How does Red Tomato get the product from farm, orchard, or warehouse to the store for the consumer’s grocery basket?
Lots of eaters are aware of their food as it relates to a local or regional farm or the grocery store, but the journey between these two points can often seem a big mystery.
It’s unsurprising that this critical link isn’t at the forefront of most minds; it’s a largely hidden part of the supply chain. But once you see it, you realize it’s everywhere. There are literally thousands of people along this supply chain in the Northeast, and we’d like to shed more light on their fascinating contributions.
Food transportation often happens in the middle of the night, with trucks picking up from farms and bringing food to loading docks tucked away on the backside of a warehouse or store.
Truck and warehouse names don’t show up on tomatoes or apples, or anywhere else visible to most of us. We might be aware of them in the abstract, or as they drive by on our roads, but rarely think “this truck is bringing my strawberries to the store.”
Almost everything we touch, own, or eat, was moved on a truck. Even for people who live off the grid may use building materials, or farming inputs– watering systems for example – that brought from somewhere on trucks large or small.
Trucking can be a huge missing link for small and mid scale farms. Like so many industries, food distribution is generally more cost-efficient at large scale. It costs less per box to ship a full truckload of produce to a single warehouse or grocery store than to ship lots of small orders to lots of individual stores. If you don’t have the supply or demand to fill a truck, you’re left having to ship partial trucks (less than a load, or LTL) at greater cost. Mid-sized farmers may not have all the distribution infrastructure – such as refrigerated storage, or docks that can handle both pickup and semi trucks – required to support their operations. As a result they must pay temporary and long-term storage fees, which can quickly add up. And those costs are either absorbed by the farm, or passed on to the consumer.
For large farms, full truckloads are usually shipped to a grocery chain warehouse, and distributed from there to each individual store. Few stops and full loads mean produce can be shipped less expensively. This is why, in part, apples from New Zealand for example, can show up fresh on grocery shelves in the Northeast for a lower price than something grown a few miles away.
This is where local logistics companies and food hubs like Red Tomato come into play. By working with many local and regional growers in our network, we are able to coordinate loads from smaller local farms into one truckload to a grocer’s or distributor’s warehouse. From there, a smaller truck delivers Northeast grown apples to the grocery store. Where a single farm might not be able to achieve these efficiencies on their own, by working together their local produce becomes more accessible, which is good for the farmer and for the grocer.
Enter Red Tomato’s logistics partners. Some of the growers we work with also provide logistics and trucking services for their own produce as well as other farms. For example, Plainville Farms in Hadley, MA, is a key link in the supply chain that allows Red Tomato to coordinate shipments from numerous farms to be sent together to customers in Boston and elsewhere. (Learn more.)
We also work with produce distributors who supply stores and institutions all over the region, and with trucking and logistics companies that specialize in shipping and handling refrigerated produce. We choose our partners carefully, and continually ask our growers and customers who they use, and who they know. We look for a good match in terms of service area and capacity, and also for companies that share our commitment to careful handling, honest communication, and top quality. Logistics partners rely on finding efficiencies within their network. When a Red Tomato pick-up is geographically close to another pick-up, the logistics company is better able to aggregate loads, saving the trucker, Red Tomato, and ultimately the consumer, money.
Providing this value isn’t easy. Especially with produce – it’s a jigsaw puzzle combined with a juggling act combined with a race against rotting! Whether it’s aggregating loads, timing of trucks farther down the road, or tight regulations of driver hours, delivering produce is no small feat. Products have to be shipped in a timely manner, and this is one of the biggest challenges for a logistics company handling many small orders and deliveries. Truckers are heavily regulated, legally allowed to drive only a certain number of continuous hours per shift. Warehouses accept deliveries only at specific times. Even with multiple shifts, product sometimes doesn’t arrive when you want it to.
At Red Tomato we champion logistics: the act of getting produce from one location to the next. Our logistics partners and the farmers we work with are part of a team. The people who unload trucks, receive product, perform quality checks, inventory, load outbound loads – the staff of a logistics or distributor partner are all key partners in a system that operates while most of us sleep.
The Last Mile Connection
Distributors deliver product directly to stores. They are the solution to what’s referred to as, “the last mile problem” – how to get the product from warehouse or store to the consumers’ door. Logistics is simple when you need to move a whole truckload of product to one or two destinations. But when you have to make 50 deliveries in a morning, the complexity, and the number of trucks and miles, compounds. And with online ordering and home delivery options expanding rapidly, the last-mile solution is now being filled by a wide array of players, including traditional distributors and third-party delivery services.
At Red Tomato we rely on delivery partners that are already set up to make these types of deliveries, rather than handling the deliveries ourselves. Our role is to coordinate and manage the logistics to ensure that produce moves from the farm, to the warehouse, store or household, in peak condition, at a reasonable cost, with a transparent process so everyone in the chain can see who and what is involved. Working with multiple partners allows us to get the job done. And ultimately that means, getting the freshest, cleanest produce to you, the eater.