Recently several of us from Bard College met with Kevin Terr of Red Barn Produce in his distribution center in Highland, NY. Since 1989, Red Barn Produce has been working with local produce farms aggregating their food to deliver to schools, restaurants, and institutions (like Omega Institute and the Culinary Institute of America) in the Hudson Valley and Connecticut.
Kevin Terr shared with us how he started working in produce distribution after co-owning a Mexican restaurant in Poughkeepsie. His description of the ins and outs of the produce world are worth hearing firsthand.
I knew a lot of people in Poughkeepsie who had restaurants - I went to all of my friends - and I told them that I would match all of the prices. I think I lost about 70 bucks the first day.
Some farms in the area at that time they took their stuff to Hunt’s Point. They showed me how they got paid. They brought 60 cases of eggplant to a distributer and when he got paid what it said was 40 cases at $12, 8 cases at $8, 6 cases at $4, and waste the rest. They were commission merchants down there, “this is what we sold it for and this is your cut.” The farmers didn’t have a leg to stand on - take it or leave it. So what I thought to myself is maybe if I pay them in 7 days, maybe these smaller farms will sell directly to me.
Just think about that - these guys are busting their chops on the tractors all day, they spend one day going to market or driving around to restaurants and half of the time they aren’t getting paid, or the distributors hold their money forever. So we worked out a deal that we would pay them in 7 days.
We have morphed into now a place for people who are looking for local from a local person. We bought 2 brand new trucks this winter - so now we are running eight. We get loads in every day and - we do about 550 stops a week and that might include 50 that are pickups. So sell about 4-5000 cases of grocery. We get a lot busier in the summertime.
There are people out there who want local produce. I have customers who want local produce and are willing to pay for it. We work with 33 local farms - some of them come and go and some of them we have to be a little bit more careful with the safety.
When Kevin talks about safety - he means that food has to be clean and safe to eat. The way that Terr is dealing with food safety is traceability.
When people get sick they want to trace where the food comes from. Wholesale people used to buy a case of lemons and then you can trace that case of lemons. But what is happening now is there is 144-150 lemons in a box. You buy 6, you buy 10, you buy 20 - so now what the USDA wants to do is they want to track everything - each lemon.
We [at Red Barn Produce] are going to code everything. Every single item that is sold is going to be bar coded - so there is going to be no problem whatsoever in finding them.
Somebody is going to get sick, somebody is going to ask something. The first thing you do when you get sick is say “what was I eating at that restaurant?” It happens to everybody.
Somebody gets e-coli from the spinach because it is grown downstream from an animal farm. Especially for you folks in food service at school - if someone gets sick - it is a big time problem. It spreads like wildfire, it puts restaurants out of business, and it is a stigma on food service everywhere when that happens, even if it has nothing to do with the cooking.
Cheers to knowing where our food comes from!