Rita pulls up to the red farm building and hands Vitruvian co-founder Tommy Stauffer a five-dollar bill after he places grocery bags into the trunk of her car. She tells him the tip is beer money as she smiles, sporting her Vitruvian t-shirt.
She’s 1 of nearly 100 customers coming by that Friday to grab their orders of vegetables, mushrooms, bread, meat, and more at Vitruvian, the organic vegetable farm Tommy co-founded along with Shawn Kuhn. The former UW–Madison college roommates turned organic farmers celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the farm in 2020 and the rollercoaster journey that comes with being a small business owner.
The duo had spent the past 10 years growing strong relationships with those in the Madison-area restaurant and grocery store community. Over 80 percent of their business had been wholesale of certified organic produce to local farm-to-table establishments, like Salvatore’s Tomato Pies and the Willy Street Co-ops. While their business model also includes a small Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and selling at the Monona Farmers’ Market, they had built Vitruvian on their close ties with local chefs.
Suddenly, a decade of relying on these partnerships came to a screeching halt when the pandemic essentially shut many restaurants down. With their wholesale accounts slowing to a trickle and the growing season in full swing, the Vitruvian farmers knew they needed to find a new way to get their vegetables to eager consumers.
Before most other farms and farmers’ markets could even begin to imagine what selling in a pandemic could look like, Tommy and Shawn had evaluated their options and opened an online store with home delivery and contact-free farm pickup by mid-March 2020. Their goal was to create a safe and convenient way to buy local food that could become a long-term habit for community members, as opposed to a band-aid solution to get them through the season.
“I think the Vitruvian pickup and home delivery has been successful because we have married the accessibility of high-quality products with convenience,” says Shawn. “People buy from local farms because they support the growing practices, they believe in the health of the food, and they support farmers and their families. People buy from Amazon because it’s really fast and easy.” The Vitruvian home delivery became a popular option, with over 75 deliveries a week for just those reasons.
Their initial success has remained steady far past when the worry of food shortages ended. They realized the system they had created had the potential to grow, which led Tommy to reach out to other local farmers and business owners. They have been able to provide fellow producers with a much-needed outlet for their products while giving customers a growing range of options online. “I did a combination of picking things that, one, were what I felt to be some of the highest-quality local goods but, two, were honestly things I really like to eat,” says Tommy.
Now, you can find everything from certified organic vegetables and mushrooms; pasture-raised eggs; and local meat from producers, like Willow Creek Farms, to Madison Sourdough bread, organic milk and dairy products, beans from Ledger Coffee Roasters, and a revolving spread of artisan products from Chef Evan Dannells of Cadre on University Avenue in Madison.
Chef Evan and the Cadre team started by creating products for the Vitruvian online store using the hundreds of pounds of surplus mushrooms the farm still had growing, intended for normally busy restaurants in the spring. Mushroom stock and soups, mushroom chorizo dip, and mushroom and ramp pesto came pouring out of the otherwise quiet Cadre kitchen.
What started as a few mushroom-centric items sold in a week quickly turned into over 50 Cadre creations purchased weekly through Vitruvian. They moved beyond mushrooms to products like a zesty tzatziki sauce, the perfect complement to the local lamb sausages; rich Bloody Mary mix that made you long for Sunday brunch; and a heirloom tomato soup that elevates any grilled cheese sandwich.
The Vitruvian online store has a dedicated section for Chef Evan’s ever-changing selection of goods, which rounds out a product list of pantry staples and rare local food finds. “What sells the best is sometimes the stuff that I’m most excited about because I have a better ability to tell people about it,” says Tommy.
So what’s Tommy excited about? Fresh spring turnips, brightly colored bell peppers, Dreamfarm’s fresh goat cheese, Forage Kitchen’s kombucha, Bandit’s handmade corn tortillas, mini jugs of chocolate milk, and mushroom jerky—the newest Cadre/Vitruvian creation. The vegan mushroom jerky and other value-added farm products are what Tommy and Shawn see as a future for Vitruvian and other small farms. As Tommy puts it, “Getting a bit out of the field and into the kitchen is an opportunity for farms to take it to a more sustainable and more consistent [business] model.”
Even with the success of the online farm store, Shawn and Tommy understand the importance of staying flexible and innovative as they face a changing food landscape and natural environment. The pandemic and early failures of the industrial food system highlights not only how essential local farms are to our society, but also their need to be nimble. “I’m hopeful that the value local farms have demonstrated in being able to adapt to unexpected worldwide events sticks in people’s minds as the pandemic subsides and as we move further into what many scientists are predicting to be an unpredictable 21st century,” says Shawn.
As these young farmers look to the future, one thing is certain. They will continue to rely on their strong relationships with Madison-area chefs and customers as the food landscape continues to change and good food remains essential. Whether it’s fresh vegetables, value-added products, or whatever the future of food may hold, Tommy and Shawn know their deep roots in the Madison food scene and the trust they built with the community will be their foundation as they forge ahead.
For more information on Cadre, read their article in this issue.
Marissa DeGroot is a freelance writer and always down for yummy food, good company, and a great story.
2727 US Highway 51
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