We spoke with Alex Billingsley, founder of Mama Earth Organics. Mama Earth delivers local and organic food right to your door. We found out why more and more people are hopping on the organic food delivery band wagon, how a delivery service can also be eco, and why he gave up law to sell produce from a van.
Where did the idea to deliver organic food to your community come from?
My wife and I had always gotten CSA deliveries and we were always just into this kind of lifestyle. We’re really picky eaters and, with a growing family, we didn’t have the time to get the kind of food we wanted each week. So, we thought that there had to be at least a few other people in the same situation. Since then, it’s turned into something much different – and much larger than we initially imagined (also much better than we could have imagined).
We think it’s a great idea. Did everyone else see your vision from early on?
Thanks – that’s nice of you to say!
No – most people didn’t think it made a lot of sense when we started. I had been working as a human rights lawyer and we had just had our second child when we started the business. We remortgaged our house and took a loans out from BDC and CYBF. There were a lot of people who didn’t think we were thinking straight and couldn’t understand why we’d take a risk like that to sell organic fruit out of our van.
So how do you convince people that ordering + customizing organic food boxes is a good weekly deal?
I think it’s a few things. The food is much fresher than anything at supermarkets (since we work directly with our growers – and supermarkets need to go through their depots). We also have a bigger selection.
Second, one of our main missions is to increase the diversity and variety of produce being grown in Ontario. We’re able to do that since we can mitigate the risk for our growers and guarantee that our members will buy the more diverse (and better tasting) produce.
Third – it’s more convenient. Most of our members are quite busy.
Lastly – I think most of our members like the fact that they’re helping to build something and support something that they believe in. They like the fact that we’re building a local food system and they want to support their local economy. This is becoming more and more motivating (to us at least) as we see the infrastructure being built and our farms growing. We’re in the middle of a true paradigm shift. It’s pretty awesome!
Value or price – what drives your marketing?
Value. We pay our farmers fairly and we pay our staff more than anyone else in the industry. The only way a model like that can work is if we can genuinely offer the best value and service.
With our long winters and short growing seasons, do you find it difficult to eat local year round?
Yes – I do. I don’t actually eat local all year round though. I do as much as I possibly can, but I can’t go very long without eating certain fruit (oranges, bananas, mangos, etc.). We definitely change our diets in the winter and naturally go towards more root/local vegetables though.
Considering people order + expect timely deliveries – how challenging is this without being able to control weather and crops?
It’s quite time-consuming. We have a really good team in place now though. It’s actually less stressful now than it was when we were only delivering to 10 or 15 of our neighbours.
Can farmers really follow your delivery schedule?
We really try to work around their schedules. We’re picking up from farms every day of the week (from many different farms every day). We let them lead us basically.
How can a delivery service be environmentally friendly?
Lots of ways I think! We can cut down on the number of people on the road (we deliver 60-90 orders in every van – so that can hopefully stop most of those people from driving to the store). And organic farming is the most environmentally sustainable way to farm. We also do everything we can possibly think of to make things as environmentally friendly as possible. We donate to Second Harvest a few times a week, we work with farms to recycle or find uses for their boxes, and we encourage our staff to bike to work. Our minds are always on this area. I’m sure there is a lot we can improve – but we’re trying hard at least!
How do you find new customers + how do they find you?
Mostly through word of mouth. That’s all we really care about. We just focus on trying to do a really good job for our present customers.