It started with two boxes of kale.

Sheena Vaidyanathan, a public school teacher, was volunteering for Kitchen Table Advisors (KTA) — a nonprofit that provides business advice to small, sustainable farms — when the pandemic forced the Bay Area to lock down in March. One day, she was checking in with a staff member at KTA when she learned about an intriguing offer.

“He said, ‘You know, you can buy the kale directly from [the farms],’” she said. “I bought [it] and thought I’d share it with my friends.” Vaidyanathan, who develops computer science curricula and teaches for the Los Altos School District, sent out some texts, and within an hour she was able to give all the kale away. Soon after, her friends were clamoring for more.

“All my friends were saying, ‘Wow, that kale was amazing!’” she said, laughing. “That convinced me to turn it into something bigger.”

Working closely with Tania Zuñiga, a business advisor at Kitchen Table Advisors, as well as several of her friends, Vaidyanathan launched Tera Farm, a nonprofit e-commerce site that connects small, local farms directly to customers. 

The way Tera Farm — a wordplay on “tera,” the Hindi word for “your,” and terra or “earth” — works is simple. Every weekend, farmers go to their fields and see what’s available for harvest. Volunteers at Tera Farm then update the website, at which point customers can choose from a changing selection of offerings — celery, broccoli, squash, shallots, chard, Fuji apples, mandarins and much more — to create custom produce boxes. On Thursday and Friday, farmers pack the boxes and drive them on Saturday to delivery sites for pickup.

There’s no delivery fee, and customers don’t have to commit to a subscription. The only requirement is that orders must be at least $25.

The service has been a huge success. Since last April, Tera Farm has bloomed, recruiting dozens of volunteers and setting up more than 25 delivery sites across the Bay Area and the Monterey Peninsula. It’s also helped farmers make ends meet and even save up during the prolonged health and economic crisis. 

Currently, the nonprofit works most closely with Bertha Magaña of Magaña Farms near Watsonville and Maria Ana Reyes of Narci Organic Farms in Salinas, both of whom started out as field laborers before owning their own farms. After the pandemic disrupted their normal supply chains, the farmers turned to Tera Farm, tapping into a new and unexpectedly vibrant market.

“We are incredibly grateful for the support,” said Magaña. “Despite the pandemic, [last year] was one of the best years for Magaña Farms. For every farmer to put fresh vegetables on the table for customers is an accomplishment.”

“Especially during COVID, when they had family members losing jobs, this money helps them pay the bills,” said Vaidyanathan, who added that many of the farmers are now growing more diverse crops in response to customer feedback. “This is the first time they’re directly connecting to the consumer.”

Vaidyanathan also noted that Tera Farm relies on volunteer work and has minimal costs, which can be paid out of pocket. As a result, the nonprofit doesn’t charge farmers for its services, ensuring they receive 100 percent of the proceeds for their produce.

“What people don’t realize is that when you sell wholesale, farmers don’t get all of the money [for the crop],” she said. After reductions for transportation, storage, and marketing, “you’re lucky if you get 30 cents to the dollar.”

For her part, Vaidyanathan credits the success of the project to her team of volunteers as well as the farmers.

“It’s not just me. I can’t grow 1,000 onions — that’s not my skill set,” Vaidyanathan said. “It’s a lot of people involved. These farmers are an inspiration to me.”

As Tera Farm pushes forward into the new year, Vaidyanathan hopes it only continues to expand, and that more people come to appreciate those who grow their food.

“It’s a win-win,” she said. “The farmers are benefiting, and the customers are benefiting by getting something so fresh.”

Purchase produce boxes and find a delivery site near you by visiting Tera Farm’s site.