On a typical workday, Ellen Walsh-Rosmann might be delivering carrots to an Omaha grocer, ordering cheese from a farm near the Mississippi River or welcoming diners to Milk & Honey, her cafe in the small, southwestern Iowa town of Harlan.
The entrepreneur started her multifaceted career eight years ago, when she established a community-supported agriculture (CSA) operation on the organic farm that she operates with her husband, Daniel. Three years later, with demand outpacing supply, Walsh-Rosmann outlined plans for an ambitious operation that would connect regional producers and wholesale customers. She has since cultivated a thriving food hub that supplies grocery markets, restaurants, corporate cafeterias and schools with food raised by local farmers.
Today, FarmTable Procurement & Delivery links growers and clients across Iowa and eastern Nebraska. The business is designed to address one of the main challenges that Walsh-Rosmann faced while farming her own vegetables: timely, efficient distribution.
“Logistics are always a challenge,” she says. “We currently work with about 40 producers, mostly located in Iowa plus a few in Nebraska, and our customers vary every week. In the off season, we might have 10 in Omaha and five in Des Moines, but when we get into peak production, that jumps to 20 per location. We’re also starting to tap into our regional markets.”
When she first started FarmTable, Walsh-Rosmann did produce pickups and drop-offs in her own personal vehicle. As orders grew, she borrowed a passenger van and sometimes hired a driver to help. The territory continued to expand, with team members soon traveling five hours or more to pick up products. The distance made overnight storage increasingly important, so Walsh-Rosmann started renting a refrigerated truck from an outfitter located 100 miles away in Des Moines.
When the costs and time involved in renting became a burden, Walsh-Rosmann launched a Kickstarter campaign and purchased an 18-foot refrigerated truck of her own.
“After running that for about two years, we started nickel-and-diming ourselves on repairs and upkeep. I also spent a lot of my time worrying about unexpected repairs and reliability,” she says.
Eventually, unpredictable maintenance, repair and fuel costs led Walsh-Rosmann to reexamine her distribution plan. She currently leases a 16-foot truck for a fixed monthly cost. The investment eases some of the uncertainty related to transportation expenses, though it comes with its own challenges. A team member must take the truck to Omaha or Des Moines for maintenance, and that means coordinating around existing delivery schedules and pop-up market events in the two cities.
Living in a small town with low unemployment rates also makes it difficult to find drivers.
“The worker pool is smaller here, and this is not just a back-up-to-the-dock kind of position. We serve lots of customers with different needs and personalities. It’s a high-touch business, and it can be hard to find help,” says Walsh-Rosmann.
If we’ve got to fill a semi or load a full pallet, it’s not really cost effective.
She could navigate some of these obstacles with less-than-truckload (LTL) shipping options, adding partial loads to larger trucks already traveling area highways. But, few operators offer such services in this corner of rural Iowa.
“There just aren’t trucks zipping around here like on the east and west coasts, where you can add a few boxes to the back of a load. We don’t have that kind of infrastructure for small producers,” Walsh-Rosmann says. “If we’ve got to fill a semi or load a full pallet, it’s not really cost effective.”
As an alternative, she participates in a grant-funded working group that helps food hub colleagues and producers coordinate product availability and deliveries across a wider region. Members of the FarmTable team exchange produce, eggs, meats, dairy products and other items with those partners at centrally located docks in Des Moines, rather than crossing the state to source weekly harvests. In addition to limiting the company’s travel range, Walsh-Rossman recently connected with a third-party partner that can assist with urban Des Moines deliveries. This frees up time for her to concentrate on farm pickups and overall management duties.
“We’re always transitioning, always growing, always adapting and always trying to be more efficient. Nothing is ever constant,” she says.
Despite the challenges, Walsh-Rosmann takes pride in positively impacting farmers’ lives by expanding distribution and increasing their market access. Her flexible distribution approach has helped FarmTable purchase approximately $1.7 million worth of worth of goods from local producers in the past five years alone.
“The producers that I work with appreciate the stability,” she says. “Some of the farmers have quit their off-farm jobs, because they know they’ll have guaranteed income coming from FarmTable. They don’t have to do a CSA, and they don’t have to overextend themselves by doing six farmers markets during the busy season. They can just stay on their farm and focus on what they do best.”