Going organic by the semi- truckload
Local consumers hungry for more natural foods are getting a big serving of options as a national organic food company rolls into Detroit Lakes ... literally.
Azure Standard is a natural foods distributor in Oregon that delivers its products via semi-truck to consumers throughout the country who may not be willing or able to pay for organics at the grocery store.
Detroit Lakes is connected to Azure Standard through farmers and semi-truck drivers Gary and Sandy Larson.
The Bisbee, N.D., couple are organic farmers who began their "relationship" with Azure Standard 18 years ago.
"What happened is our daughter married into the family out there at Azure Standard, and when they married, David Stelzer (Azure Standard's owner and president) asked me, 'would you be interested in selling your grain to our company?' I said sure, but how are we going to get the grain out there? He said, 'well, you're going to bring it.' So that's how we started ... with a pickup and a fifth-wheel trailer," said Gary Larson.
So, the Larsons began meeting the Azure Standard's truck in Missoula, Montana to hand off their grain. Since they were coming back with an empty truck, people around North Dakota began asking them if they wouldn't mind bringing some groceries back for them off the Azure truck because they were cheaper than organic food in the grocery store. The swaps began. Word got out, and soon their trailer wasn't nearly as big as the demand.
"So we went to a bigger trailer," said Gary Larson, "but soon that wasn't enough, so we went to a small semi-trailer. Then we went to a big semi-trailer, then five semi-trailers. Now I'm thinking we might need to get a sixth one ... it just keeps growing," he laughs.
The Larsons make 77 stops, beginning at Breckenridge and making a big circle down to the Twin Cities, up to Brainerd, over to Detroit Lakes and back to Bisbee.
Some of the stops are at health food stores and grocery stores, but most are for "buying clubs," where regular consumers get together and request to be added on as a "drop point."
"So, if a group of people get together, they just have to order collectively $550 a month and individually $50 a month worth of groceries in order to create a club and have the semi stop," explains Larson. "But that's not hard to do when you're grocery shopping."
The Larsons say they are constantly adding new drop sites to their routes, even though word-of-mouth and a website are the only advertising the company does.
"Every time we turn around, somebody's sister or cousin hears about this and they start up a club somewhere, and we've got another stop to make," Larson said, adding that he and his wife love the growing popularity.
Jessica Ekholm of Detroit Lakes heard about Azure Standard through an acquaintance in Park Rapids (where they also deliver) and after doing some checking, discovered that there were no "open" drop points available in the area.
"There are a couple of food clubs in DL that work with Azure, but they open it for themselves and their friends," explains Ekholm, "they don't have to allow other people in it."
Ekholm says the reason somebody might choose to have a closed club is because the person who starts it up is responsible for notifying all other club members of the ordering deadlines, when and where the semi will be rolling in, and answering questions that newer members might have.
"I guess some people maybe just don't want that big of responsibility," said Ekholm.
But she did. About a year ago, the 29-year-old mother of two rounded up a few people, and together they ordered enough food to create a new drop point.
Theirs is once a month at the Four Corners restaurant and convenience store about 7 miles east of Detroit Lakes on Highway 34.
"I hit up a ton of my friends, we hit the $550 mark; we started getting more people, and it just rolled from there."
Ekholm now has a half-dozen or so people in her club, which she will keep open for anybody who wants to order.
"I don't mind the little bit of inconvenience because I'm able to get good, healthy, organic food for my kids," Ekholm said, adding "And it's worth it for me to know that everybody around here who wants to get organic food for a decent price can get it."
Decent prices are what keep this natural foods company growing, as Azure Standard is able to sell their products to food clubs cheaper because they sell a lot of product in bulk, at wholesale prices.
Azure Standard President David Stelzer says their organic prices off the truck are comparable to non-organic prices at a typical grocery store, and about 10 percent cheaper than Walmart's organic prices.
Stelzer goes on to say that the company also prides itself on not importing things from a long ways away, but staying as local as possible.
"Like right now," explains Stelzer, "we are not even selling blueberries because I don't feel we can get good, quality berries that meet our standards from anywhere close."
It is those high "standards" that keep Ekholm and her friends coming back month after month.
"I bought a bag of apples, and I'm not kidding you ... they lasted 2 months before starting to show signs of bruising - no molding, just bruising."
Gary and Sandy Larson are convinced the reason for the "longevity" of organic food and the people who eat them is the things they don't add.
"Our food supply is in jeopardy," Larson said, "You are what you put in your body, and if you feed it junk with all these chemicals in it, your body will fall apart."
Debates continue to rage over the health advantages of organic vs. non-organic foods, but until there is a clear-cut answer, the growing popularity of Azure Standard is evidence that more and more people are not willing to take the chance.
To join Jessica Ekholm's food club at Four Corners, call Azure at 541-467-2230 and ask for her contact information.
To start a new club or to get more information on the company and their groceries, log on to www.azurestandard.com.