2011 21.1 Co-ops Growing For Co-ops Setting Up A Farmer Cooperative To Supply A Local Food Co-op Or Grocery Store

While serving as produce manager for the Olympia Food Cooperative, Patrice Barrentine (now with WSDA Small Farm and Direct Marketing Program) presented at a series of day long meetings and direct marketing workshops for farmers in different regions around the state hosted by Cascade Harvest Coalition. Patrice focused on developing cooperative or collaborative relationships between groups of farms and local retailfood outlets.

Up to that point, the Skagit Valley Food Co-op (www.skagitfoodcoop.com) had been purchasing produce from regional growers, but not in any coordinated manner.

After Patrice’s presentation, we invited her to come meet with our local co-op produce manager (PM) to share ideas, systems, and challenges. This led to planning meetings the first year, and got us going on this great relationship.

Now that the system is fully developed it only requires one annual planning meeting with the growers, produce manager, and staff to figure out the details of the next growing season.

There are some immediate benefits from working with a local cooperative. Generally, the co-op mission and philosophy includes supporting local businesses and organic produce and products; and that paves the way for everything that follows.

Getting started

One way to get a local buying program going is for the co-op to host a winter meeting with all interested farmers.

Planning for the preliminary meeting should be underway by January, with a grower meeting by February to allow adequate time to obtain necessary seed and prepare for planting.

Prior to the meeting, PMs need to identify regional growers that can supply produce, and identify a convenient time/place to come together and get the conversation going.

At the initial meeting, missing resources and growers can be identified. The Tilth Producers Biennial Directory has been very useful to help identify growers in our watershed and for other crops that are grown in-state, but outside the immediate local region.

For example, soft fruit and reliable quantities of apples and pears can more easily be grown in the central and eastern parts of the state. Several family farms now regularly deliver these fruits directly to the co-op rather than going thru a wholesale distributor.

The PM should create a detailed list with quantities and timing needs for all the regionally appropriate produce they purchase each year.

Strategic planning

At our meeting, the growers generally volunteer what they want to grow and work out with the PM who will serve as the one or two main growers with an additional one to three in line as backup growers, depending on the crop.

Though not perfect, this has generally worked well for the co-op and the growers. It assures that the co-op has a more continuous supply, and that a failure on one farm will not mean a dearth of local product.

It works well, at least more fairly, if the PM alternates between the main growers so that each has an opportunity to move product. In many situations, larger growers also have the opportunity to move extra quantities through their wholesale distributors and that can help alleviate the temporary surplus. Growers can also agree to reduce the price to move product more quickly.

Pricing

The PM should also provide general guidelines for pricing as well as ample notification of any sales planned during the growing season. The grower needs to know, in general terms, what to expect for pricing.

It is assumed that the co-op will pay at least what the wholesale distributor is charging. It turns out that most of the local growers want to be paid more than the cheapest price that wholesale distributors offer, at least for some of their crops, some of the time.

For the smaller growers, that may be more critical or relevant, more often. The larger growers participating in our area, who also ship to wholesale distributors, are more accustomed to shipping at lower prices and can absorb some economy of scale.

It’s not always true and it changes over time as growers experience more challenges with any given crop and accumulate more knowledge over time.

E.g. Broccoli

An example of a crop that presents ongoing challenges is broccoli. Broccoli is consumed in large quantities year round. After five to six years of growing all the popular members of that family, it gets more challenging to keep that crop in the rotations and still reliably produce a crop with large crowns.

This past year, with challenging weather and individual farm issues, our co-op had to bring in California broccoli on a somewhat regular basis to augment what was available locally. Organic broccoli out of California, was also very expensive this year, so when local growers did have broccoli, they got a better price than normal or could drop the price and move more quantity because the co-op could run sales.

Planting what they want

The PM should recommended varieties as well as sizing parameters where applicable. An example of something that presented unforeseen challenges were the more unusual varieties of beets.

The co-op had chioggia beets on their list for growing. I signed up to grow them for a number of years, but sales declined to the point that it wasn’t worth growing or trying to sell them. They look nice, but I think once the bold customers had tried them, they decided they liked the other varieties of beets better.

Staying with the beet issue, I also grow golden beets, they take longer to mature, and fewer are sold, but the lovers of golden beets at least consume enough that it’s worth growing a somewhat smaller amount than the red beets. I found this to be true both at market and for sales to the co-op.

Expectations

Growers should have a good idea of what and how much they would like to grow and what their limits are, both seasonally and quantity wise, especially over the long run.

Our co-op only buys organic produce from certified organic farms. They will occasionally purchase something that isn’t organic and label it accordingly, but they won’t buy from growers who claim to be organic. So growers need to be or plan on going through the certification process to participate in this program at our co-op.

Growers need to understand that it takes considerably more work for the PM to function with this system. Instead of one or two phone calls a few times per week, the PM and their staff have to track individual crops and delivery days for everything that their produce department purchases from local suppliers.

Help make it easy

The growers can make this worth their while with excellent communications, well ahead of ordering deadlines to make it easy for the produce people. This means ahead of order day, the grower should be well familiar with what is ready to harvest and in what quantities.

The grower should inform the PM what new item is coming on so they can exhaust their supplies purchased from the wholesalers and not be caught unable to order from the local grower because they just stocked up on that item.

For example, I sell at local farmers markets on Wednesdays and Saturdays. We set up orders and harvest on Tuesdays and Fridays. That means I’m walking through everything on Monday and Thursday so that I’m ready to tell the PM what I’ll have when we talk on the phone. They know I need the order early, especially for leafy greens, to get them harvested before it becomes too hot and sunny. It reduces follow up phone calls and allows the PM to check those items (s)he generally orders before the phone call, making the whole thing more efficient for everyone.

Quality, quality, quality

One of the most important reasons for the co-op to go through the increased effort to buy from many growers is freshness and quality. Providing only the best quality, and along with this, critical attention to post harvest handling and cleaning the produce will make for very happy customers and in turn, happy PMs as well.

Packaging: Larger growers generally purchase their own boxes with their own logos and labeling, and our co-op produce department staff work hard to recycle those boxes that are reasonable and clean enough to re-use. The co-op provides one space for those growers that have their own printed boxes and another space for growers to take empty boxes as they deliver produce. It helps the growers reduce their cost for packaging and helps the co-op reduce waste and disposal fees. This allocated space outside the produce department has been a great win-win for all.

Note: It’s important for organic growers to re-use only boxes that had certified organic produce in them.

Promotion

The grower should provide good farm photos that identify the farm, farmers, crops they grow, and help tell their story. Our co-op has enlarged and featured these photos around the produce department.

The produce staff has the extra work of continually adjusting the identifying labels with each item. Skagit Co-op developed attractive farm ID labels that can be changed easily.

Consumer education

Our co-op now has a web site and a weekly e-mail update: produce@skagitvalleycoop.com. This is a great place to feature special sales, new crops as season progresses, and gives customers something special. Several growers also write annual thank you letters to the co-op about what it means to be able to sell produce to our local co-op. It is important to point out to members the positive impact to the community and local businesses that their support means and to point out that it’s more work and more expensive for the co-op to practice business this way. It’s why most people who shop at co-ops do so and it’s important to help the co-op tell this story, again and again.

All of the participating farmers really appreciate this arrangement. It’s a winwin- win situation: for the co-op, the growers, and the eaters. I have people tell me frequently how much they appreciate being able to buy my produce when they shop at the co-op.

Growing a co-op

Every year, we incorporate one to two new growers at the meeting and opportunities change as everyone learns what works and does well or doesn’t.

Many growers have been able to add additional land into production and hire more employees as a result. It really does help build and secure the local economy, and protect local farmland. The growers work together to better manage crop rotations, local weather and soil variability and other production constraints.

As the interest in local foods has increased, the co-op has been able to meet the demand for local food and help grow demand. Produce sales increased by more than they ever have before, even after a major remodel several years ago. This arrangement has been a great opportunity for all and is worth the work to make it happen.

However, in order to have a planned, equitable, local purchasing program between farmers and co-ops or local grocery stores, both farmers and buyers have to cooperate to make it work. The Skagit Co-op model shows how it can work and expand economic development opportunities!

For more information on starting a collaborative farmer supply system or farmer co-op with a local retailer, and guiding documents, contact Patrice Barrentine at pbarrentine@agr.wa.gov, 360.902.2057.

Tags: Co-Op, Coop, Direct Marketing, Direct Markets, Patrice Barrentine, Skagit Valley, Skagit Valley Food Co-op, Small Farm Direct Marketing

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