Tom Marks began selling organic produce out of the back of his pickup truck about eight years ago, he says.

Tom Marks began selling organic produce out of the back of his pickup truck about eight years ago, he says.

He'd fill his truck bed with potatoes from Klamath Falls, salad greens from the Applegate Valley and boxes of garlic cloves and onion bulbs from Ashland farms.

Now the Ashland resident is working to fill spacious walk-in refrigerators at his Organic Produce Warehouse, which he opened last year on Oak Street.

The warehouse is a big step in his effort to provide the Rogue Valley's food merchants with a one-stop shop for locally grown and raised food, he says.

"We need to create more of a market for these smaller local farms and ranches," Marks says. "It's hard for small farms to connect with some of these larger distributors, because they just aren't producing enough food."

That reality, Marks says, leaves most of Southern Oregon's low-acreage farmers, ranchers and other food producers struggling to sell their products by way of local restaurants and stores.

"One of the hardest things about farming is the marketing," says Geoffrey Stewart, owner of Four Winds Farm.

Stewart cultivates a variety of plants on his 5-acre plot outside Ashland, dedicating one-half of an acre solely to vegetables, herbs and other edible plants.

Most of his garden space is filled with potatoes, garlic and onions, he says, because there is a local demand for those items.

Marks started buying produce from Four Winds about three years ago, but last year was the first time most of its crop went to a single distributor — OPW, Stewart says.

"I think what he's doing is a pretty valuable resource for local farmers," says Stewart, who works as Ashland Food Co-op's assistant produce manager purchasing local produce and other food items. "I don't think I would be able to sell nearly as much without Tom."

Growers markets help local food producers offload some of their bounty, he says, but getting rid of everything can mean driving from one restaurant and grocery store to another, hoping for a sale if no deals have been arranged ahead of harvest.

That scheme has sustained some successful small farms and ranches in Southern Oregon, Marks says, but he sees room for improvement.

"It's not about us (OPW) ruling the food supply, it's about creating a sense of community for our food supply," Marks says. "Our vision is to be an integral partner in our bio-region's quest for a thriving and sustainable food system."

Marks, who began working as an independent local food distributor under the name Del Sol Co. in 2004, has evolved into the Rogue Valley's exclusive distributor of Columbia Gorge Organic juices and Brew Dr. Kombucha. OPW topped $1 million in sales last year, Marks says.

"We do need a local distributor for more local products, from the coast to Klamath County," says Annie Hoy, outreach manager for the Ashland Food Co-op. "There are a lot of budding growers "… and little opportunity for them in the big-distributor system."

The co-op, which has agreements with about 25 local farmers, ranchers and producers of other food items, also purchases produce from OPW when it needs to fill a gap in supply, Marks says.

Many of the local food items sold in the co-op are the result of a time-consuming collaborative effort, Hoy says, in which food producers are taught how to package, where to get licensed and other details of getting their food to a grocery store's shelf.

"I think there is room in the market and an increasing demand for a more regional distributor," Hoy says. "That's where Tom can fit in."

Consumers in the Rogue Valley have a taste for locally grown food, says ACCESS Inc. community food system coordinator Hannah Ancel.

The Medford-based nonprofit organization has been providing social services for families and individuals in need since 1976, and is about halfway through a yearlong analysis of the Rogue Valley's food system though a series of community discussions.

Dubbed FEAST (Food, Education, Agriculture, Solution, Together), its goal is to find the best way to meet the needs of local food sources, Ancel says.

"We are looking to make the entire food system more efficient," she says. "Certainly, distribution is a major challenge for producers here."

Not everything Marks sells though OPW is local, but limiting the amount of mileage food has to travel from producer to plate is something everyone should work toward, he says.

There are no large, locally based food distributors for grocery stores to buy from in the Rogue Valley. That means the California-grown avocados most stores in Southern Oregon buy get trucked through the valley to Portland, Eugene or Seattle before being shipped to store destinations.

When Marks buys avocados and fruit from California, they come straight to Ashland before getting dispersed in Southern Oregon by OPW.

OPW is certified by the Oregon Department of Agriculture as an organic distributor. Marks is working to become certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture so he can buy and sell meat products as well.

Marks thinks local grocery stores will throw more of their support behind locally grown, low-mileage organic foods if they become more convenient to buy.

"We can be that source of organic local food," Marks says.

Last week, Marks was certified by the ODA to begin labeling produce under the brand Rogue Nation Foods, which means local farmers no longer have to package their product before selling it to OPW.

The daily workload is bit heavier now, Marks says, but he and five other employees keep food moving through OPW's doors.

"We think we can be the example," he says.

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.