Durham Native Launches 'Virtual Farmers' Market'

Sow Fresh Organics connects small farms with families who want to eat organic, healthy produce and support local agriculture.


When Karen and Kedhar Thiruvalam were visiting friends in Vegas in October 2011, they saw a large cooler on the steps outside their host’s front door. Nestled inside was farm-fresh milk, raw yogurts and gourmet goat cheese delivered early that morning.

Something clicked in Karen’s mind.

"How about something like this back home in Middletown?" she thought.

As soon as they returned to Connecticut, the Durham native and her Indian-born groom began intense market research.

In 1987, Karen Manjuck graduated from Coginchaug High School. Now a mother of two daughters from her first marriage, Paige 13, and Sarah, 16; Karen has an extensive background in marketing and journalism.

The Germ of an Idea

She and Kedhar delved head first into the idea of creating a virtual farmers market and multi-farm community-supported agriculture business. And so,  was born from the couple’s passion and desire to embrace life, protect the environment and enjoy good food.

The idea was to connect the bounty of small farmers throughout Connecticut with locavores and other organic food enthusiasts through a home-delivery system of fresh and nonperishable goods, including baby food and dog treats.

“Most small farms don’t have the bandwidth to market their goods,” Karen says, to customers outside of their area or county. Sow Fresh can help connect their crops with those of many other farmers and efficiently and greenly deliver to customers these farmers may never sell to — outside an occasional farmers market.

"We are extremely grateful to the farmers and realize that without their dedication and passion, we couldn't even dream of starting a business such as ours," she says.

Business is humming right along

And so, Sow Fresh Organics launched online on June 28. Sitting down with Kedhar and Karen just a day later, it’s striking how much of a commitment the family has made for such an ambitious endeavor — building a business around something as perishable as produce sold online.

Families, large and small, are their main customers. “We sell two types of boxes,” Kedhar says. “Medium for families of three to four and large for families of five or six. Each family will get at least five meals out of it.”

And unlike traditional CSAs, which cost $500 to $600 for a growing season and whose boxes vary wildly depending on each week’s harvest, Sow Fresh customers aren’t obligated to place regular orders or be faced with eating a dozen heads of lettuce before they perish.

“The system works best for families that aren’t sure they want to drop a lot of money and aren’t locked into” whatever is grown in abundance that week on one farm. “So we may have 10 farmers with 30 varieties of crops,” Karen says.

Bridging Small Farms With Health-Conscious Consumers

Sow Fresh is structured to coordinate with the daily schedule of small farmers.

“Monday to Thursday is all about pre-marketing,” Karen says. “So we are closed from Monday at noon through 7 a.m. Thursday, "so that we can let the farmers know which produce we need them to harvest for us and also to find out what great produce items they will have available to our customers for the following week. Crops change from week to week and so we need to update our website so it contains the freshest ingredients."

Saturday and Sunday is Sow Fresh’s peak ordering time and Thursdays are reserved entirely for deliveries. Karen and Kedhar load up their van with orders and drop them off all over Middlesex County twice that day — either in the early morning or early evening: when customers are home and when it’s the coolest outside.

A Little Glitch Resolved With Ingenuity

Sow Fresh recycles heavy waxed fruit boxes from the supermarket produce section and drops them off, full, to customers as part of the idea of reducing, reusing and recycling.

The couple's sensibility is living the greenest life possible, Kedhar says, something they hope will encourage customers to do the same.

"We are trying to avoid buying new boxes with our logo on it, since that would be adding to the amount of landfill in the world and we didn't want to use coolers," Karen says, "since we are trying stay away from using plastics whenever possible."

A problem arose when the time came for Sow Fresh to keep produce cool and fresh for the several hours between when they drop off a customer's boxed order to the time a family is able to get to the items.

Then Kedhar remembered growing up in India. “There, we’d have 100-, 120-degree days every day and no farm stands.” Merchants deliver the day’s crops on tricycles to Market Street and lie fresh greens down on the ground, he says. “I wondered, ‘how do they do it?’ Then, it just occurred to me,” he says.

In these hottest climates, merchants use burlap made from jute, which is not only breathable but acts to keep even the most fragile produce — like greens — from wilting. “Throughout the day, the men throw handfuls of water on the burlap, wetting it and keeping everything cool,” Kedhar explains.

This discovery was a huge one for the integrity of their business. Now customers can store their produce directly in the refrigerator in the burlap, reuse it, and when it’s ready to be disposed of, throw it into the compost heap. Jute breaks down very simply and quickly.

The Duo Behind the Business

In 2008, the couple first met — of all places — at the Pfizer office microwave, where Kedhar was heating up his lunch. Karen recalls his meal was so “neatly garnished;” so they got to talking and it turned out they were both foodies.

Soon, love blossomed. This past June 29 was their one-year wedding anniversary.

They both still work full-time from home — Karen is a business process analyst at Boehringer Ingelheim and Kedhar is an industrial engineer consultant to Pfizer. They split the family and business duties 50/50, Karen says, and less than three weeks into Sow Fresh, business is bustling right along.

“We've had a steady stream of customers. We've had a lot of interest in the grass-fed beef, the organic baby food and, of course, the fresh veggies!”

Grand Opening Cash Mob

To officially commemorate their launch in the community, the couple has planned a cash mob on July 28 in downtown Middletown. Keeping with the spirit of a true cash mob, Karen says, folks are asked to gather at the parking lot next to  on Broad Street at 9 a.m.

The business to be "mobbed" is a secret until then and all folks are asked is to bring $20 in cash to this grassroots, community-led movement aimed at supporting local businesses.

Sow Fresh Delivers From These Small Connecticut Farms

Devon Point Farm (Woodstock), Sankow’s Beaver Brook Farm (Lyme), Tuttle Ridge Farm (Durham), Green Valley Farm (Ashford), Summerton Farm (Guilford), Bitta-Blue Farm (Killingworth), Valchris Farm (Oakdale), Provider Farm (Salem), Northfordy Farms (Northford), Urban Oaks Farm (New Britian),  (Middletown), Naples Farm (Durham), Deerfield Farm (Durham), Frim Fram Farm (Salem), Thankful Circle Farm (Killingworth), McV Farm (Canterbury), Pease Brook Farm (Lebanon), Waldingfield Farm (Washington), Birch Pond Farm (Colchester), Ashlawn Farms (Lyme), Sweet Sage Bakery (Rockfall), Farm to Hearth (Salem).

To order, see http://sowfreshorganics.com.

Like Sow Fresh Organics on Facebook or follow @SowFreshOrganic on Twitter.


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