From Our Farms to Your Table

The Farmhouse Food co-op is run by seven member farms from Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec.

If you’re reading this, you know that farming is not an easy business. Long hours, unpredictable weather, hard physical labour and fluctuating prices are familiar to all farmers. Small farms marketing their products directly to consumers face the added tasks of marketing, selling and distributing goods to a large number of customers. How many small farmers have had the thought that it would be more efficient for one vehicle to bring several farms’ goods to market, rather than so many farmers giving up their weekend to drive and stand around at the same market?

This idea rolled around in Paul Slomp’s brain for awhile. A regenerative grass-fed beef farmer in Western Quebec, Paul wanted to reduce the burden of direct marketing and distribution on individual farms. He also envisioned more opportunities for farmers to sell their food locally, creating better access for eaters.

Paul started asking farmer friends if they were interested in a collective marketing project. In spring 2019, six farms met in person (imagine that, before Covid!) to discuss what such a collaboration might look like. There were four vegetable producers, one meat producer, and a sheep farm producing cheese and lamb. The farms were distributed throughout Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec, with Ottawa-Gatineau as a central market for everyone.

We started by researching other collective farm projects, including marketing co-operatives like Eat Local Grey Bruce (northwest of Toronto) and food hubs like the Two Rivers Food Hub (in Smiths Falls). Based on the needs and interests of our group, we eventually decided to pursue a multi-farm CSA approach, aggregating our products into a diverse preset offering. Our pilot project in November 2019 was a one-time Harvest Box for pick-up in Ottawa, including veggies, cheese, meat, and sauerkraut. With the sale of 220 boxes, and a positive experience working together, the farms concluded that this was a venture worth pursuing further.

Farmhouse Food's Harvest Boxes include local and sustainable produce, eggs, cheese, meat, and more.

Our plan for 2020 was to offer a series of monthly Harvest Boxes from June through December, with home delivery throughout Ottawa-Gatineau. Then in March, virtually overnight, everything changed. Covid-19 brought the indefinite closure of farmers markets and restaurants, leaving farmers with no sales outlet for crops already in the ground, or animals already on the farm. Meanwhile, supply chain disruptions were creating empty shelves at grocery stores; social distancing meant long lineups at the store, and lockdown left many people anxious to even leave their house. Our group decided that if there was ever a good time to launch a multi-farm, local food CSA with home delivery, this was it.

We doubled our delivery schedule to every two weeks, and sold out 200 shares with no paid advertising. It was a scramble to get up and running in time for the first June boxes. We incorporated as a producer co-operative and hired one of the farmers as General Manager in April, built a website and launched sales in May, and hired 2 part-time box packers when deliveries began in June. We sourced additional local items like eggs, honey, strawberries, grains, maple syrup, and apples to round out the veggies, cheese and meat in the boxes. Space was rented in a refrigerated warehouse in Ottawa where farmers deliver their goods each week. Our small but mighty team assembles the boxes, and a local delivery company brings them to customers’ doorsteps.

With all of the founding farms committed to ecological sustainability and local food systems, we wanted the co-operative to reflect our values. All produce and eggs in the boxes must be certified organic. Meat and cheese, which are harder to certify, must meet a series of criteria around humane animal treatment and ecological production methods. Supplemental items are organic whenever possible, and every product in the boxes is produced within 150 km of Parliament Hill. Transparency is also key: customers are informed of the origin of each product in every box, and can find information on all participating farms on our website. Our goal is to make it easy and meaningful to eat locally, allowing a wider audience to try the CSA model.

The pandemic gave rise to an explosion of home delivery options for food. From ‘click and collect’ groceries, to meal kits, to subscriptions for just about any food you can think of, businesses large and small have pivoted to meet the needs of lockdown and social distancing. In order to distinguish ourselves from the competition, Farmhouse Food needs to clearly define our niche. Our value proposition is to bring together the best quality foods produced in our region, curate a diverse seasonal selection, and bring them conveniently to your door. By buying a Farmhouse Food box, you are directly supporting multiple small farms in your community, and keeping your food dollars in the local economy.

Working collaboratively with other farmers has been a real source of inspiration!

Now in our second year, we’re making improvements to our planning and products. In 2020 we had to work with the crops that member farms had already planned to grow – seed orders had been made and seedlings started by the time we got to sourcing specific items for boxes. This year, we were able to plan ahead and adjust our crop plans with the Harvest Boxes in mind. This allowed us to source a higher portion of box contents internally from co-op member farms, and to offer a better variety. We’ve also established standardized pricing and product criteria for specific items. This ensures that the co-op pays the same amount for a bunch of carrots, and the customer receives a consistently-sized carrot bunch, no matter which farm produces it.

With a full-time staff of three, the farmer members still put in a huge amount of work into running the business. Members sit on the board of directors and on committees, from Marketing to Sourcing to Logistics to Membership, which guide the co-op’s activities and develop policy. We’ve chosen to keep the group relatively small as we get established, both to make sure the business is viable for the founding members, and to maintain the ease of working as a group. As we expand, our goal is to include a wider range of local producers and products in the co-op.

Despite all the extra meetings, communication and admin tasks, the farmer members feel their experience in the co-op has been very positive. In a recent visioning session, members shared their reasons for continuing to work together. These included a supportive peer group to problem-solve and to lean on, an additional marketing outlet that diversifies income sources, and economies of scale that allow us to offer features as a group that we couldn’t on our own, such as home delivery in refrigerated trucks. Less tangible, but equally important, is the sense of shared purpose, of collaborating rather than competing with each other. Instead of all driving to the farmer’s market, setting up our own stall, and hoping customers will come to our booth, we have created shared goals that benefit us all, as well as eaters in our community.

The biggest challenge of working as a cooperative is negotiating the diverse needs and personalities of so many individuals and businesses. Communications are time-consuming, decision-making can be slow, and everyone needs to be willing to put the co-op’s interest ahead of their own at times. Significant time goes into resolving differences, and creating policies and standards that work for everyone. For other farms interested in collaborative marketing we suggest starting small, with a specific project to test the viability and to build relationships. Give yourselves time and patience to learn how to work together and to figure out the details of your business model. We think of Farmhouse Food as a long-term investment in the future of our businesses and our food system.

As our second season of Harvest Box deliveries draws to a close, Farmhouse Food is looking ahead. Our Harvest Box CSA has grown to 300 members, and the co-op is exploring other local outlets for our products. Our vision is to create a healthier alternative to the globalized, industrial food system by rebuilding the infrastructure and capacity for local food systems to thrive – together.

Leela Ramachandran is the General Manager of the Farmhouse Food co-operative, and a co-owner of Bluegrass Farm near Smiths Falls. Co-op members also include Grazing Days Farm, Juniper Farm, Ferme Pleine Lune, Agricola Farm, Ottawa Farm Fresh and Milkhouse Dairy. To learn more about Farmhouse Food, please visit

Farmhouse Food

One thought on “Farmhouse Food

  • November 30, 2021 at 11:21 pm

    Hi , I liked your article and appreciate all the hard work that went into this project. It is clear there is a demand for this kind of local food delivery and support for the local farmers. I am a hobby beekeeper, can you tell me approximately how much honey would be needed and if you already have a beekeeper. The farm where I keep my bees also grows a lot of produce and might be interested in participating. Please let me know how I would go about discussing the possibilities of supplying the Farmhouse Food coop?

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