PHOTOGRAPHY BY JULIE CAHILL
A virtual farm stand and crisis-inspired creativity in local food
Sharing a passion for organic agriculture and an entrepreneurial spirit, Kimberly Null, her husband Nick de Sieyes and Ethan Rublee had been talking for months about a way to apply technology to the local food system. Then the pandemic hit and within about a week their virtual farm stand EatLocal.Farm went live.
The three met last fall at the Santa Cruz Montessori School where their children are enrolled. “This started before COVID. Nick and Ethan were talking on a school camping trip about how to apply Ethan’s tech savvy and knowledge of networks and tech apps to agriculture,” says Null, who together with Nick’s sister Jamie tends an 8-acre olive orchard in Aptos and produces Wild Poppies Olive Oil.
Typically, small farmers lack the infrastructure to sell directly to consumers, except at farmers’ markets. With COVID-19, as restaurants closed and corporate outlets dried up overnight, vendors suddenly had excess production. Under lockdown, consumers—even those who formerly frequented farmers’ markets—flocked to CSAs, which filled up immediately. That left many farmers and would-be customers out in the cold.
“I knew I wanted to get involved in applying technology to the local food system. Something that made an environmental and social impact sounded like a great second act!”
“When we saw what was happening with the lockdown, we all three just said to each other, ‘Let’s do this now!’ We decided to create pickup boxes that people could come get at our farm,” says de Sieyes.
EatLocal.Farm is basically an online farmers’ market portal with a unique dashboard from which consumers can select a variety of produce and protein items from an ever-increasing pool of suppliers. They can pick up their treasures at a farm stand on Valencia Road in Aptos or have the boxes delivered locally.
All three founders are highly educated refugees from the worlds of academia and high tech. Null has a PhD in marine science and came from Indiana to do postdoc work at UC Santa Cruz, where she met de Sieyes. Until recently, she worked at the Moss Landing Marine Lab. De Sieyes comes from Maine and calls himself a “recovering academic.”
He came west to study at Stanford and UC Davis, pursuing a PhD in environmental engineering. Five years ago, he left academia to work with his brother in real estate investments, which is how farmland became a topic of interest. The couple now lives in Aptos, where they have a farm and vineyard near the Wild Poppies olive orchard, growing everything from lima beans to corn, with the help of their two young children.
Rublee describes himself as a serial entrepreneur and expat from Silicon Valley, where he worked in robotics at Google. He later started and sold a company that provided a computer vision and machine-learning platform for Hollywood creatives.
“After the last company, I knew I wanted to get involved in applying technology to the local food system. Something that made an environmental and social impact sounded like a great second act!” says Rublee, who now lives on a farm in Watsonville with his wife and their twin sons.
Their method in building the online store was to choose favorite vendors, going down the list from local farmers’ markets and picking the ones they felt were the best.
“It started with P&K strawberries, they are the best! And then Blue Heron and Borba Family Farms,” says Null. They quickly added chickens from Fogline Farm, eggs from Pajaro Pastures, salsas and pastas from Two Dog Farm, coffee from 11th Hour, mushrooms from Far West Fungi and New Natives, and Wild Poppies’ awardwinning olive oil, naturally.
Borba Family Farms packs about 50% of each box for EatLocal. Farm, delivering the boxes to Aptos. Other vendors drop their wares to Null and de Sieyes, who pack up the rest of each order. As of press time, they were offering pickup in Aptos, on Wednesday and Thursdays, with local delivery from Watsonville to Scotts Valley and from Marina to Carmel for $10.
Rublee, who developed the website and came up with the clever name, says, “We’ve had 875 customers for 1,175 orders [as of May 19]. Nick thought we’d do $10k/month, but in just eight weeks, we’ve done $73k! It’s a bit chaotic right now, so we’re looking at modifying our processes.” The trio takes a small service fee of $7.50 on each order and the farmers get 100% of their asking price.
Customers are encouraged to add a tip for field workers. “We call them our veggie warriors!” says Null.
Rublee says his goal is to figure out a way to facilitate the online ordering process to make it as smooth as possible for everyone, helping farmers predict what they need to plant. “How can we move food from field to table with very little waste?” He also wants to expand the storefront to include locally produced cheeses and ice cream.
“We’re so happy to be helping farms,” adds de Sieyes. “We’re in an amazing place; it feels like we’re at a golden point. It’s very cool!”
THINKING INSIDE THE BOX
Invention doesn’t always rely on advanced technology; sometimes, a little creativity will do. Call it thinking inside the box. The pandemic prompted restaurants to begin offering grocery boxes in addition to prepared takeout food. La Balena, for instance, offers one that includes genuine Italian staples like canned tuna, pasta, olive oil and semolina flour. Mentone provides regular Sunday boxes of fresh veggies from Spade & Plow farm, a tin of Wild Poppies olive oil, a Manresa Bread baguette and a bottle of wine. Quail & Olive in Carmel Valley also has weekly meal boxes, including olive oils and all the ingredients, for pickup or delivery.
Tomatero Organic Farm, out of Watsonville, has turned to pop-ups to supplement its farmers’ market presence. They pop up at Manresa Café in Campbell on Thursdays, and at other San Francisco Bay Area locations. Calling himself “just bloody lucky!” with his timing, Tony Baker of Baker’s Bacon, left his longtime gig as executive chef at Montrio Bistro in Monterey earlier this year to build up his bacon business. As shelter in place began, he rolled out a series of special meat boxes (steaks, bacon, chicken, burgers, shrimp), which include Chef’s Palette spices by chef Dyon Foster, available for pickup on Tuesdays and Fridays in Marina. Baker has partnered with many local vendors, like Rogue Pyes and Bigoli Fresh Pasta.
Local berries, vegetables, breads from Rise + Roam and butter and cheeses from Spring Hill Cheese can be added to any box. Belly Goat Burgers began selling buildyour- own burger kits, featuring Markegard beef patties and Paulino’s buns, along with an array of housemade condiments and cheese options, at local farmers’ markets in late May. Chef Anthony Kresge says the response has been huge.
Colleen Logan from Carmel’s Savor the Local had been supplying local chefs with produce, but quickly retooled to sell produce from local farms directly to consumers. Mystery veggie boxes from Mariquita Farm are $50, and you can add items like Schoch cheeses, eggs, fresh pasta, elderberry syrup, Palo Colorado honey, breads and baked goods from Ad Astra and Rise + Roam and jams from Friend in Cheeses Jam Co.
Partnerships are burgeoning. Emily Thomas of Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, which just celebrated its 15th anniversary, is doing a weekly collaboration box with various local food artisans, including El Salchichero and Hanloh Thai, where her son works. “Each box includes a special beer or wine and ingredients for dinner for four. We sell out every week. The Hanloh Pad Thai kit, (pictured above), which included a video of owner, Lalita Kaewsawang, showing how to assemble the meal, was a big hit!” Thomas says she chooses the beer and wine carefully to pair with the food. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun!
NEW RUSH ON CSAs
Once the go-to for Americans wanting farm fresh produce, CSAs (community supported agriculture) have been on the wane since the 2008 recession. Services like Good Eggs, Instacart and Sun Basket, along with meal delivery services like Blue Apron, Freshly and Hello Fresh, offered consumers the convenience of multiply sourced ingredients in a single delivery. But then came the COVID-19 pandemic and those services became overwhelmed, with consumers turning once again to CSAs. By mid-April, most local ones were completely oversubscribed. Some, like the Homeless Garden Project and Live Earth Farm, started waitlists. Others are just trying to cope with the newfound demand.
J.P. Perez of J&P Organics in Watsonville, a family farm and CSA that has been in business for 14 years, admits the sudden demand caught him completely off guard. “Oh, my goodness! In April, our online system said we had 750 new signups. I thought this must be a mistake! But no, our sales have been through the roof! I had to add two more delivery days and hire four new employees.” He’s also tripled his planted acreage and has turned to other farms to source more product, adding local honey, coffee from Carmel Valley Coffee Roasting Company, fresh flowers and eggs as add-ons to their core produce boxes.