Anyone who has known me for more than 24 hours knows that I don’t drink a lot of beer. To be more precise, I never drink beer. I tried it once in High School and never wanted to put such vile liquid in my mouth again. So I never did. Not once. I attended the University of Wisconsin without once placing a red solo cup of beer to my lips. Some may never believe such a statement, but if you know me at all you will know that it is the truth. This all changed when I got the chance to sit down with Mariann Van Den Elzen, “for a beer.”
We had met at the Farm Olympics a few weeks ago in Wilsall and I worked with her one Tuesday morning as we assembled the weekly CSA share. I asked her if I could meet with her and hear more about Market Day Foods, the company she co-owns and founded. She agreed and suggested we meet at a local bar in Bozeman to chat. Her schedule is hectic during the week but she fit me into her life and a great conversation ensued.
I met her at 5:00pm on Thursday at The Bozeman Brewery. I asked the bartender if they had any ciders on tap and she replied, “No. And I don’t think we ever will.” This wasn’t going well. She explained that the bar only serves six beers, all of which are brewed next door. I deeply gulped and swallowed my fear; I knew what I had to do. Mariann arrived and we each ordered a beer. I played it cool, I bet she doesn’t even know that I don’t drink beer until she reads this article.
Getting to know individuals who are making a living in the vast realm of sustainability is one of the main reasons I am on this yearlong farming adventure. I want to get an understanding of how people are turning their interests in sustainability into a career. Mariann has done this by creating a company that connects farmers to their communities in southwest Montana. She built relationships with farmers during her career as the farmer of Field Day Farms, which she ran and operated until this year, when she decided to focus full-time on Market Day Foods.
Market Day Foo is an online food distributor. Retail and wholesale customers have the ability to purchase fresh, Montana-produced, fairly price food from the comforts of their home or mobile device. A hungry customers simply logs onto the website and sees a wide selection of produce that is available for sale. They select what items they would like, pay online and pick up their groceries at the closest distribution site. For an additional fee, they are able to have it delivered to their front door. Market Day Foods’ customers represent families, individuals, restaurants, and companies from Bozeman and surrounding southwestern Montana communities.
Mariann has the formidable role of balancing the supply of each farm with the demand of each customer. Each farm grows a diverse variety of vegetables and each farmer must know how much they will be able to harvest for Market Day Foods customers. Mariann aggregates the expected harvests that the farmers have communicated to her and translates this into the online market. Once the list of available produce is posted on the website and customers have placed their orders, the real fun begins. Farmers now know exactly how much produce they must harvest for their Market Day Foods customers and they know it is a guaranteed sale. Unlike selling at a Farmer’s Market, where a farmer harvests as much as she thinks will sell, selling with Market Day Foods means that a farmer is only harvesting produce which is already purchased. Certainty is rare in organic farming, but Market Day Foods makes a portion of a farmer’s weekly sales absolute.
Once the orders are in, farmers deliver the harvested produce to Mariann’s refrigerated warehouse in Bozeman. Mariann and her team now organize the chaos and deliver the produce to designated locations throughout the surrounding communities for pick-up.
Market Day Foods epitomizes the idea of supporting a regional economy. They are connecting farmers to eaters, a relationship that has been increasingly disconnected since the growth of industrial food production. The food they are providing goes from field to plate within 12 – 24 hours; it is grown chemically-free, and encourages local farming families to keep growing food. Montana citizens are increasingly supporting their regional economy. Since being founded in 2010, Market Day Foods has tripled their sales each year. They currently have over 1,000 customers who have created an online account and purchased produce at least one time. In August they averaged 130 orders per week between their retail and wholesale customers. When blueberry season reached it’s peak this year, people went into a fruit frenzy. Market Day Foods sold 250 gallons of blueberries in six hours.
For all of the success that Market Day Foods has already had, they have dreams of expanding further. Mariann envisions the growth of a non-profit side of the business, which would educate new farmer’s about the importance of farm management and building efficiencies. She sees the waste in our current partiality of Grade A produce and would like to have an on-site processing facility that could turn those bruised tomatoes into sauces, which would mean Market Day Foods could purchase a wider variety of produce from farmers.
Mariann sees the wholesale side of the business growing exponentially, if she is able to expand into local hospitals, Yellowstone National Park, and school districts. She would love to one day have an Everyday Farmer’s Market store, which would be located in busy downtown Bozeman and always be supplied with local, seasonal produce. And if that wasn’t enough for a lifetime, Mariann also wants to start running a Veggie Truck through the growing suburbs of Bozeman, tempting children and parents with the idea of purchasing fresh, local vegetables.
A major part of a sustainable company is profitability. I believe that for a company to be sustainable, it must be environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable. Market Day Foods aims for a profit margin of 22.5% when selling the produce of local farmers. This compares to the average 30-35% profit margin of commercial distributors. Mariann will never reach the profit margins of commercial distributors because she is not working with the same type of farmer.
Commercial farmers tend to grow one major crop on hundreds or thousands of acres. Organic farmers tend to grow 20-50 varieties of crops on less than ten acres. The volume that commercial farmers reach allows for economies of scale, which lowers the cost of growing. Since organic growers do not rely on pesticides or fertilizers to reduce risk, they must diversify their crops. Diversifying their crops means they do not reach the same volume as commercial growers. I would prefer to know that my farmer is growing in a biologically diverse, sustainable manner, which is healthy for me and for the land.
I left our meeting feeling one step closer to finding a career in sustainability, even if it means drinking a few beers once in a while.