Virtual Horse-Drawn Buggy Delivers Farm Fresh Food

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The Local Food Movement, Part II*

by Clover Carroll

*Note: for last month’s article on the local food movement, with definitions of terms used here, click here.

brett_wilson
Brett Wilson, Horse and Buggy Produce

Are you ready to diversify your culinary portfolio? Want to try some new veggies, spruce up those old stand-by dishes, and ramp up the taste and nutritional value of your family’s meals? Here’s how: pay a visit to Horse & Buggy Produce Local Natural Foods Cooperative. You can either sign up online for shares (there’s still time) or come out behind the clock tower at Old Trail on Saturday mornings from 8:30 to 10:30 and buy from the a la carte table—which you will find piled high with succulent fresh local produce, homemade bread, and fresh-laid eggs. It’s like having your own vegetable garden and fruit orchard, but without the back-breaking work. And when they say “fresh-picked,” they mean picked that morning or at most the afternoon before!

Although my conscience is what led me to sign up—to support local farmers, save the planet, eat more nutritious food, and save time and money–an unexpected benefit has been the sheer variety of produce that awaits me every Saturday morning. As I make my way down the long table, weighing and helping myself to designated quantities of the biggest, ripest, most mouth-watering lettuce, tomatoes, asparagus, cabbage, blueberries, mushrooms, broccoli, corn, and squash that I’ve ever seen, I am always surprised and delighted to find some interesting veggie that I’ve never tried—like rhubarb, beets, Swiss chard, or kohlrabi. If you’re like me, you tend to cook what’s familiar, and I would never have picked up most of these healthful and delicious new items at the grocery store. As it is, this summer I have learned to cook all kinds of new dishes, and enjoyed (almost) every minute of it. Fortunately, Horse & Buggy provides lots of recipes for these lesser-known treats on their website. I also signed up for bread, dairy, and meat—including fresh Virginia brook trout that is out of this world. And I don’t even bait a hook!

Horse and Buggy is a modified CSA, or Community-Supported Agriculture cooperative, in which consumers buy “shares” in a farm (or group of farms), thus financing the farmer’s investments up front and then reaping the harvest throughout the growing season. I say modified because Brett Wilson, Horse & Buggy’s founder, contracts with scores of small farmers, all from within a 100-mile radius of Charlottesville—including the Shenandoah Valley, Nelson, Albemarle, and other surrounding counties—to buy and distribute their fresh produce, dairy, meat, fish, baked goods, and honey, all raised organically and with as little spraying or chemical fertilization as possible. He consults with the farmers to let them know what is in demand, and seeks out specialty items like blueberries and shitake mushrooms.

It’s not too late to sign up for this year at the Single, Couple, or Family-sized share levels, You can subscribe to your choice of produce, eggs, bread, granola, chicken, beef, pork, or trout. All the meat is pasture-raised without antibiotics or hormones. Each Wednesday, Thursday, or Saturday (depending on where you live), you receive your portion of whatever is in season—from spinach to turnips to mushrooms to maple syrup—plus a consistent supply of bread, eggs, and/or whatever meats you’ve signed up for.

There is always the a la carte table where you can buy extra produce or specialty items. The cost for produce alone is about $30 a week for the Family share; I pay $200/month for a Singles share of the whole kit and kaboodle. Best of all, Horse & Buggy does all the traveling for me, and delivers this fresh, wholesome local food right here to Crozet from mid-April through mid-December (eight months in all). Take it from me, better food you have never tasted!

The Horse and Buggy stand at Old Trail.
The Horse and Buggy stand at Old Trail.

So whose idea was this, anyway? And how does a 6’5” Yale graduate from Oregon who trained for the 1992 Olympic rowing team end up running a pioneering local food business that sells family farm produce all over Central Virginia? Brett Wilson, the tall, curly-headed, ebullient proprietor of Horse & Buggy, is passionate about food, and a born entrepreneur with a gift for making things happen and enough charm to win over the crustiest curmudgeon. Growing up on a farm in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, young Brett raised sheep as an Future Farmers of America project and developed a deep love for the outdoors and for family farming. After earning a BA in economics at Yale and coaching rowing in Chicago, he moved to Charlottesville to start the Rivanna Rowing Club (he is still an active rower, though his growing business does not allow much time for it). But his hobbies always seemed to involve food, and always seemed to lead to business opportunities.

First, he picked up abandoned apples from around Crozet, borrowed a cider press, and started selling cider; next, he began growing spray-free tomatoes in his garden and supplying local chefs with the overflow crop. At that time his customers included Keswick Hall, with which he still has a strong relationship, the Clifton Inn, and various downtown restaurants (who knew the effect of fresh local produce on the taste of their cooking!). When he found he couldn’t keep up with the demand, Brett saw another entrepreneurial opportunity, and began looking around the area for local produce to supplement his own. He heard about an auction in the Shenandoah Valley where many local farmers, many of them Mennonites, had formed a cooperative to sell produce. So in August 2005, he headed over the mountain to discover a bonanza of fresh vegetables, flowers, and other products at great prices. And he passes those savings on to his customers, charging much lower prices than the high-end organic grocery stores.

One day as he was delivering to restaurants in Charlottesville, a woman noticed the variety of great-looking fresh vegetables in his truck and commented that she wished she could buy it. Having been disappointed in her own CSA experience, she knew many friends who would do the same. And thus the idea for Horse and Buggy Produce was born—a subscription-based local food cooperative that would gather produce from many farms and distribute it on this side of the Blue Ridge.

He set up shop in of Charlottesville’s Ix building, and only moved to his new warehouse in the Woolen Mills district this year. Horse & Buggy Produce Natural Foods Cooperative started its first season in spring of 2006 with the motto of “good food for good folks.” With demand quickly growing beyond the ability of one person to do it all, he hired April Muniz as operations manager the next year. The company now distributes food seven times a week at four drop-off locations in Charlottesville, plus one in Lynchburg, and one in Richmond—where Carytown’s upscale Elwood Thompson grocery store asked him to deliver in their parking lot to satisfy the growing number of customers seeking local produce, which it is difficult logistically for large chain grocers to acquire. He met recently with Giant Foods in Charlottesville to discuss a similar arrangement at their Seminole Square store. Since its beginning in 2006, Horse & Buggy has grown from an initial 285 customers to 1,200 last year; this number has fallen slightly this year due to the economic downturn—but this is surprising since their produce is so inexpensive. Brett admitted that he needs more Crozet subscribers in order to continue delivering here profitably.

April Muniz
April Muniz, Horse and Buggy Produce

Brett‘s passion for food, family farming, quality, and value—not to mention health—are what motivate him to work 12- to 14-hour days, 6 days a week to bring fresh, organic produce and other products to his customers. His busy schedule has its costs, however. “My dream is to have time to volunteer for the Boys Club or Habitat for Humanity,” he declared wistfully. At one Charlottesville 10-miler recently, he handed out 650 heads of lettuce to the runners—free. When asked what he enjoys most about his job, Brett responded with typical enthusiasm. “When someone like you comes up and tells me that this is the best food they’ve ever eaten, and thanks me for all my hard work, that’s what makes it worth it: the gratification I get from knowing how happy and satisfied my customers are.”

When asked about the future of the local food movement, Brett is realistic. “I believe the local food movement will continue to grow,” he said, “but at the same time it has its limitations. Some people will buy local regardless, but most demand convenience and economy. No matter how good it is for the planet or how much sense it makes for the local economy, we need to continue to provide food that tastes better than the alternative, at convenient times and locations, and to offer it at an affordable price. We need to make people aware of the value that comes with the CSA model. Our produce is much cheaper than the retail stores, and we plan to remain that way.”

My personal favorite from Horse & Buggy is their whole free-range chickens. Weighing about 3 lbs., these chickens are more muscular than factory-produced chickens and therefore require more cooking time, but man are they flavorful! To cook one of these healthful chickens, I either baste it liberally with barbecue sauce or stuff it with herb dressing (see recipe below), and cook it on a low 325° heat for about 3 hours. Believe me, chicken never tasted so good!

Herbed Mushroom Stuffing

Note: I make this stuffing with whatever I have on hand, so feel free to alter the ingredients according to your taste and/or convenience. For example, you might add nuts, oysters, use corn bread, or etc.

Put all ingredients in a large bowl and stir to moisten:

8-12 slices whole wheat bread (stale or toasted), torn in small pieces
½ onion, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
8 oz. mushrooms, finely chopped
4 Tbsp. fresh or 1 Tbsp. dried parsley (or to taste)
1 Tbsp. fresh or 1 tsp. rubbed sage (or to taste)
2 Tbsp. fresh or 1 Tbsp. dried rosemary (or to taste)
2 Tbsp. fresh or 1 tsp. dried thyme (or to taste)
salt & pepper to taste
½ c. butter, melted
½ –1 c. vegetable or chicken broth (until moistened)

Visit the Horse & Buggy website (www.horseandbuggyproduce.com) for many more recipes, to subscribe, or to read testimonials from other enthusiastic fans like me. To learn more about why it is important to eat local, go see Food Inc., now playing at Vinegar Hill Theatre. http://www.foodincmovie.com.