Farmer-Owned Organic Produce Distributor

hey there got a very different video for

you guys today in this one I met up with

Sandy cronic and she runs an organic

food distribution company for the last

15 years in Durham North Carolina and I

know a lot of the farms and including

myself we talk a lot about self

distribution so to CSA's farmers markets

restaurants things like that but you

know it's really interesting to hear the

other side of the wholesale side of it

and she's been around for a long time

and running an organic food distribution

company and so I really wanted to get

together with her and pick her brain a

little bit hear her story and hear about

her company also some different things

you might be considering if you're

thinking about going that direction with

your products so hope you enjoy


sandi mixer having me today I want to

hear all about your company and you as a

person and your background so can you

tell start off by a little bit about the

company that you run absolutely really

happy to have you here Josh I'm here at

happy dirt we just rebranded from

Eastern Carolina organic so most people

still know us as eco or Eastern Carolina

organics we're here at our warehouse in

Durham North Carolina and we're

essentially a wholesale organic produce

distributor I own the company actually

with I own the company with 16 farmers

right now ownership is not required and

because I own it with the farmers were

not technically a co-op but we operate

really similarly to a cooperative

distribution program so we've got

customers or is this going to

restaurants like supermarkets what where

does your sales outlets sure when we

launched the company in 2004 we were

really focused on partnering with

customers that were immediately in this

Triangle area of North Carolina and that

really was restaurants and grocery

stores local and chain stores by now 15

years later we're still really proud and

happy to be partnered with many of those

same accounts here in the area we run

two trucks within the state of North

Carolina and up to Richmond and then we

put a lot of product on third-party

carriers that take our product all up

and down the East Coast so you can find

our products anywhere from a supermarket

in Manhattan to a home delivery company

in Atlanta and a lot of great

restaurants and fast casual chains as

well so this is one of the reasons I

want to come see you because most of the

content that I put

my channel is about some really small

farms and really direct-to-consumer kind

of stuff so what are some things that

you can share in terms of like how you

find farmers and how you work with them

awesome yeah I think it's really

interesting I think it's really

important to share that when I moved

down to this area I had come from Ohio

where I was working with Amish farmers

and doing something of a wholesale

buying and redistribution program for

them and as many people will know I'm

farmers don't drive and don't do email

and talk on the phone and so I had this

really great learning experience of

communicating well with farmers via the

mail and in person and so I knew that

the niche back in 2000 2001 the niche of

being able to buy from local farms was

brand new and really poppin but

especially among restaurants but it was

very clear to me when I moved to this

area that the urban areas around Durham

and Carrboro and Raleigh had great

farmers markets with amazing farmers

that would show up on Saturday morning

and sell the most incredible product and

most of those farms are from within 50

miles of the urban core and they're on

sometimes smaller acreage what I wanted

to make sure to do was support making

our food system more sustainable but not

trying to at all compete with those

incredible farmers that already had

their niche at the farmers markets and

CSA programs and working directly with

some grocery stores and restaurants and

so it became really clear that here in

North Carolina the untapped supply chain

opportunity was in larger farms that

were a little bit further away from that

urban area and would really love a new

outlet that was committed to supporting

them that really

to know them more because that's so

different from the traditional or

conventional food system if farmers

themselves don't know how important they

are in our society if they don't feel

like they're being very well taken care

of if they don't know that they have

dignified career then they're going to

continue to discourage their generation

their next generation from coming back

to the farm and then we're gonna be in

an even bigger mess so now I'm proud to

say that fifteen years later we've

actually we run the numbers every year

on the average age of the farms we work

with because it's just a great witness

test of are we really are we really

moving the needle in the very different

vision of what we have for what we

believe a good food system should look

like and the average age at the last

USDA census for an American farmers 58.3

and I'm really proud to say that over a

10-year window we went from 52 down to

46 and we keep getting more and more

young farmers every year and so it's

really exciting to know that not only

does that represent a whole degree of

sustainability and kind of food security

supply chain pipeline for us as a

business and for our customers and for

the communities that we feed but it's

also really important to know that we

are actually encouraging recruiting

maintaining the next generation of young

folks to start to farm or go back to the

farm because it's again a part of a very

dignified career path for them and they

feel really rewarded by knowing how

connected they are to customers and

that's essentially the role that happy

dirt plays I have so many questions

after what you just said but I'm going

to pick a few here so I know that in

sort of this really small scale of


you know we're talking maybe acre to a

most most of the farmers are correct

selling to customers and doing all their

own marketing and you know trying to

find customers but I know that there's a

lot of farms that are especially locally

that farmers I met better

alright bigger scale to me it used to be

in tobacco like you mentioned and don't

want to do all that side of it and so

you soon can come in and sort of connect

those people with the customers

essentially yeah I mean I think it's

important to note that we have no

minimum size requirement or maximum size

requirement for a farm for us it's

really vetting integrity communication

quality and is wholesaling a good fit

for you I think a lot of farms that are

close to an urban area that have access

to a farmers market or to other direct

market channels or wholesale smaller

farms tend to be killer and marketing

their own product they tend to be really

open to feedback they tend to be really

interested in talking about the new

varieties that they're seeing in the

seed catalog and getting information

from the chef's that they work with

about what they should put into the next

year so that's a really honorable food

system for anyone to participate in as a

diner or a shopper or whatever but we do

have a lot of farms that are actually

really close to us like down the road

and I think for those farms they love

going to the markets on Saturday or they

love having their you know other direct

market channels but they also really

love knowing that they're gonna be able

to count on like 5k or $10,000 a year

from these wholesalers that are right

off the road and while they're driving

in anyhow to this brewery or some other

customer they're able to drop some

product off for us coming from a small

farm the reason why and my world is that

small person to be successful

financially is that they do have that

direct marketing right because they get

a higher price for copper unit whatever

and so for me I've always been hesitant

to try to connect the wholesalers

because I sort of need that difference

in there so do you think that it's

beneficial for small farms to sort of

have that diverse strategy in sales like

you go after your farmers market your

restaurants and then if there's an extra

and it makes sense me to reach out to

wholesalers have a good strategy yeah I

think diversity is key in every sense of

the word from microbiology up to

marketing schemes for sure I don't think

that calling you know with overages or

leftovers from a market or something is

at all what's going to work well with

any wholesale channel whether it's

direct to a chef or to a wholesaling

aggregator but but having a conversation

of hey you know I'm growing on this much

I want to expand by a half an acre you

know here's the list of the things I do

really really really well

which of these could be a good fit and I

don't want to make any huge promises you

know there's no contracts for us that

get signed but it's important for us to

be able to fit farmers expectations into

our plans so that we can show up for you

and be able to reflect back here's the

price we kind of thought we were gonna

maybe be able to get for you here's the

cases or the volume that we thought we

were gonna be able to move for you and

did we meet our goals so someone who's

serious about sustainable food how do

you get into all this like where did

your background meet to engineer yeah so

I randomly became a vegetarian when I

was 10 on my own devices and so I had a

young age my mom was like sounds good

help yourself to cooking like fuel you

know and actually they were brilliant

and took me to one appointment with a

nutritionist so it was really helpful

for me to have this index card on the

fridge of the exact minimum requirements

of protein I needed every day and so I

kind of had like good marching orders of

how to take care of myself which was a

huge blessing because it really I think

in many ways started to see

the path of kind of a Virgo

businesswoman in terms of the ability to

make a list make priorities and go after

what you think you can accomplish in

life and so I loved to cook from a young

age of course not with me

and I became really passionate about

vegetables I just I could tell that

there was something really important

about vegetable quality and I as a born

environmentalist I definitely was very

interested in more toxic-free living and

so organic wasn't necessarily something

I saw in New York where I grew up but I

was definitely already skewed in that


when I moved to Ohio I started working

with Amish farmers and helped organize

getting product from local farmers

mostly Amish in that area into the

college dining halls that I worked with

and in many cases it was really just a

design solution how do we get the list

of local food in front of the food

buyers and the chefs before their

deadline for ordering off of the mass

market system it was a very gentle way

to be able to stoke all of my optimistic

dreams of saying oh you know people want

this why can't we have this this is a

free market system people want to supply

it people want to buy it the only

missing link is that missing link I want

to be that missing link so when we moved

so when I moved down to North Carolina I

wanted to figure out how to continue to

play a role in just building up more

regionally adaptive sustainable organic

local food systems because I know that

the ability to purchase and consume

things that fit within my value system

we're just important to me in terms of

how I want to live the clear concept was

that an organic and local food system

requires infrastructure if it's ever

going to make a dent in a wholesale

environment and as much as I love

farmers markets and they're a massive

and important way to support small farms

and support the loyal customer

who are the frontlines of all of these

movements the problem is is that it's

not necessarily going to be able to make

a dent in mass American culture and so

what we should also try to do is supply

more good food options from more humans

more family farms more more people who

want a connection to their shoppers and

their customers more farmers that are

down the road and sending their kids to

the same school system or co-invest in

the same state tax budget that we could

put that in a supermarket environment so

that more people can see the label feel

that connection and taste the vitality

that comes with local food I think

that's always a strong argument that

people have about you know sustainable

agriculture is that it's such a small

percentage of the overall food system

and so one of these the one that come to

talk to you is because what you do is to

try to increase that volume increase

that percentage of sales yeah that's

super important your connections

directly with the farmers and helping

them out as much as possible mm-hmm yeah

I think one thing that's worth noting is

that what's been very interesting in the

last couple years is our customers have

come to us and said we're buying

non-local food anyways we're buying

conventional food anyways but what you

do in establishing amazing relationships

with suppliers with producers with

farmers is something that nobody else

does well so how can we can't get more

of this product from you and so that set

us out on this path of well how does

this kind of new potential procurement

strategy also fit into our huge goals of

larger resiliency greater innovation

we're certified B Corporation so we're

constantly thinking about how to

continue to grow and evolve along a path

of triple bottom-line values and

resiliency and so I think it's worth

noting because when we talk about the

ability to take something amazing from a

local food system or the ability to know

your farmer that's right down the road

our transition from Eastern

carol-anne organics into happy dirt is

actually really telling the story of how

we want to be able to play the role of

making sure that the product is coming

from great people who care but opening

up to a larger food system because again

people are gonna buy that stuff anyways

and so if we can help create the

connection in terms of where the product

is coming from it's still coming from a

great person it might not be within the

same geographic boundaries or production

boundaries that we were married to

before but that transparency in terms of

communication and freedom of choice is

really the most important part yes I

just want to show the viewers here a

little bit around your company here just

show scale and sort of operation because

it's pretty impressive so take a look

yeah all right JT so we're standing in

like the in and out of this place right

you got a couple big bays here so all

the pro space that comes in out of here

for the most part yeah absolutely we

built these two dots when we bought the

warehouse in 2012 and we tend to have

trucks on both docks most of the week

all right cool let's go transom your

coolers awesome

this one is Catwoman one more

yeah so depending on this time of the

year it's at 55 so we have to potatoes

peppers eggplant tomatoes all right so I

see a lot of it here but this is there's

a constant flux in here this will fill

up an empty

yeah so we basically have three primary

cycles each week of lists going out

orders coming in products coming in from

the farms and so today's that have you

and a big pack day and so a lot of

product is coming in right now and then

we'll be getting packed up through this


tomorrow morning we'll do the same

when you without living numbers

in any one of those three weekly cycles

were easily this time of year doing

about 30 to 50 pallets coming and going

in a two day period Wow okay cool yeah

holder sure okay so we're in a folder

cooler now

so this we keep at 36 degrees and so

lettuces greens cabbages broccoli

herbs so is that me going out

everything comes and goes out in cases

and we are working with bins too so some

stuff comes in by the bin and goes out

to a customer by the bin bin is a pallet

position that's like yay high and it

could have 1,200 pounds of sweet

potatoes in it or 700 pounds of

cucumbers in it so people pretty crazy

yeah like field grade it's going

straight from the field into the video

all right well thanks so much for

showing me around today I feel like we

could talk for hours and hopefully maybe

you can do some follow-up videos like

there's a lot of stuff you get up to the

conversation here but I just what do

they wanted to bring your angle into the

conversation here because it's sort of

the middle piece and a lot of this and

work you're doing is incredible so how

could people check out what you're into

our what you're up to and you know if

farmers looking to connect or you know

customers and things like that

absolutely well Josh thanks so much for

coming it's been really fun to chat with

you anyone can visit our website at

happy dirt comm and we're always looking

for more farmers to work with so I

definitely want to encourage anyone to

reach out and for shoppers and the

supermarket's you can look for our name

this is kind of an example of what our

bunch tags would look like around red

kale and rainbow chard so really bright

colors just kind of spilling the good

gossip on happy dirt and how amazing

farmers are so so your support and so

where does some supermarkets least

locally knit we work with all the coops

Weaver Street Market the Durham food

co-op Whole Foods Market Wegmans and

lots of amazing restaurants and home

delivery companies as well alright

thanks Andy

thank you it would be smart if I had

this at my


shut up you want to start that over

yeah okay you know what to think of like

here are the needs does that matter

yeah so funny looks it's a very wide

it's a glass yeah yeah this cameras huge

yeah that's why you see like people are

scared to get close to the camera I'm

like no I mean I could yeah what I

figured like something like that's good