Farmers hit the road to reach shoppers before Amazon does

Huge retailers like Walmart, Amazon and Peapod are fighting for a piece of the online food delivery business.

So is David Nowacoski, a chicken and pig farmer in East Smithfield.

Last month, Nowacoski started a service that delivers locally produced meats, cheeses and vegetables across three counties in northern Pennsylvania. His startup collects food from far-flung farms and transports it weekly to residents who place their orders online.

We recently spent the day with Nowacoski and his wife, Marla, traveling about 92 miles in the family minivan, picking up and dropping off food from three farms, one cheese room, one tavern and a bakery.

Even in this rural patch of natural gas fields and deer hunting grounds, where the closest Whole Foods is more than 100 miles away, Amazon’s influence is deeply felt. David Nowacoski says Amazon and other big retailers have conditioned consumers to expect a higher level of convenience.

“This is where society is going, and we have to figure out how the small farm plays a role in it,” he says.

A day on the road with the Nowacoskis shows how exhausting and costly e-commerce can be.

The couple rise at dawn to feed the chickens, then battle icy roads, burning through gasoline — all to “build baskets” of items like cheese curds, lettuce and sourdough loaves for a relatively small number of families who are willing to pay for the service.

— 7:09 a.m.

Dressed in overalls and a purple sweatshirt, David Nowacoski walks over to a shed that smells like diesel fuel, dirt and garlic. He mixes garlic powder into the chicken feed as a natural antibiotic.

Nowacoski raises about 4,000 chickens a year for meat and an additional 600 hens for eggs. In warmer months, the birds live in fields, eating grass, herbs and insects. But on a morning like this — with the temperature around 18 degrees and a snowy mist making it feel even colder — the chickens are kept in a coop with a vaulted ceiling and walls made of clear plastic.

Nowacoski walks among the birds, carrying a blue feed bucket in each hand. The hens flock to him, while the rooster hangs back, crowing with jealousy and alarm.

“That bird hates me,” Nowacoski says.

With the chickens fed, we walk down a winding dirt road to the pig pen. The sky has gone from light purple to blue-gray, and the snow has stopped.

The pigs are still sleeping when we poke our heads into their hut, carpeted with hay. They lie side by side like a band of brothers — warm, plump and blissfully unaware that they have about three weeks left on Earth.

“Yeah, boys. Yeah, boys,” Nowacoski calls to them.

Most of the 300-pound pigs are opting to sleep in, but a few amble out onto the snowy ground, grunting, snorting and looking for breakfast.

Nowacoski rubs and scratches their haunches vigorously, sizing up their meat.

Confirmed. Three weeks left.

— 9:10 a.m.

A pot of coffee brews in the kitchen, and bacon sizzles on the stove. Marla Nowacoski stands at the counter organizing online orders on her tablet.

There are two dozen orders this week, up from just two during their first week in business.

The Nowacoskis grew up in East Smithfield, a town of about 200 residents 75 miles west of Scranton.

Friends since high school, they got married and moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where David Nowacoski worked for an employee benefits firm.

In 1993, they returned to East Smithfield and bought 80 acres of rolling fields, maple groves and a swamp that they dug out into a lake stocked with catfish and largemouth bass.

Like many farms in the area, the Nowacoskis’ land sits above the Marcellus Shale formation, a huge natural gas deposit. The couple lease some of their land to gas companies for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

When gas prices were high, the Nowacoskis received enough money to send two of their three children to college without amassing debt. But as prices slumped, the infusion of wealth from the fracking boom all but evaporated.

“Everyone thought they would be millionaires,” David Nowacoski says. “Then it just stopped.”

The gas money is vanishing while milk prices are also low, putting pressure on farms and the broader economy.

The Nowacoskis hope their e-commerce business, Delivered Fresh, can help farmers find new markets for their milk, meat and produce.

Every week, shoppers can log into the Delivered Fresh website and pick from a range of locally produced foods. The offerings will grow more bountiful as the weather turns warmer — carrots, beets, kale and potatoes.

The Nowacoskis spend Wednesdays picking up food from as many as 20 farms — a loop that sometimes totals 300 miles. They make deliveries on Thursdays and Fridays.

For now, most orders are dropped off at central locales like farm stands or church parking lots. Eventually, David Nowacoski hopes to expand delivery directly to the homes of as many customers as he can.

He buys the items from the farmers at a discount and charges a premium to customers, generating a 25 percent margin that pays for gas, the software he uses to process the orders and advertising.

It is not clear how many shoppers can afford “pasture raised” chicken breasts that cost $7.95 a pound in an area where household incomes are far below the national median.

“People ask, ‘Why do you cost so much?'” Nowacoski says. “The better question is how are others like Walmart able to sell it so cheaply?”

— 10:36 a.m.

With the minivan loaded with three large coolers, the Nowacoskis pull out of their driveway and head west.

The first stop is a small dairy farm about 35 minutes away in Roseville, to pick up cheese. To reach the farm, we climb a long, lonely hill that cuts through a snow-encrusted field.

Near the top of the hill, we turn right and glide down a paved road that resembles a bobsled run. The cheese shop is at the bottom of the driveway, next to a barn.

Amanda Kennedy is in her “cheese room,” wearing a white smock. She got up at 1:30 in the morning to start making the cheese. She milked the cows at 3 and helped her three children onto the bus at around 7.

Kennedy, who was raised on a farm down the road, hopes that she can weather the turmoil in the dairy industry — which has been roiled by years of low milk prices — by finding a market for her specialty cheddar and dill cheese curds.

Most people are not going to make regular trips to a local farm for a block of cheese, Kennedy says. “The biggest thing I struggle with is getting the cheese into the customer’s hands,” she says.

Marla Nowacoski packs the curds into a cooler and leaves Kennedy a check for $24, and we are back on the road.

— 1:10 p.m.

After dropping off chicken thighs at a tavern along the way, the Nowacoskis drive to Milky Way Farms in Troy, Pennsylvania, to pick up bottles of milk for the week’s online orders.

The lunch menu at the Milky Way restaurant features broccoli salad, vegetable beef soup, lemon pineapple cake and gluten-free bread. The hamburgers are made from beef raised at a farm next door.

We arrive at the restaurant, two weeks before it closes for good. The couple who own it, Ann and Kim Seeley, decided to shut down the family business after 55 years.

“It is the middle of lunch time,” Ann Seeley says, taking our order. “And there is nobody here.”

Tourist traffic to the area has dropped, her husband says, and most people no longer take time to sit down for lunch.

Even as the restaurant fades, Kim Seeley will keep running a store at the farm that sells his chocolate milk, ice cream and eggnog. He is counting on online deliveries to extend his reach farther.

“We have high hopes,” he says.

Fred McNeal, another farmer, joins us for lunch. He runs a farm market in Towanda, Pennsylvania, called Farmer Fred’s that sells everything from lawn furniture to turkey bone broth and garden seeds.

McNeal says he never worried about competition from Amazon until the company bought Whole Foods last June. He is convinced that Amazon will find a way to deliver fresh food locally, eating into the market for local goods.

“We see this coming,” McNeal says. “We have to figure out how to give customers what they want or we are going to be another story about a business that didn’t adapt.”

After lunch, the Nowacoskis return to their farm to pick up heads of lettuce and then drive to a bakery, minutes before it closes at 4:30 p.m. The couple have been on the road for more than six hours.

They will visit more farms the next day.

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