Kahty Chen Milstead sells microgreens through Rogue Valley Local Foods.

Gourmet to go

Stephanie Nelson works just a stone's throw from the Thursday farmers market in south Medford, yet she experiences the event only from her office window.

By the time Nelson can take her lunch break at Rogue Federal Credit Union, market vendors are packing up their local produce, meat, eggs, cheese and specialty foods. But that doesn't mean she misses out. With just a click of her computer mouse, Nelson orders up all these items from the market's online counterpart — Rogue Valley Local Foods — for weekly delivery to her workplace.

"I just think it's great," says the assistant automated services manager for Rogue Federal.

"The eggs are better to me — they're fresher," says Nelson. "You can taste the difference."

Eggs and many other items are identical to those found at local farmers markets, but Rogue Valley Local Foods also nurtures a new crop of growers entering the field. The economic-development and food advocacy group THRIVE opened the online sales platform for start-up farmers in June to appeal to customers who otherwise don't shop at local growers markets.

"In order to make small-scale agriculture viable in the Rogue Valley, we're going to need all these different options," says Wendy Siporen, THRIVE's executive director.

About a dozen cities between California and Canada are home to online farmers markets. Unlike those, Rogue Valley Local Foods operates on a nonprofit basis, with partial grant funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Cow Creek Umpqua Indian Foundation.

The grants have supported growth of Kahty Chen Milstead's Salad Days, which sells microgreens online and began delivering the typically gourmet garnish to food-pantry and community-meal programs in July. Milstead was mentored in the new Southern Oregon Farmer Incubator program, a collaboration between THRIVE and Oregon State University Extension. The former developed Rogue Valley Local Foods in March as an initial point of sale for Milstead and other Incubator participants.

"It really lets me focus on quality rather than quantity," says Milstead, adding that she receives between seven and 11 weekly orders for microgreens through Rogue Valley Local Foods.

Farmers like Milstead bring their goods to THRIVE's Ashland offices, where employees and volunteers assemble customer orders for delivery to three sites with cold-storage facilities between Medford and Grants Pass. Rogue Federal and Harry & David also have agreed to serve as drop points and promote the program among their employees.

'This was just a good fit for us, and they made it easy,' says Jim DeBoer, marketing coordinator for Rogue Federal, which links its internal website to www.roguevalleylocalfoods.org.

Picking up her week's produce was as easy for Kerrie Davis as walking to Rogue Federal's employee break room. Her 10-gallon plastic bin contained 2 pounds of green beans, two sweet onions, six yellow summer squash and six cucumbers purchased for prices comparable to supermarkets, says Davis. Pint baskets of strawberries promised flavor beyond compare, she adds.

"These are so much better than the ones you get in the store."

The credit union's community and education outreach coordinator, Davis also works part time at Macy's, takes community-college classes and is usually too busy to shop. Inconvenient weekday hours are the largest barrier between most local farmers markets and prospective customers, according to a 2008 THRIVE survey, says Siporen.

"We have loyal customers who have ordered every single week," she says.

Since opening June 11, the market has registered 385 customers and 30 vendors, not all of whom buy and sell every week, says Siporen. A Eugene online market that served as THRIVE's model reported 2009 revenue between $80,000 and $100,000, representing 50 to 60 orders per week.

Siporen and farmers say they anticipate increased demand as the concept catches on and with the onset of winter. Rogue Valley Local Foods will continue to do business between late November and mid-March when most local farmers markets shut down for the season.

"This will be a new option this year for people," says Siporen. "There will be a lot of greens and squashes and root crops."

While THRIVE guarantees product quality, farmers set their own prices and compete with other vendors selling similar items. Customers get to choose which businesses they want to support. Some even seem to be sampling, trying the same product from a different farmer each week, says Siporen.

"Our mission is to grow the pie," she says.

THRIVE obtained approval last month to accept Oregon Trail cards — formerly known as food stamps — for purchases of Rogue Valley Local Foods and soon plans to solicit customer donations of farmer surplus for area food banks.

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