Farm Fresh

An innovative program tests a better way to get food from farmers to local families—as regularly as the US mail

Work starts early on White Gate Farm in East Lyme, Connecticut, and on a recent fall morning it involved more than putting on gloves and preparing for a day of harvesting acres of vegetables. By 7 am, farm manager Dan Wood was at the East Lyme Post Office dropping off a box of fresh produce that later in the day would be delivered by mail to Chelsea Gubbins, who lives across town.

White Gate Farm is a charter member of Farmers Post, a pilot program that enables smallholder farms across eastern Connecticut to ship fresh produce and other farm products to local households through the United States Postal Service (USPS). The brainchild of WWF’s Markets Institute, Farmers Post aims to reduce food waste—a top priority in the fight against climate change.

Monitoring the growth of a greenhouse full of late fall vegetables is part of the daily routine for Dan Wood, manager of White Gate Farm.

Each year, an estimated 10 million tons of crops—a third of what’s grown in the US—never get harvested or make it off the farm, accounting for about 16% of total US food loss and waste. Food remains in the fields because either market prices are too low or the cost of labor is too high, or because the size and shape of the produce make it unappealing to grocery stores.

“Food that is wasted has a much larger impact than just the loss of the food itself,” says Julia Kurnik, the senior director of innovation start-ups for the Markets Institute. “Everything that went into growing it goes out the window as well—the water, the land, the energy. And as the food degrades, it releases greenhouse gases, mainly methane. The bad effects multiply.”

Wood understands that Farmers Post can help to eliminate that waste. “Farming is kind of like cooking for a big group—you’re always overshooting a little bit,” he says. “This is helping us get right on the money, using almost 100% of what we grow and harvest.”

Front of post office building in East Lyme, CT

WWF’s Farmers Post program leverages the vast network of the United States Postal Service to help bring farm-fresh produce to front doors. This work is supported by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) and the Seeding The Future Foundation’s Global Food System Challenge. The Challenge aims to seed impactful initiatives that create and accelerate the pace of innovations that help transform food systems, making them more nutritious, sustainable, and equitable for all. Since 2021, funding from IFT and the Seeding The Future Foundation has helped WWF conduct consumer research, build stakeholder engagement, and develop a pilot with partners in Connecticut—all toward expanding Farmers Post’s capacity to deliver win-win solutions for farmers, consumers, and the environment.

In addition to minimizing food waste, selling farm products directly to local consumers cuts down on the cross-country shipping of food grown in California or elsewhere, reducing the so-called food miles that researchers estimate contribute to about 6% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Fruits and vegetables, which are often transported out of season and require refrigeration, are responsible for the highest emissions between farms and people’s plates.

Farmers Post takes advantage of a USPS program called Connect Local that allows small businesses to offer same-day and next-day delivery at a fixed low cost. After WWF initiated the Farmers Post idea with the USPS in 2020, participating farmers began to ship their boxes to recipients through existing postal routes—a model that also limits supply chain markups or other fees as food enters the market.

All Farmers Post orders are facilitated by WWF partner Healthy PlanEat, a Connecticut-based online marketplace where food artisans and farmers committed to sustainable growing practices can sell food directly to local customers. Its founder, Dr. Rosemary Ostfeld, secured grants from the USDA and the Entrepreneurship Foundation to fund the program’s pilot and manage its logistics, including researching and delivering sustainable shipping materials to local farmers, onboarding them with Connect Local, and providing continuing technical assistance.

With Farmers Post, Wood says, “we’re hoping to reach people who feel inconvenienced coming down here to our farm or whose work doesn’t allow them to. I don’t think anyone could fathom that we could come directly to their door.” He watches as several coworkers pack boxes with an array of seasonal vegetables—“things we have a lot of.” Today that includes lettuces, turnips, squash, and carrots that as recently as this morning were still in the ground.

For farmers, the project has meaning beyond just selling more products. Pauline Lord, owner of White Gate Farm, says her mother bought the 100-acre former dairy farm in 1975. Pauline and her husband took over in 2000 and grow produce on about 5 acres, selling the goods on-site, at a farmstand, and to wholesale accounts like schools. “It’s always exciting to contribute to improvements in the standard American diet,” she says.

Pauline Lord and her husband have tended White Gate Farm for two decades, expanding its offerings to a farm stand and a seven-bedroom inn.

Susan Mitchell (third from right), owner of Cloverleigh Farm, describes the power of locally grown and delivered food to Julia Kurnik, (left), Edward Wyatt, Matt Corbeil (right), and Dr. Rosemary Ostfeld (second from right) of Healthy PlanEat.

Cloverleigh Farm, in nearby Columbia, also participates in the Farmers Post pilot. Owner Susan Mitchell coaxes a variety of foods out of several acres that until recently had been used for hay. “We’ve given [this land] a new life,” she says, pulling a Hakurei turnip out of the ground, wiping away the dirt, and offering it to a visitor to taste.

Spreading the gospel of eating locally produced food is important to Mitchell. “We’re trying to feed ourselves here, where we are,” she says. “We can’t rely on California anymore.”

Both Cloverleigh and White Gate raise livestock—including chickens, turkeys, and lambs—that could be offered through Farmers Post if the program expands into a greater array of products. So does Muddy Roots Farm in nearby Wallingford, where Kirsten Marra—who owns and tends the 8 acre farm with her husband, Chris Wellington—plans to start shipping vegetables through Farmers Post this year.

“As a farmer, I want to get the best possible product arriving at the consumer’s door,” Marra says. “To do that, it has to get there as fast as possible.” Currently, vegetables are shipped in a box lined with a special plant-based packing material that looks like Styrofoam but dissolves in warm water. Expanding the program to include meats and other products that spoil quickly would require additional shipping logistics, like putting ice packs in the boxes.

The Malinowski family is mulling its use of the service to ship its Fishers Island oysters to a broader range of customers.

In addition to getting a box full of fresh vegetables delivered to her door via Farmers Post, Chelsea Gubbins uses the dissolvable, plant-based packing material as a bath toy for her kids.

At Fishers Island Oyster Farm in New York, just off the coast of Connecticut, Steve Malinowski is considering how he could use Farmers Post as another distribution channel. Currently, Malinowski ships boxes of up to 250 farm-raised oysters to individuals and restaurants from southern Maine to Delaware by United Parcel Service, which meets the Fishers Island Ferry at New London, Connecticut, to pick up the boxes on shipping days.

Malinowski’s daughter, Molly, who runs the farm’s shipping operation, says the benefit of Farmers Post for her family’s oyster farm would be in the low shipping rates. “We want to do more local business, and we see great potential. I’m hoping we get to a place where I can drop boxes off at one postal center, and they are delivered to many zip codes.”

Jim Sauber, chief of staff at the National Association of Letter Carriers, which represents more than 250,000 postal workers across the country, says he could see the program expanding to use regional distribution hubs to reach multiple zip codes. And, he says, “if we get a lot of volume, we could be doing pickups as well,” rather than requiring farmers to drop boxes at the post office.

Sauber thinks the additional revenue and the excitement of those who participate in the program bode well for expansion of the Farmers Post effort. “We think the program has tremendous promise,” he says. “A lot of people love to buy locally and support their local communities.”

The USPS hasn’t yet committed to expanding the service, but in a statement, it noted that the program “leverages the Postal Service’s vast, unmatched regional and last-mile network to provide consumers with the next-day delivery they expect.”

The project has also drawn the interest of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, which recently sent a representative to visit participating farms. “Now more than ever, Canadians need access to fresh, affordable foods, and postal workers can deliver,” the union said in a statement. “Farmers Post is exactly the kind of creative solution Canada’s food system needs.”

Drew Burnett, owner of Drew’s Honeybees, maintains 12 apiaries with about 120 hives. He ships one-pound jars of eastern Connecticut honey to subscribers through Farmers Post. “There’s real value in connecting people and communities to their food producers,” Burnett says. Congressman Joe Courtney, an early champion of the program, echoed that belief during a recent visit to a Drew’s Honeybees apiary in Norwich, expressing enthusiasm for community-supported agriculture while taking in the brightly colored hives painted by local middle school students.

Drew Burnett cultivates honey for shipment through Farmers Post.

But perhaps the greatest value, and promise, of the program flows to consumers—especially those living in areas suffering from “food apartheid,” where limited access to healthy, affordable food is exacerbated by geography or systemic injustices. In the US, 53.6 million people are considered low-income with low access to food. Improved access to fresh produce could bolster public health, thereby strengthening communities. Eating just a single additional serving of fruits or vegetables daily decreases the risk of all-cause mortality by 5%.

Sarah Magee, who lives in Old Lyme, has ordered Farmers Post boxes from both Cloverleigh and White Gate farms through Healthy PlanEat and says she is a big fan of the service. “I love supporting these local farms. I get a box every two weeks, and I use everything in it,” she says—stir-frying vegetables, making salads, roasting potatoes and turnips. “The convenience of this is what I really like. Anything that makes my life easier.”

When White Gate Farm’s box shows up later in the day at Chelsea Gubbins’s door, she is thrilled. “Oh, it’s awesome,” she says, lifting a head of broccoli and “the cutest little container” of cherry tomatoes from the box. She says sometimes she gets produce she hasn’t encountered before, like the celery bulb in a recent delivery: “That’s the fun part, getting things that I usually wouldn’t buy and getting to try them out,” she says. “I added it to a broccoli and cheddar soup that I made.” And it comes with a bonus: Gubbins says the plant-based packaging that dissolves in water makes a great bath toy for her kids.

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