A high-tech Montreal startup is using the Internet to link local growers directly to their customers.

Provender’s food is so fresh, it’s often still in the ground.

The chefs, caterers, natural food stores and independent grocers currently using the Web-based marketplace can browse the online seed catalogue and decide what products they’d like to carry.

Small growers grow the produce from an index of seeds chosen by Provender and deliver the harvest directly to stores or restaurant kitchens.

“Of the 13,000 varieties of fruits and vegetables available and suited to the climate of North America, we only grow around 3,000 commercially,” said founder and CEO Caithrin Rintoul.

“That leaves an entire piece of the produce industry that’s difficult to get into because you have to spend a lot of time developing a market,” said Rintoul, whose background includes greenhouse technology and growers markets.

He and his team of 10 technical experts charge growers a 10% transactional fee once products are delivered.

In exchange, the site functions as a sales management staff, “providing an incredibly easy way to sell your crops and manage your yields,” Rintoul said.

Along with field growers, Provender works with year-round operations such as greenhouses, mushroom and sprout farms.

Since launching 19 months ago, the data-driven company has expanded to Toronto, Vermont, Minnesota and Massachusetts and attracted 450 growers and buyers.

“We’re excited because we’re seeing the new generation of younger growers really build their businesses on our platform,” Rintoul said.

Though Provender may represent 10% of a grower’s crops, Rintoul said that may translate to 20% of revenue since there’s no intermediary and the pre-sold crops command a premium. Chefs using the site can dramatically lower their cost of searching for growers and discovering new crops, he said. They can contract with up to 30 small farms, all payable as a single online invoice.

This summer, the startup commercialized hardy kiwis and sold thousands of dollars’ worth of morelle de balbis. These dark red “litchi” tomatoes, native to South America, taste like a sour cherry with an intense tomato taste.

“They’re super easy to grow and frost-resistant,” said Rintoul, who compiles reams of data on every new crop.

Provender has also grown brassicas, gourds and beans for Montreal’s Asian restaurants, along with 50 varietals of beans, squash, sweet potatoes and greens from a Kentucky seed company for cooks delving into Southern cuisine.

“We’re attractive to growers and it’s fun for them to try new things,” he said.