extraordinarily bad weather conditions.

"In a year like this, where you're going to farm all year and likely lose money, this is a time when we really could have used it," he said.

But Fair Food also was one of the first wholesale accounts in Philadelphia for Wenk's family's farm. Over the years, the relationship led to connections that helped the business grow, thrive, and evolve.

"It's because I'm so appreciative of everything they've provided to our company that we've remained silent for so long," Wenk said. "The impact they had on our business is certainly much greater than the sum of what we're owed. It's just a shame it had to end this way."