Call it the Amazon effect: A farmers market delivered in a box

WOOLWICH TOWNSHIP — Call it a farmers market in a box.

Open the box and find a dozen different farm-fresh vegetables and fruits picked, packed, and hand-delivered to your doorstep within 24 hours. And while all of the produce was locally sourced, some of it was grown using such newfangled farming methods as hydroponics and ground-up coconut shells instead of dirt.

“These days, people really want to know where their food is coming from … but maybe they don’t have time to get to a farmers’ market. Or it’s wintertime and they don’t want their produce coming from Chile or Mexico. And there is real concern these days about GMOs and industrialized farming and the issues that may be creating for the consumer,” said Kris Wilson, 46, of Sorbello Farms, who along with three partners last year converted part of his third-generation farm operation into what is known as a CSA.

And the idea goes well beyond a clever marketing strategy to sell produce, Wilson said.

In a CSA, or “community supported agriculture,” a farm partners with community members to produce its crops under a membership agreement. The agreement allows the farmer to know just how much of a particular crop to grow in a calendar year — and guarantees the farmer the sale of the produce — while assuring members they will receive their share of fresh fruits and vegetables. The items delivered are determined by what is in season.

“Our strategy cuts out the middleman — the produce broker, the supermarket — and allows the consumer to come directly to the farmer, without actually having to go to the farm, to get their food,” said Steve Vazquez, 47, one of Wilson’s partners in the enterprise.

Wilson admits his 81-year-old uncle, Tom Sorbello, whose father started the farm in 1932, was at first skeptical about making the leap to a CSA. They had been operating, and still do operate, a wholesale business that sells to Walmart, Chipotle and Taco Bell, among others. But he was eventually able to convince the elder to get on board.

“At first, he just didn’t think it would work … that people would want to come home and find a box of produce sitting on their doorstep,” Wilson said. “But the Amazon effect is very strong and people like seeing that box waiting for them.”

Camera icon CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer
At Sorbello Farms, partners Steve Vazquez (left), and Kris Wilson check on the growth of bib lettuce growing in one of their greenhouses in Woolwich Township, Gloucester County.

Sorbello’s CSA has grown to 1,300 members since it began operating in the spring of 2016.  Much of the produce is grown on Sorbello’s farms in Woolwich and Pilesgrove Townships, while some is sourced from other local farmers. Members can also go to Sorbello’s website and add meat and poultry to their box for an additional charge.

And instead of growing everything in the ground, thus limiting the growing season to only the summer months,  Sorbello’s has some crops grown year-around inside greenhouses using hydroponics, in which the plant is grown in water, or in a coconut-fiber growing medium that supplies nutrients faster. As much as 800 acres worth of produce can be grown inside one acre of greenhouse space, using less water, Wilson said.

Growing inside makes Sorbello’s crops non-dependent on weather or pesticides. Some of the produce could be considered organic, although the farm has not officially acquired the designation because not everything it produces meets organic requirements.

While Sorbello’s delivers its boxes in four New Jersey counties — Gloucester, Salem, Camden and Cumberland — and parts of Delaware, Wilson said delivery will expand within the next 45 days to include all of the continental United States, by UPS. They have the capacity to serve as many as 10,000 CSA members with their current 3,000 acres and 20 greenhouses, Wilson said.

Customer Liz Parks, 41, of Pennsville, said finding the box waiting for her when she gets home on Tuesday afternoons is “like getting a Christmas present.”

“When it arrives, my kids want to open it up right away and see what’s in it,” Parks said. “It’s great to think that a box of vegetables can spark that much excitement among teenagers, but it does. And I feel like I’m always getting more than my money’s worth in that box.”

A recent Sorbello’s delivery included a head of hydroponically grown bib lettuce, green beans, apples, peppers, onions, squash, plum tomatoes, cucumbers, both sweet and white potatoes, carrots, and corn.

Sorbello Farms is among a growing number of CSAs in the region. It is estimated there are a half-dozen in South Jersey, and one of the oldest in the nation, Kimberton, has been operating in Phoenixville, Pa., since 1987.

There are as many as 10,000 CSAs across the country, according to Steven McFadden, a New Mexico-based expert who has written books on the topic and writes a blog called the “Call of the Land.”

“My feeling is that, especially as the uncertainties of climate change and corporate-industrial agriculture intensify, CSA has an important destiny for households and communities in North America, as well as in Europe, Africa, Australia and elsewhere,” McFadden said in a phone interview Friday.

McFadden said, however, that CSAs may be reaching a plateau — precisely because of grocery and meal-delivery services such as Blue Apron and others.

“A CSA delivery actually requires you to figure out what to cook to utilize the produce that is sent to you,” McFadden said. “Services like Blue Apron take the guesswork out of it.”

McFadden said CSAs operate under various operating methods and missions. Some are faith-based operations — an area that he says is expanding — while others focus on eco-agriculture, such as using less water and fewer or no pesticides.

The pricing and contents of the boxes vary, too.

Sorbello’s CSA members pay a $25 annual fee and then receive weekly or bi-weekly shipments of produce at $25 a box, including delivery.

At A.T. Buzby Farms CSA in Woodstown, Salem County, where the family has operated a farm market and a wholesale produce operation since 1981, a CSA began operation seven years ago. Buzby’s members pay upfront — $495 for a full share to feed up to a family of eight or $275 for a half share — for a 20-week growing season.

“As farmers, we appreciate the fact that people have begun to care where their food comes from,” said Dawn Buzby, who started the farm with her husband, Andrew.