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Tim Page is working hard to help change the world, one tomato at a time.

As the owner of Farmers Exchange of Earthly Delights (FEED) in Sebastopol, his plan involves fancy sounding mantras like “micro-regional aggregator,” “self-ownership” and “business as a biological structure.” But ultimately, it all comes down to a simple mission: getting food from Sonoma County farms onto our dinner tables.

For the past five years, FEED has been collecting produce, then selling it to Bay Area restaurants, caterers and grocery stores. It would be a basic concept, except that the organization focuses on small, family farmers. Most of FEED’s participating farms average 10 acres, while the smallest is just a half acre and the largest, County Line Harvest, spans 120 acres in Petaluma.

And in an uncommon business model, FEED operates with complete transparency, showcasing its partners so customers know exactly where their local produce comes from. No mass-batched fruits and vegetables from factory operations, here. Farms are either California Certified Organic Farmers accredited or cultivating with organic methods, with the owners themselves working the dirt.

“What it takes for the food system to operate may seem boring,” Page said on a recent morning as he stood in his warehouse in a quiet corner of the Barlow in downtown Sebastopol. “People assume it’s dialed in, that the food just shows up. But to really keep it all local and sustainable is intimidating.”

As much as 40 percent of the food in the United States goes to waste, according to an April report from the Natural Resources Defense Council of New York. And some 30 percent of fresh fruits and vegetables don’t even make it off farms due to cosmetic imperfections or busy farmers without time to act as their own marketing agents.

To find markets for commercially unsold produce, farmers may sell directly to subscribers or donate to local hunger relief organizations. But ultimately, those systems aren’t financially practical if they want to stay in business.

“Our mission is to create a vibrant, sustainable and fair food system by maximizing the ability of small farmers to sell their food through diverse marketing channels,” said Page. “We tackle the supply before it even has a chance to approach waste.”

Orders, harvest

Essentially, farmers tell FEED what they have ready to harvest on a Tuesday; FEED sends the composite list to its clients who place their orders Wednesday; and the farmers pick crops by 7 a.m. Thursday. The process happens at least twice a week.

The partnership has been a blessing for New Family Farm of Sebastopol, which has worked with FEED since the company’s inception. Formed by Ryan Power and Adam Davidoff in 2010 with 10 acres, New Family used to rely solely on time- and labor-intensive farmers’ markets for sales, with no guarantee that what they picked would find a dining table.

“FEED is an amazing service,” said Power, who is currently providing cilantro, beets, parsley, cabbage, Little Gem lettuce, fennel, chard and cauliflower. “Their system allows us to pick to order, so there is no waste. And the customers end up getting the freshest product available, because it is often delivered the same day we picked it.”

It’s like having his own sales and management team, he added.

“They are very supportive of small scale, local farms, and we work together so that everyone gets a fair share of the food dollar. They are able to sell to many accounts because they conglomerate all the local farms. If I called a restaurant, their order might be below $100, and that would not be worth my time to get it there.”

While FEED was founded in 2011, it’s the evolution of Terra Sonoma Produce, which began in 1979 as a west county farmer-owned wholesale operation run by Susan Stover and Tony Sadotti. When Page purchased the company, it worked with 14 farms and had one delivery truck for clients like Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

Today, FEED works with 60-plus farms, running four trucks to restaurants that include Spoonbar in Healdsburg, Diavolo in Geyserville, Farmhouse in Forestville and Revival in Guerneville. Page, 48, also has added periodic extras like eggs, mushrooms, honey, grains and olive oil.

Dressed in brown shorts, a blue FEED T-shirt, dusty boots and a railroad cap, Page doesn’t look the part of a financial wizard. But for the former institutional stockbroker turned what he calls “land worshipper,” much of the day is spent studying ways to keep his clients — and his own company — afloat.

He believes that realistic management, not just idealistic dreaming, is key to keeping such perishable commodities as miniature ball-shaped Thumbelina carrots and Italian heirloom Spigariello Riccia frilly kale moving smoothly from dirt to menus.

“We’re not a collective, but we’re not purely capitalist, either,” he said. “We’re a for-profit for distinct reasons, so we can make quick decisions and be nimble, while still being part of creating an evolution that supports the land and our relationship to it.”

Oliver’s Markets

It’s a theory that works for Michael Peterson, produce coordinator for Sonoma County’s four Oliver’s Markets. He has been sourcing from FEED for three years now, enjoying access to producers such as New Family Farm, Paul’s Produce of Sonoma, Live Oak Farm of Petaluma, Laguna Farm of Sebastopol, and First Light Farm of Petaluma.

“The word ‘local’ has become watered down from a marketing standpoint,” he said.

“But Oliver’s has a strict definition of local, meaning only Sonoma County. Tim and his team have really helped us get to the next level of delivering truly local produce to our customers. Although we have always sold some of it in our stores, our commitment to it now is so strong that there is simply a supply-side shortage.”

Chef Jesse Mallgren is another fan. Leading the kitchen at Madrona Manor in Healdsburg, he has worked with FEED for the past year to supplement the small amount of delicacies he grows in the hotel’s on-site garden.

“I love that I can choose which farm I am ordering from but don’t have to drive around picking things up,” he said.

“They are entirely seasonal, which forces chefs to use products that are at their best, like the green strawberries, potatoes, honey, apples, plums, peaches, duck eggs and seaweeds I’m using now.”

With its buying power, Oliver’s could work directly with farmers and save a few dollars, but constantly calling dozens of clients would be a nightmare, Peterson said. Finding enough truly local kale to handle burgeoning consumer demand can be a challenge, and Page also has insider contacts for Sonoma-grown delicacies like the heirloom green and yellow Romano beans and baby Japanese cucumbers plucked from a tiny plot that Page jokes is one of his only “secret” farms.

“Each of these orders takes time, phone calls, a check in, logging the invoice, off to accounting, processing, a check going out and doing it all over again in two days,” Peterson said. “If we did not have FEED, we would be doing that more than 50 times a week.”

Tracks trends

Further, Page acts as a one-stop line of communication for both the agricultural operations and the buying market. He tracks trends, such as the current cauliflower boom, and helps farmers set prices that customers are comfortable paying for a fair wholesale and retail exchange.

“Tim and his team can advocate for us on future buying and planting,” Peterson said. “For example, when I told him there is a huge demand for organic peaches and nectarines, he talked to Live Oak Farm and they actually put in trees for us. We’ll see that fruit in two years.”

In its short lifespan, FEED has built milestones, with more to come. Last October, Page took over an adjacent warehouse suite with huge walk-in refrigerators and much more storage. The expansion is allowing him to welcome more small Sonoma County farms into the fold, and to deliver more food to local tables.

Next, he plans to open a retail store in his original warehouse so the general public can shop, too.

“Natural growth is a biological truth for our life journey, and so for businesses,” he said.

“We have such gifts in Sonoma County when you think about our local food system, and I think we’re proving that efficiency equals abundance.”

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