Cyber market links Bainbridge growers to residents hungry for local food

With demand for local food reaching new heights, islander Carlee Ashen is rolling out a unique service to feed the appetite for island-grown food. Her business, Farm Courier, uses a virtual farmer’s market and a cheerful white delivery truck to bring local produce to island doorsteps. Ashen hopes her business will provide a new venue for residents and producers to build a relationship over food.

Farm Courier owner Carlee Ashen delivers a flat of strawberries from Karen Selvar’s farm to Rolling Bay Auto’s Mike Fox.

With demand for local food reaching new heights, islander Carlee Ashen is rolling out a unique service to feed the appetite for island-grown food.

Her business, Farm Courier, uses a virtual farmer’s market and a cheerful white delivery truck to bring local produce to island doorsteps. Ashen hopes her business will provide a new venue for residents and producers to build a relationship over food.

“These are people you see all the time,” she said. “I think there is another level of accountability when you buy from someone who knows you, and who knows your kids.”

The service operates much like any online retail outlet.

Perspective buyers can surf to the Farm Courier Web site, log into their personal account and browse a selection of locally grown food and locally made products.

But unlike most retail Internet sites, Farm Courier’s inventory is continuously updated to reflect which produce is ripe and ready that week. Plus, each product is linked to a producer’s biography and contact information.

Orders are placed online for either Tuesday or Thursday deliveries, and Ashen forwards the orders to the local producers. Two mornings a week, Ashen will make the rounds in her truck, compiling each order in its own cooler to be delivered to homes and businesses in the afternoon.

Ideally, she said, goods are harvested or baked to order that morning, which will both maximize freshness, and cut down on wasted produce.

Ashen made her first sales this week, with a selection that included strawberries from Karen Selvar and wines from Perennial Vintners alongside lettuce, granola, soap and raspberry vinegar from Sweetlife Farm. She will soon have salmon for sale, and is looking to add more farmers, bakers, and possibly restaurants to her seller list as the summer progresses.

Ashen, a 1997 Bainbridge High School graduate, said she has always had an affinity for food.

She studied Italian culture at the University of Washington and for three months lived in the Tuscan city of Siena, where she noted that each tucked away yard was bursting with herbs and vegetables.

Later Ashen worked as a naturalist guide and chef on a charter boat in Alaska. Catching fish, and foraging berries and mushrooms for meals added to her appreciation for food less traveled.

“The quality of something when you know where it comes from, and it’s super fresh, is unbelievable,” she said.

When Ashen returned to Bainbridge Island with her husband Mercury Michael, she first considered starting a catering business, with the idea of using only local goods in her menus. But she quickly realized that there was no easy way to shop locally beyond the farmers market, and coordinating purchases from scattered farms, bakeries and vineyards would be a full-time job in itself.

It sounded like a good endeavor to Ashen.

“That’s how the idea for Farm Courier started, as a way of synchronizing people who are basically making local groceries,” she said.

There are many local buying clubs, subscription services and farms that make deliveries throughout the state, said Fred Berman, a coordinator for the state Department of Agriculture’s Small Farm and Direct Marketing program.

But, he said, Farm Courier may be unique in its position as a marketing and delivery tool.

“It sounds like a great service, especially for local farmers who don’t find direct marketing their forte,” Berman said. “If it’s a good model, there will be opportunity for duplication.”

In fact, Berman said demand for local foods appears to have reached a new high this year, with farmers markets across the state reporting record sales and turnout. Ashen said she would consider franchising the service in other communities if it can flourish on Bainbridge.

And she intends for her business to supplement, rather than detract, from farmers markets.

“I think for a lot of people, this will simply be another way of buying local, and getting things mid-week,” she said.

Farm Courier’s website is www.farmcourier.com. Local producers interested in selling through Farm Courier can contact Carlee Ashen at 842-2747 or info@farmcourier.com.

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