Spotlight: From the Farmer

We spent a brisk, fall morning touring the warehouse and getting to know the people at From the Farmer, a local startup delivering farm-fresh food to the doorsteps of DC, MD and VA residents. Read on to learn how companies like yours are focusing on intentionally creating inclusive cultures.

You can tell you’re in a special company when the USPS guy walks in and everyone from the founders to the newest hire says, “Hey David! Enjoy your day off tomorrow! Are you going to do something fun?”

It isn’t just any company where the founders know the mailman, ask whether the day shift manager’s daughter is feeling better, or are cooking up a healthy lunch by 11 am for the whole crew. But at From the Farmer, this is all part of an intentional decision to create a culture all about doing the best for their people.

From the Farmer is a D.C. startup that delivers farm-fresh fruits and vegetables to your door. The startup links small regional food producers to urban and suburban residents through the delivery of fresh, seasonal, and local foods.

Co-founders Jason Lundberg and Nick Phelps met in college and joined forces in 2011 to bring long-term sustainable change to the quality of food in people’s homes. The company has grown significantly in the last year following their 2-year beta program, and recently moved from Dupont Circle to a large warehouse in Beltsville, Maryland to be closer to the food (and all of the action!).

The From the Farmer team tasting duck and chicken eggs while considering new suppliers

Split between a warehouse and Dupont corporate offices, From the Farmer’s culture grew organically [pun intended!] until recently. The move to Beltsville put their twenty-some employees under the same roof in a new space and allowed Lundberg and Phelps to begin consciously developing a culture focused on people. Because From the Farmer operates almost 24 hours a day with a corporate workforce, a nighttime delivery shift, and a daytime processing crew, creating a united culture that all employees connect with has been quite a challenge.

“Our philosophy is really based on paying attention to our employees,” says Phelps. “We figure, we treat them well, and they’ll treat us well in return.” This team effort mentality is embodied by every person on the team, interns and founders alike. When we were on site, Phelps even offered to drive the truck to fulfill afternoon deliveries, insisting that a teammate go pick up his sick daughter from school.

That kind of care for employees is hard to come by in corporate America. In another example of From the Farmer’s inclusive culture, all of the employees are encouraged to eat lunch three times a week at the kitchen table set up in their office space. Bringing the salaried and the hourly-wage employees together is fundamental to keeping produce flowing smoothly from farm to doorstep.

The founders jump at any opportunity to bring the whole staff together to build a cohesive culture where everyone is working together to achieve the same goals. In their first few weeks at the company, you will find corporate employees in delivery trucks, getting their feet wet in the operations of the business.

Putting corporate employees in delivery trucks shows the From the Farmer’s focus on bridging gaps between the “front and back office.” Another example arising from the staff’s move into one location is the possibility for the overnight crew to meet the people who read their notes from deliveries, opening the lines of communication in the office. The corporate staff can also “get out and touch some stuff” because they’re working in the front of the warehouse. When deciding how to transport eggs in the delivery system, Lundberg told us, “you can sit around in an office all day googling ‘how much force does it take to break an egg?’ or, you can get into the warehouse, wrap up an egg and drop it off a ladder to see if it breaks. Which do you think is more effective?” Putting all elements of their workforce in one place allows From the Farmer to capitalize on the knowledge of each part of their staff.

There are risks inherent in unifying the staff in a huge Maryland warehouse. Maybe the costs of such a large space wouldn’t outweigh the benefits of having the entire team under one roof. Maybe it wouldn’t be worth leaving prime real estate office space in the middle of downtown DC.

Both Lundberg and Phelps agree, though, that a defining characteristic of their culture is being okay with risk and the possibility of failure. At a high level, they’ve dealt with the fear of failure through the pressure that comes from reading TechCrunch and thinking every entrepreneur is killing it. The founders have slowly come to realize for every one person on TechCrunch, you don’t hear about nine who are struggling to make ends meet. That knowledge has trickled down to all employees. Each of them should be pushing each other, knowing that failure can be an option. If you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough at From the Farmer.

The culture at From the Farmer is hard to beat. Despite all of the challenges, Lundberg and Phelps’ relentless commitment to wow’ing their employees has paid large dividends. The culture developing under one roof in Beltsville can support the growth for which From the Farmer is poised. Between an appetite for risk and a hell-bent focus on treating employees as people, not just cash cows, From the Farmer is creating something great not only for their customers, but for their team.

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