Yellowbird Foodshed – Part 1
In March I sat down with Benji Ballmer to discuss Yellowbird Foodshed. Yellowbird is a type of Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) in that you get fresh produce every week, but different because there are a variety of growers and producers contributing to the program. In the case of Yellowbird, all of the food is grown within 150 miles of Columbus, OH.
Yellowbird’s operations are run out of a warehouse in Mt. Vernon, OH that was formerly a storage house for an antiques company. Over time the antiques were cleared out, as Benji convinced the owner he needed more space. Today the warehouse is full of coolers, pallets, boxes, and best of all, food! Even better, there’s room to grow; Benji tells me that for the first time, Yellowbird has the space to expand its operations, and he has big plans on how to do that.
When and how did you come up with the idea for Yellowbird Foodshed?
That was 2013. In 2012 I built a hoop house outside of a grocery store in Findlay Ohio where I was living and working for this grocery store company called Fresh Encounter. We started with a community garden and then built a 96’x30′ hoop house because then we could grow [food] all year and extend the seasons.
We came up with a name for it called Grow For It, where we grew food, involved the community, and taught people who were interested in how to grow. They received some of the food as a bounty for doing volunteer work. I had seven people that were close friends and family that supported it and that’s when I was taking food all over the place just for the experience of it.
I saw that there is just no money in going to the back of a restaurant for a $60 sale, or staying at a farmers market that you might have driven an hour to get there, taken an hour to set up, you’re selling for two to three hours, takes an hour to break down and an hour to get home, and what did you make? $200 bucks, maybe? On a great day $400? That doesn’t break even. That doesn’t pay for gas.
What people don’t think about is all the time, effort, the cost of the seed, the labor and the hours to get that cucumber on a table at the farmers market. You might sell it for a $1 and you’re never making that money back. And then people will walk up and say “well I can get that cucumber for $.20 at the store”. Well then go get it at the store. You’ve been duped into thinking that food should be cheap and that this is what it should look and taste like. I call them Grocery Store Busters.
[For example] the carrots this week from White Barn [in the CSA box], they’re incredible, you can’t get that flavor from anywhere else. When you grow commercially those carrots don’t taste like that and that’s what people are conditioned to think. They think that’s the regular price of carrots. Well no, carrots are supposed to taste like this, they’re supposed to look like this, and this is how much they really would cost if we could get the consumer to pay it so that the grower made any money at all. This is what it would cost.
That’s what’s so cool about what we’re doing: our members are saying, “we know, we understand the consequences, we understand what we’re paying for, and to keep doing what you’re doing because this is not only what we want, we’re demanding it. We are going to eat this way and we’re going to change the eating patterns of ourselves, our spouses, our families, our kids, and we have no other way to get it except to go to the farmers market”.
Sometimes you can’t get to [the farmers market]. The hard part about the farmers market for the farmer is that nobody is going to one place and doing a full shop. So it’s not like I’m grocery shopping from XYZ farmer and spending $100 there. I’m cherry-picking. I only want what I want from that guy or gal, and then I’m going to move down the aisle, and everybody is going to get a little tiny bit of my dollar. But at the end of the day, did they get enough from enough people to make it worth it?
That’s where the model that we’ve built is, “listen, XYZ farmer, you know that in any given year, if you’ve done it at all, you’re going to make this much money at the farmers market, you’re going to make this much money in your own direct CSA, you’re going to make this much money selling to restaurants. Again, keep doing all that, but also plant this, this, and this for us and we’ll guarantee the sale”.
The drawback is that they’ve all been burned by wholesalers who come in and say, “hey, grow all this for us and then we’ll buy it” and then when the time comes they don’t actually need it, or “hey, we’ll give you nickels on the dollar for it”. [Yellowbird] has already locked in a price structure with [the farmers]: this is what we’re going to buy, this is how much we’re going to pay for it, this is how much we need, this is the week we need it.
Now obviously it always pushes a week one way or the other because of mother nature. But at the end of the day, sometimes we take the risk, and we get toasted and our members get toasted as in “hey, you’re getting four lettuces this week because it all became ready at the same time”. We try to explain that the best we can and say “listen, over the course of a long haul, you’re going to get a dollar value that you feel good about, you’re going to get the best food available. You might get too much lettuce one week, but hopefully we’re able to balance that another week with something else that makes it worth your while, because we told that grower that we were going to buy their lettuce, and when it was ready, and it’s ready.”
That’s how it’s gone from this little patch of ground that was a community garden to how can we really affect agriculture, the global economy and then ultimately at the other end of it, the health of the individual. We get life changing testimonials, emails, and phone calls of people that say “hey, I lost 45 pounds”. I had a guy call and tell me that. “I lost 45 pounds last year. All I did was start eating your food, and moving a little bit and exercising a little bit”. People that have been on medication. All these things are kind of anecdotal evidence that we’re doing the right thing. I’m not a dietician, or a doctor. I have a certain way that I eat, but at the end of the day, I’m not cataloging the data from this. This isn’t a study, this is a business.
On how Yellowbird works with farmers
It’s amazing though, to hear those things and know this is making an impact on individuals lives and ultimately with all the processes along the way that the local growers, producers, and cheese makers feel called to do what they’re doing. “I feel called to raise lambs and make cheese from those lambs”. Well, are you going to make a million dollars doing that? No. I don’t know if you’re going to make any money doing that. But I’m going to do the best I can to support that, which in any given week might mean, “hey we’re going to buy $800 worth of cheese off of you. Now what you do the rest of your time with the cheese until we can buy it again or until we sell through that, do whatever your thing is. But let’s work together to build it up so that you can start to count on whether you’re growing lettuce, garlic, cheese, making sauerkraut, whatever it is, that you can start to count on $5,000, $10,000, $20,000”.
There were some growers that we paid $50-60,000 to last year; some of the biggest and best, because that’s all they’re doing. So I look at that and I’m like, what if they’re making another (through their market or CSA or whatever) $50-60,000. That’s $120,000 gross. Let’s say they’ve got $60,000 in expenses and now they’re netting $60,000. That’s a decent living. Now if you’ve got 5 kids it’s not, that’s barely break-even. But if they’re doing what they’re doing and then also hustling something else, and now they’re getting to the point where they’re like “ok, now we can live on that.”
But what if we can get five people, or ten people, or 100 growers? That can shift into “I’m really good at growing, I’m not that great at marketing or standing there at farmers markets – I’ve been doing it for ten years and I’m sick of it – I really wish I didn’t have the labor of my own CSA that only provides to 20 people, and those 20 people love it, but it’s a lot of labor to do that little piece of it”.
We’ve been working on that and have folded people’s personal CSA’s into Yellowbird and said, “listen we’ll handle those customers for you, you just grow food””. And they’re like “oh thank you! This is what I wish I could have been doing.” And so that’s another way that everything has transformed. We try to stay fluid, and we try to pivot every time we see, “well, what if we did this, even internally”.
An example of this would be the boxes. In the beginning, three years ago, we had boxes where you pushed from the side and popped them open, you didn’t have to tape them, which was nice and fine from the labor perspective of it. But then we did the math over the winter, and if we bought boxes that you had to tape, we’d save $20,000 in cardboard. A taping machine is $4,000 and we’ll net $16,000 on the savings just by buying different boxes. There’s still the same cute art on it, they’re still recyclable, but we’ll actually add somebody to the line that runs the boxes through the taping machine and then puts in whatever might not need refrigerated.
That’s the way that farmers work as well. They’re always re-innovating and changing their infrastructure: could it be easier, could it be cheaper, and still not sacrifice the integrity of what they’re doing? We’ve got to take that same mentality and work with all these growers that are like, “I might be able to do this, but could you do this?” Well, I don’t know, let’s run the numbers and see.
We’ve built something that’s going into year six that’s continuing to grow in popularity, and that’s really the indicator for me. Have we plateaued, have we reached all the people we can reach? Well no. We’re only running 700 boxes a week into Columbus during the main season.
Think about how many people live in Columbus. How many apartment buildings are going up? How many of these people want or need better food? A million? I don’t want a million people – we wouldn’t be able to do that overnight. But that’s what the infrastructure in the warehouse is about. We’ve got that built to the point where if 5,000 people showed up on our door tomorrow, and said “we want this service”, we could pull it off. We’ve got the infrastructure for it. We’ve built ahead of where we are for the first time.
And, you have a farm yourself?
Yeah. My wife and I have four kids and we live about seven miles from [Yellowbird] and it’s called The Farm on Kenyon Road near Gambier. We have eight acres and this year we did two lambs, chickens, dog, cat, we have a hoop house there so we grow veggies. We don’t grow anything big enough to a scale that we would use it here really. I’ve bought some of my own eggs for the members at times. It’s really kind of a hobby thing for my kids and my wife since we homeschool. It’s kind of tied into that [thought of] this is the way we want you to see the world and we might learn math in the middle of that. It turns out that when you teach your kid to learn, they’ll teach themselves everything.
I always have a kid with me. I’ve gone to the highest executive meetings in Columbus and I’ve had a kid tag along. I want them to see it, and see how the business side of things works. Like “hey, this is where daddy goes when he goes into a place, but then we also live like this.” And there’s a foot in both worlds. We’re not recluses, but we also think there’s a different curriculum of things that we should be learning as humans that allows us to have a foot in the consumerism without being driven by it.
I’m still trying to figure out what that balance is. This is what I always wanted for my family, this life of “hey this is where food comes from.” I thought I was just going to spend life as a small farmer and grower, and then saw the bigger picture of the food crisis and was like, “well, crap, I guess I’m going to have to do that first, and maybe I’ll get back to the small farm in my fifties?” [Laughs] I don’t know. I’m still holding out hope that a majority of my time can be spent on a small farm, but we’ll see.
Well that brings up another point that you mentioned earlier, in that farmers are kind of the ultimate entrepreneurs that nobody ever really thinks about. It’s always the big guys in skyscrapers, not the small farmer that’s always innovating.
Yeah, they’re the rockstar. And of course we’ve been told to think that the farmer is the guy that has a 1,000 acres that’s growing corn, soy, or wheat and that’s unfortunate, but that’s the paradigm that we live in, and can we start to shift the vision of where real food comes from?
We see these commercials about companies that are sowing seeds for corn. Well I don’t know that most Americans know that is not edible corn. That’s corn that’s grown for feed, for animals, for biodiesel, corn syrup and all the components that’s in the grocery store that’s not a produce item. So are we even equating that real food isn’t that corn that’s being grown.
Real food is an ingredient, like kale, or a carrot. I can’t tell that enough and could spout that all day. You’re always going to hit a new audience that’s like ‘We can’t eat that corn that we’ve been driving by in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa?’ I mean you could, but it doesn’t digest for one and it tastes awful. I think that’s just an awakening that’s happening.
“Real food is an ingredient, like kale, or a carrot.”
On the future of Yellowbird
People [ask] “what would be the next step for Yellowbird? Do you want to get bigger, do you want to go to Indianapolis?” And I’m like absolutely not. It’d take five more years to do what I’ve already done to meet all the growers somewhere else. I want it to get smaller. There needs to be 50 Yellowbirds in Ohio alone to create sustainable food systems for the regions that are everywhere. I want to drive less, not more. Will it grow that direction? I don’t think so, because I don’t think enough people are willing to pay for it.
But again, I’m not after the masses. We are a subculture, small time, guerilla warfare; if we had 5,000 people in Columbus that ate this way, we’d be making a noticeable difference in our local economies, in the lives of the growers, in ourselves.
We go through these small downtown areas that are ghost towns now in Ohio and we mourn that, but we’re not willing to make any changes in our life to affect any of those places. We’re sad that we’re driving through them, but we’re moving on to our suburban whatever, not realizing that the only reason those downtowns aren’t alive anymore is because those people stopped buying their appliances from the local appliance guy, and started going to the big box store, and stopped buying their flowers from the local flower guy, and stopped having a local butcher, and local candlestick maker. And were like “yeah, it’s easy, it’s cheap, it’s fast, it’s convenient, I don’t have to wait on anything – here it is.”
So your business model is really one that you want other people to start using. Many businesses play it close to the vest, but you’re like “please do it!”
Yeah! Here’s a great example: I say to every one of our members that I can talk to one-on-one – they’re like “these tomatoes taste like my grandmother’s tomatoes, or I grew tomatoes one time” and I say to them, the best thing that you can do is grow food. And they look at me like “well that would mean I wouldn’t be buying your food.” And I’m like “listen you’re still going to be buying my food. You can’t grow all this”. We had 170 varieties of food last year. I want you connected. I want you growing your own tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, peppers, whatever it is. If in any way, shape, or form you can do that, because that’s when the lightbulb goes off and you’re going to make different decisions.
I don’t eat fast food or at any restaurant where I don’t know where their food came from, which limits me to about… two places? I don’t eat meat at restaurants ever, unless it came from The Butcher and Grocer in Columbus which is a great partner of ours. I don’t eat candy, or processed [food], because every time I spend a dollar on that, I’m saying yes to this thing, that I’m ok with whatever system is behind that.
That’s where we’re starting to develop through the messaging: enlightened people that are now our best champions. I can put a dollar amount on an Instagram ad, and we might pick up somebody. 95% of our business is the mom or dad, the young professional, the woman that got diagnosed with diabetes and wants to use food as her weapon, etc. They get this food, eat it, and is like “how have I never known about you guys?” Well nobody knows about us. We’re a tiny voice trying to make ourselves heard over the ruckus of the messaging of today.
We’re actually planning on doing some house parties. I lie awake at night thinking about how we can get the messaging out there, how can I reach more people. People have been emailing me who have been doing a lot of referrals, and I ask if I can come to their house? “I’ll do a Tupperware party for Pete’s sake!” is what I’m thinking about. Because if I talk to a thousand people through a microphone at a convention, ten of those people are going to sign up for this. But if I go to a house with ten people, nine of those people are going to sign up. So why go blast to nobody that wants to hear it, when I can have an audience of people that are literally saying “how can I get my kids to eat more veggies?” That’s the whole thing about being small.
The second example would be the pizzas this week [in the CSA]. Wholesome Valley farm in Wilmont, Ohio is owned by Fresh Fork Market. Fresh Fork Market is the Yellowbird of Cleveland. They’re probably three times our size in membership, but they don’t want to come to Columbus and we don’t want to go to Cleveland. We use some of the same growers, but the bottom line is they’re doing incredible food.
[Fresh Fork Market] actually bought this 200 acre farm, so they are more vertically integrated than we are, but they’re doing all the crust, sauce, and sauerkraut. And they’re totally not threatened by us because I couldn’t pull this infrastructure off in Cleveland. We’ve spent five years being able to even get close to being able to do it in Columbus. And that’s where it’s like, everybody get the vision for it and start building out the infrastructure and let’s work together because I work out of a theology of abundance, not scarcity.
There are other people who are doing at least a fraction of what we’re doing in Columbus and doing a fairly decent job at it. They just don’t have the infrastructure to do it at the scale we do it at. I’m glad they’re there. I don’t want to own the market. I don’t want to be the only game in town. There’s enough people that need to be eating better that I think there’s probably room for all of us. Let’s continue to go out and say to the growers, ”Hey, first of all, young people, this is a profession that you can make a living at. Second, if you’re thinking about getting out of it because you’ve been scraping for 10 years and you feel like you’ve got to sell the farm, but you don’t want to because you know, you’re doing the right thing, hookup with us. Maybe we can save the thing in the long run”.
I mean, I could talk about it forever, obviously. But that’s kind of the model. I don’t want a million customers. I want, 5,000 customers and I want somebody else to have 5,000 customers. Especially if they’re doing it right and staying as true to the vision as they can. Because now we’ve got a group of people that are shifting the entire state. Heaven forbid we started making systemic change that isn’t a bandaid over our old wounds that we’re just trying to patch. Food security in health, in whatever, over the next hundred years, reverses and goes the other direction. Creating healthier communities, not, we’re 75% sicker than we were 20 years ago or whatever. It’s, you know, it’s wild.
Check out Part 2 of my interview with Benji.
Yellowbird Foodshed works with over 100 food growers and producers from Ohio to bring a variety of food to consumers who have chosen to vote with their fork. Each product has been sustainably raised, harvested, transported, and consumed. To sign up for one of their three types of boxes (or to order online at the store) visit https://www.yellowbirdfs.com/.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.