Bringing the Valley to the Big Apple
By Caroline Pam | Photographs by Caroline Pam and Dominic Perri
It’s 10am on a frigid December morning on an industrial block in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Annie Myers is on her tiptoes with her face pressed against the window of her refrigerated van. It’s packed to the gills with vegetables she picked up from a dozen farms in Vermont and Massachusetts and drove down to New York City last night. Yup, the keys are right there on the driver seat and the doors are all locked.
Annie shrugs and hustles in the back door of Roberta’s—the hipster haven of wood-fired pizza—and delivers the radicchio and maple syrup she had luckily already unloaded.
“This business is so full of disaster. So little can faze me,” she said. “I always have five backup plans so when crisis comes, the puzzle pieces always come together. It’s kind of a nice feeling.”
A half hour later, a local tow truck driver jimmies the lock open with a wire and she’s back in the van making stops at Brooklyn’s local, seasonal hot-spots like Franny’s and Brooklyn Larder, Forager’s upscale grocery, and CSA-style subscription services Nextdoorganics and Good Eggs. By noon, the van is empty and pointed north again.
Annie Myers started Myers Produce in November 2013 as a year-round distribution company to bring Vermont produce to the Big Apple. A few months later Myers began to stop at farms in the Valley to pick up winter greens and roots to supplement what was available from her Vermont suppliers.
By the time the company celebrated its first anniversary Myers had set up headquarters at the Pioneer Valley Growers Association (PVGA) warehouse in South Deerfield and moved into an apartment in town.
In its first year in business Myers Produce delivered $500,000 worth of organic and sustainable farm products to New York restaurants and stores. Valley farms supplied half of that produce in 2014 and are ramping up quickly to meet Myers’ growing demand for the coming season.
I accompanied Myers on one of her delivery runs to understand how Myers Produce has succeeded in creating a significant channel for New England farm products to reach the massive market of local food lovers in New York City.
She met me at my farm, The Kitchen Garden in Sunderland, on a Wednesday morning to load up her order of cilantro, radicchio, and turnips that my crew and I had harvested and packed the day before. I hopped in the van and we continued on to Red Fire Farm in Montague to collect kohlrabi and kale that were waiting for her there. Next stop was in Amherst for spinach from Queen’s Greens.
Queen’s Greens farmer Danya Teitelbaum grew up in New York City, but she told me that working with Myers Produce means much more than a connection to home. “Myers has been extremely significant to our business this year, actually our largest single outlet, making up 15% of our gross sales,” said Teitelbaum, who started growing salad greens with her partner, Matt Biskup, in 2010.
“I think it’s important for the Pioneer Valley overall to get our products to nearby cities,” Teitelbaum told me. “Even though we don’t often think this way, in the grand scheme of things we are a local farm to New York and Boston.”
Myers Produce is hardly the first new business in recent years trying to connect local farms to city dwellers, but it seems to have struck on a model that fills a need for farmers and buyers alike.
Ryan Voiland of Red Fire Farm gave me two reasons why he’s happy to be one of Myers’ suppliers. Myers, he said, “is a reliable payer and she picks up at the farm.”
Voiland offered another explanation for why Myers is succeeding where several other start-ups have failed: “Getting produce from where it’s grown to where it’s needed continues to be a big challenge for the local food movement,” Voiland told me. “Like any aspect of the food business it’s not an easy or super-lucrative undertaking. The margins are often thin and it takes someone astute to make it work.”
In other words, the secret to Myers’ success may be Annie Myers herself.
“Annie has a vivacious personality,” said Mickey Davis, produce manager at Greene Grape Provisions, an upscale market in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, that buys from Myers Produce twice a week. “There are a lot of companies out there that are faceless, but since Annie is at the center and heart of her business, you feel more like you’re working with a person.”
Annie Myers does not look like the sort of person you expect to see driving a big box truck. At just five-foot two-inches, and still in her 20s, she is small but mighty. She moves fast, and with startling power and agility. One moment she’s leaping off the loading dock with a 50-pound sack of onions, the next texting about orders while steering the pallet jack down the loading dock, and yet still finding time to smile and quiz me about how much arugula we’ll be cutting from our greenhouse next week.
Myers’ tireless work ethic is essential to her business but it’s her strong grasp of New England farm seasonality that gives her an edge. New York City is well-worn territory for farms and distributors from warmer climates in New Jersey and Pennsylvania but Myers works with farms that can fill supply gaps from these other regions.
“There are times when it’s too hot in Jersey for leafy greens and Myers has a ton of it. It’s nice to have sources spanning the region,” says Davis.
Shortly after graduating from New York University, Myers worked for a year as a forager, sourcing ingredients for celebrity chef April Bloomfield’s Manhattan gastropub, the Spotted Pig. She became familiar with many of the local farms and distributors supplying city restaurants, and also noted the shortage of produce available in winter.
Myers then moved to Craftsbury, Vermont, and spent two seasons working at Pete’s Greens, an innovative four-season farm growing salad greens and specialty crops on hundreds of acres. In Vermont, Myers connected with a community of farmers who are producing high-quality crops year-round in a deeply rural part of the state and are constantly challenged by the need for more distribution networks.
“In northern Vermont,” Myers explained to me, “you can’t take a break over the winter. That’s half the year!”
In the spring of 2013, while still working at Pete’s Greens, Myers was telling her friend Kate Galassi, who founded Quinciple, a local food delivery business in New York, about an idea she’d been dreaming about for years.
“I told her I honestly felt the best option would be to drive up to Pete’s to get stuff,” Myers said. “And Kate said, ‘You have to do it. The time is here and now. You have the stuff; we need it.’”
The business plan came together quickly after that conversation.
“I didn’t think I wanted to stop farming but I felt like there was an urgent need,” Myers said. “I decided I would start in November.”
Myers took three days off work that October to meet with 10 potential buyers in New York. All 10 are now regular customers. (She knew who to approach from her days in the restaurant industry.) Myers raised $50,000 in five months from friends, family, community members from Craftsbury, and even her boss Pete Johnson from Pete’s Greens. She leased a van, built a website and got to work.
For the first year Myers did all the driving herself. Five hours from Vermont to Massachusetts on Tuesday, then four hours to New York City on Wednesday with an overnight at her sister’s apartment in order to start deliveries at 6am Thursday. A new round of orders came in Thursday during the drive back north and it started over for another round of pickups and deliveries ending in New York on Monday morning. And repeat.
The logistics are incredibly complex, but Myers seems to thrive on solving tricky problems.
She says the nature of the business forces her to be constantly figuring things out. “That’s why I like it. The minute things are going smoothly I add complications,” she said with a wry smile.
Myers recently made a number of decisive changes to improve her quality of life while helping the business run more smoothly. The rented space at the PVGA warehouse allows her to stage orders and load them by the pallet instead of by hand into a new refrigerated box truck. She hired someone to do the Vermont leg of the route, another to help with deliveries in the city and added a third driver so she can bring another truck into the fleet and add more delivery days.
But in spite of her constant innovations, there seems to be no shortage of problems for Myers to solve. Cold storage in Brooklyn remains a challenge and Myers cobbles it together with a shared cooler and a refrigerated shipping container in two different neighborhoods.
Myers puts a positive spin on these urban challenges. “This is what keeps me in business,” she explained. “It’s not easy for farmers to warehouse or deliver in the city.”
Happy customers are also good for business. Chef Matt Hyland of Emily artisanal pizzeria in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, told me he orders all the restaurant’s salad greens, kale, herbs, and rainbow carrots from Myers because the quality and customer service are so superior.
“It is refreshing,” Hyland said, “especially in NYC, to have a vendor that is actually trying harder than status quo. Annie has never missed a delivery or forgotten a single item. The quality is perfect every time and I never have to worry about the nonsense that comes from nationwide vendors.”
Word is getting out and Myers has big plans for 2015. She is in discussions with Black River Produce about distributing their new line of meats and she’s starting to transport fresh Vermont cheese to Crown Finish Caves in Brooklyn for aging. She just got her first orders from Fresh Direct, an online grocer and delivery service with big buying power. And a new delivery route to Boston and Cambridge will begin in April.
In anticipation of increasing demand Myers is working closely with growers to increase their offerings so that her truck is filled to capacity even during the darkest days of winter.
It’s this personal touch that makes farmers like Danya Teitelbaum at Queen’s Greens eager to continue working with Myers.
“One of the biggest things we’ve gotten from Myers is feedback on how we can do better,” Teitelbaum told me. “She’s a new business and we’re a new business and it’s nice to be in a relationship where we’re both moving at a similar fast and motivated pace to figure things out.”
Annie Myers seems to have figured out quickly that Pioneer Valley farms are an important part of her business model.
“It’s incredible how close together all the farms are in the Valley, and how different that is from Vermont,” Myers told me. “Every day I’m finding more farms I want to work with.”
Farms don’t necessarily need to be organic to catch Myers’ interest, she told me.
“My customers trust me to buy from good farms,” Myers said. “I want to know that the farmer is part of a community of farmers working to strengthen agriculture in the Northeast, and part of a world we want to be in.”
In the Pioneer Valley Annie Myers discovered a vibrant farming community that fits this profile and decided to become a part of it.
Caroline Pam grows organic vegetables with her husband, Tim Wilcox, at their Sunderland farm, The Kitchen Garden. A former cook and journalist in New York City, Caroline writes about food and farming for various publications. She also organizes the farm’s annual Chilifest in September, a weekend-long festival celebrating all things spicy, including Kitchen Garden brand sriracha. She be reached at KitchenGardenFarm.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.