Market Wagon masters the logistics of farm to door

A person hands a bag of Market Wagon produce to another person.

Written by James Shea

Market Wagon CEO Nick Carter wants to democratize the food supply and create an online community between buyers and farmers.

The company delivers food directly to the consumers from the farm. A customer places an order, and Market Wagon informs the farm of the order. The farm brings the fresh eggs, produce and meat to one of the company’s 28 fulfillment hubs. Market Wagon assembles the order and delivers it.

“It’s operated by our technology,” Carter said. “We’ve built all of our own technology, both on the consumer side and as well on the vendor and fulfillment side.”

Orders are processed twice a week. Carter said the secret to Market Wagon’s success is batching and logistics. Everything operates in a just-in-time manner. The fulfillment center does not store large amounts of produce at a warehouse. Orders have a cutoff date, and the suppliers are notified of the order. Everything is brought to the hub and the order is processed.

“We don’t have any inventory on hand,” Carter said. “It shows up that morning between 8 and 10 a.m. and it’ll be at the customer’s doorstep by 2 p.m. We don’t hold out. We have no long-term cold storage. We don’t have to warehouse anything.”

Once the orders are fulfilled, a driver follows a mapped-out route to maximize the efficiency of delivery. The number of stops and the length of the overall delivery are minimized. The goal is to increase value within the system and squeeze out inefficiencies.

The decline of farmers’ markets

Carter is a fifth-generation farmer and said the options for small farms to access markets are limited. Farmers’ markets have historically been the only direct access to consumers for farmers. Farmers’ markets worked in the ‘80s and ‘90s but have not performed well in recent years. Attendance at farmers’ markets has declined and competition is often high, as multiple farms sell at a market.

“What was starting to happen as early as five, six years ago, which is why we started this, is that if you were a vegetable farmer and you had those bunches of carrots and heads of lettuce, you go to your nearby farmers’ market and you apply to be a vendor,” Carter said. “And they say, ‘We’ve already got five vegetable farmers here.’ We were maxed out.”

As well, farmers’ markets are more experiential in nature and often have are other attractions. Farmers’ markets have live music and crafts. Food truck vendors sell tacos and other prepared foods. Carter said markets are no longer just a place to get weekly groceries from the farmers.

Finally, small farms cannot scale enough to move out of the farmers’ market and sell directly to grocery stores. Most are not able to produce food on the scale needed to supply a larger grocery chain.

“Kroger doesn’t want them there,” Carter said. “There’s no path.”

Founding the company

Carter grew up on a 400-acre family farm in Wisconsin. He watched his father struggle to keep the farm profitable in the 1980s. Eventually, his father was working a full-time job and running the farm to pay the bills.

Carter left the family farm and worked in the world of high-tech. When his daughter was born, he stayed home for a year and cared for her. That gave him time to investigate food and the food supply system. He quickly realized that the system was not built to help small farmers, and he thought a direct-to-consumer e-commerce marketplace had potential.

The solution was logistics. Numerous startups have tried to do what Market Wagon is doing but have failed. Carter said that in theory, moving goods from a farm to a person’s doorstep is simple, but it is actually a massive logistical undertaking to do efficiently.

To help create a solution, Carter founded Market Wagon with Dan Brunner, who specializes in logistics. Brunner has decades of experience in logistics and worked at a robotic logistics company that was acquired by Amazon.

Market Wagon has built out custom technology to create the just-in-time fulfillment system and minimize the effort of moving goods from the farm to a customer’s doorstep.

Thriving in local markets

Since its founding, Market Wagon’s growth was slow and steady. While the company has a strategy for nationwide expansion growth, it only operated in Ohio and Indiana when the pandemic hit.

COVID-19 completely changed the company’s growth trajectory.

“We had grown to a multimillion-dollar company, and by March of last year, we were in six locations around Indiana and Ohio,” Carter said, “And then when the pandemic happened, it just shut down farmers markets and grocery store shelves emptied. And we were delivering to homes. It was just a perfect storm.’

The company now operates in Georgia, Alabama, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

Carter said the key to the company’s growth has been putting vendors first. While Market Wagon sells to consumers, the 1,600 vendors are the real clients.

“I’m constantly reminding our team, our customers are the vendors,” Carter said. “If we don’t serve them, if we don’t meet their needs, if we don’t have an amazing solution to the hard problem that they have, then we don’t succeed. We have a mission statement, and it’s ‘to enable food producers to thrive in their local markets.’”

The company has seven full-time employees and is continuing to expand. When moving into a new market, the company builds relationships with local vendors. It is a grassroots effort. The company searches Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist and other sales platforms to find vendors. The team talks with the vendors and lets them know the benefits of using Market Wagon.

In the end, the goal is to reconnect people with the food supply and have a personal connection to the farmer. People know where their food comes from and can help support small farms.

“I think it’s about the connection,” Carter said. “So what we focus on is making sure that there is a connection between the food consumer and the food producer. It’s not like you’re going to become best friends with the farmer who raised your eggs. They’re not coming to your kid’s baptisms. They’re not part of the family, but we create a conversation. There are constant chats going on between farmers and consumers. People follow their favorite farmers. They start to get posts and updates of what’s going on at the farm. And it’s the social experience. We trying to create a community, an online community.”

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