Local grower finds success with a new twist on a familiar concept
For Pam Bramlett, buying local is more than just a trendy concept — it’s her life’s work.
The self-proclaimed “flavor junkie” had been planting herbs for her own kitchen for years. When she realized she was not alone in her desire for the fresh taste and chemical-free benefits of home-grown thyme and rosemary, she started Lulu’s Herb Garden, a herb farm in Baldwin City.
But the business of herbs is tricky. Farming is difficult enough, but growing finicky basil and thyme rather than tomatoes or cucumbers makes the stakes even higher.
Bramlett knew of the popular community-supported agriculture (CSA) movement, in which individuals commit to purchasing local produce on a continual schedule throughout the growing season. But for an herb garden, Bramlett felt that concept would not be feasible.
“People do not buy enough herbs on their own to really sell them retail,” Bramlett said. “So we thought to look at restaurants and see about expanding our market there.”
Bramlett's research found farmers in other parts of the country who participate in "restaurant-supported agriculture" (RSA), a concept similar to CSA that partners growers with restaurants, rather than direct consumers.
She adapted the concept to her own business, offering reduced rates to restaurants that sign on for regular herb deliveries for an extended period. For example, If a restaurant orders 5 pounds of herbs once a week for the entire season, they receive a 50-cent discount per pound.
Area restaurants, as it turned out, also liked the idea of subscribing to a steady supply of herbs.
“It was really a great discovery for us, a happy accident,” Bramlett said. “It was so easy to sell. Our chefs signed on immediately.”
Local restaurants such as 715 and Pachamama’s now receive Lulu’s herbs throughout the season and many restaurants Lulu’s had been working with prior to the introduction of the RSA concept have doubled and tripled their orders.
Brian Phillips, store manager at Community Mercantile, said the Merc’s Deli has bought from Lulu’s for the past 2 summers, but this year's RSA agreement made business feel more personal. The Merc, which spends about $1.25 million a year on local foods, has committed to buying 10 pounds of herbs a week from Lulu’s this season.
“Our kitchen loves it because it feels like these herbs are being grown specially for us,” Phillips said. “It is almost like I can imagine our own little section of herbs growing in Lulu’s Garden.”
Not only did RSA boost Lulu’s sales, it also offered a way to bring in revenue during the offseason. Even before Bramlett’s herbs are ready for seasonal delivery, restaurants that commit to Lulu’s deliveries pay a portion of the costs in the spring, which Bramlett says is the most challenging time for growers.
“Like most farmers, we have almost all of our expenses during the front end of the growing season when we have almost no income,” Bramlett said. “We even had one customer who offered to pay the full amount ahead of time instead of paying weekly installments if it would help us out.”
Phillips, whose customers often come specifically for organic or homegrown food, says getting a little extra income for growers like Bramlett during that crucial time of year, benefits restaurants, as well.
“The hardest thing about local food is that the farmers have to have some guarantee the money is going to be there,” Phillips said. “RSA allows them to have capital available from the start to buy the equipment necessary to make sure they can continue to provide us quality produce we need throughout the season.”
Bramlett — who believes she's the only herb farm in the Midwest with an RSA program — believes the concept was a success because of the especially strong community commitment to buying local in Lawrence.
“This community is so receptive of local growers,” Bramlett said. “Chefs are so accessible and just the local culture is so supportive. It is a real treat growing here.”