Payette farmer Galen Crawford has made a good living by selling melons, squash and pumpkins to major retailers, such as Walmart, Albertsons and WinCo Foods.
This year, however, Crawford has placed greater emphasis on removing the middleman, selling more produce directly to customers through an expanded farm stand.
Officials with the Idaho State Department of Agriculture say Crawford is among a growing number of farmers who have been selling their products directly to customers. The public has increasingly shown a preference for local food, and for knowing more about who produced it.
Crawford said 25 of the 100 acres he farms are now dedicated to supplying the farm stand, located in a small, red barn along U.S. Highway 95 near Fruitland.
In the past, Crawford has sold produce raised on a few acres through a farm stand at his in-laws’ rural home. He took over the barn-based farm store and some additional acreage after another local farmer relinquished the lease. He’s had to grow a much wider variety of produce to supply the stand – raising between 20 and 30 different crops. He also purchases tree fruit from other local farmers and berries from Oregon. He plans to soon offer beef sourced from his family’s cow-calf operation in Ontario, Oregon, and he’s also involving himself in agricultural tourism, planning to open a small corn maze and hayrides.
Labor to man the stand has been hard to find. Furthermore, producing and harvesting a broader variety of specialty crops requires a great deal more work than specializing in just a few crops for wholesale. But Crawford has been encouraged by his preliminary results, as he aims to establish and grow the barn-based farm store in his trial year.
“When the opportunity came up, I jumped at the chance,” Crawford said. “Next year, I’d like to extend the season a little more.”
Customers travel a long way to shop at his barn – he estimates about half of them aren’t local.
“They know it wasn’t picked two or three weeks ago, and we try to raise varieties that have a good taste,” Crawford said. “Any more, shelf-life comes first, and taste takes a back seat. That’s a big selling point for us.”
Leah Clark manages ISDA’s Idaho Preferred program, promoting Idaho food and agricultural products. Clark said 15 farms that participate in Idaho Preferred now operate farm stands, mostly in the Treasure and Magic valleys.
“In the last five years, I’d say that number has doubled,” Clark said. “The whole farm-to-table movement has been growing for probably the last 15 years. People are more interested in who’s growing their food and how it’s being grown.”
Clark sees evidence of the growth in direct-to-customer sales from Idaho farms in the increasing number of state farmers markets. This year, the state had 40 farmers markets, twice the number that were operating in 2002.
In addition to selling at farmers markets, Clark has seen Idaho food producers selling directly to school lunch programs, supplying local restaurants and delivering directly to retailers with their own refrigerated trucks. She said there’s also been strong growth in community-supported agriculture, which involves community members buying shares in a farm and picking up produce boxes at regular intervals throughout harvest.
Clark believes Idaho vineyards have been especially good at capitalizing on the farm-to-table trend, promoting wine sampling in their own tasting rooms, as well as tours of their operations. She explained the Idaho Wine Commission offers maps of “wine trails” throughout Idaho wine country to help visitors plan wine-tasting
It’s no surprise to Clark that the Idaho wine industry has grown from 11 wineries in 2002 to 52 today.
In 2017, Purdum’s Produce re-opened a farm stand along U.S. Highway 30 between Fruitland and New Plymouth, after a five-year hiatus.
Robyn Purdum said her family farms 400 acres, raising green bell peppers for a processor, as well as onion seed, carrot seed, dry beans for seed, wheat, sweet corn and other crops. About 20 percent of the farm’s revenue comes from the farm store. During the time in which the family took a break from the store, they switched from raising sweet corn to field corn.
The farm stand opened in 1996, and was operating in earnest by the following year. Purdum agrees finding labor is a challenge for a farm stand. While the stand once opened every day of the week, it now operates just three days per week.
Purdum enjoys looking at addresses on checks following a busy day at the stand, from customers between Salt Lake City and Portland, Oregon.
“People want to know where their produce comes from and be able to drive by and see where it’s picked,” Purdum said.
Most of the produce raised at Grove City Gardens – a 20-acre vegetable farm based in Blackfoot – is sold directly to customers through a farm store.
The store is located in a small building at owner Richard Johnson’s rural home. Rather than worrying about finding workers to staff the store, Johnson relies on the honor system, allowing customers to pick up their orders and leave the appropriate payment in a cash box. Johnson said he’s never had a problem with his trust-based business approach.
Customers get a discount if they pick their own sweet corn, strawberries, raspberries, beans or peas, which also helps Johnson minimize his labor costs.
Johnson believes his produce is safe, tasty and picked at the “peak of ripeness.”
“Buy one of my strawberries and you find a huge explosion of flavor and sweetness,” Johnson said.
Johnson also sells produce at the farmers market in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and supplies produce directly to restaurants in that area. For a couple of years, he partnered with a local dairy that has milk routes, and was willing to also deliver his produce to customers’ homes.
Grove City Gardens is involved in the catering business, serving its popular Mexican crazy corn, made from farm-raised sweet corn, at wedding receptions, business functions and community events, such as the Eastern Idaho State Fair. Agricultural tourism also represents a significant portion of the farm’s income. Johnson’s annual Wild Adventure Corn Maze, open from mid-September through late October, includes 6.5 miles of paths.