Beth Parks wanted what was best for her family, including a healthy diet. Many of the larger grocery stores didn’t carry exactly what she was looking for, so she decided to go to the source – local farms.
Every week, Parks would drive her van to farms around San Antonio and come home with a carload of food. Friends and neighbors would request items like vegetables and milk from the farms, come to her garage, and pick them up.
As word of the food co-op spread, so many people joined that Parks began asking farmers to deliver their produce to her house, and lines to pick up orders extended down Parks’ street. That’s when she decided to open The Farm Connection’s first location, on San Antonio’s Northwest Side near Loop 410 and Fredericksburg Road, in September 2015.
“It all grew from word of mouth,” Parks said. “Our people are really kind and they share about it with their friends, and here we are now with three locations.”
The Farm Connection has added locations on the far North Side, just outside Loop 1604 at Redland Road, and one in Boerne.
The Farm Connection, which functions as a food buying club, purchases products its members request, as opposed to stocking items for customers to purchase. Products come from farmers and producers who raise food free of genetically modified organisms, use organic farming practices, and have high animal-welfare standards, Parks said.
Members pay an annual fee of $20 to access an online order form that offers seasonal produce, meats, and prepared meals. Members then pick them up at one of the Farm Connection’s locations. For consumers who enjoy fresh, local produce but don’t have the time or desire to scour farmers markets, the Farm Connection can provide an easy way to enjoy locally sourced food, Parks said.
“In San Antonio, there is not a lot of options other than some big grocery store chains,” Parks said. “It’s really awesome to be able to meet all these people in the community that want to support organic and local food.”
From locally made Mother Culture raw-milk yogurt to essential oils, the Farm Connection offers more than 1,000 products. With the summer harvest season nearing its peak, Farm Connection members are buying plenty of zucchinis and watermelon. Other offerings include grass-fed beef from Grassfield Farms in Hondo and Parker Creek Ranch in D’Hanis as well as pasture-raised pork from Peaceful Pork, which is produced on Mount Lucas Ranch near Dinero, about 100 miles south of San Antonio.
From the approximately 150 people who used to come to her garage, membership in The Farm Connection has grown to about 500 people, Parks said. The Farm Connection is staffed by 10 employees and occasional volunteers, who help pick up the orders from the farms and distribute them to Farm Connection locations.
Most of the farms that supply the Farm Connection sell at local farmers markets, such as the Pearl’s weekend market. Parks said the Farm Connection’s prices are similar to those at farmers markets and slightly less expensive than organic grocery stores.
“It has been a huge learning experience,” Parks said. “I never intended to work as many hours as I do. At least I am passionate about it, I am not resentful about it. All our members understand how much work goes into coordinating something like this.”
Many grocery store chains such as H-E-B and Whole Foods struggle to work with local vendors because they require large orders that smaller growers cannot fill.
But the food club model is more suited to sourcing produce and other items from farmers who may raise only enough to sell at farmers markets.
Parks has been buying milk and cheese from Ragels Ziegenhof dairy goat farm in New Braunfels since she was working out of her garage. The dairy farm is branching into wholesale, but the Farm Connection still comes by every week to pick up orders.
“When somebody gets milk from them, the money does not leave this area,” farmer Robert Ragel said. “It goes to pay my feed bill, it goes to pay my mortgage, it goes to pay my workers that work here. This is not a big corporation where the paycheck gets deposited in some overseas account. There are many other farmers like me where their money goes directly back into the community.”
Barry Smeltzer is a Farm Connection member and a holistic medicine practitioner who refers his patients to the Farm Connection when they need healthier food options. He said has seen improvements in his patients when they change their diets and eat locally sourced food.
“Eating nutrient-dense foods makes a huge impact on your overall health,” Smeltzer said. “The nutrient depletion that is happening in our soil has never been worse. That creates nutrient deficiencies that I help [patients] replenish. In the case of The Farm Connection, they provide patients with healthy, locally grown, nutrient-dense foods.”
Parks said that eventually she would like to expand her business into other communities so that more people can enjoy what she sees as the benefits of eating local and organic.
“That is what makes it the most rewarding, when they [customers] are so grateful to find the majority of what they need in one spot,” Parks said. “They don’t have to run to the farms like I used to.”