Hungry Food Co-ops Seek More Local Products

From time to time, the New Farmer Project features articles and essays from guest writers, with the goal of expanding the diversity of perspective and expertise presented here.  We’re delighted to have Meg Klepak as our first guest blogger.  Meg is the Local Food Coordinator at the City Market in Burlington.

Meg writes:

Richard Wiswall, farmer at Cate Farm and author of The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook, says that before you ever plant a seed, you need to know where the resulting product will be sold. This market assessment work is important for farmers growing new products – whether they are new farmers getting into production, experienced farmers wanting to diversify, or farmer co-operatives that are developing their infrastructure. Yet this assessment work can be challenging.

From the market end, food co-ops and other markets across the state are stepping up their efforts to source more locally and regionally grown products to meet customer demand. As these retailers attempt to find sources for new products, they find the marketplace flush with certain local products while devoid of others.

This image is not a solicitation, but an example of how local food co-ops are reaching out to farmers and food processors to supply local products.

What would it be like if farmers and retail markets had pro-active strategies aimed at developing the products that would fill gaps in the food system and satisfying the existing demand?

This conversation is the inspiration for the Neighboring Food Co-op Association’s (NFCA) recent survey of food co-ops in New England. NFCA members compiled sales volume data for 17 products feasible to produce in our region but for which local sources are lacking. We selected various frozen fruits and veggies, single serving yogurts, and a variety of grains and beans for this initial assessment. These products are the highest priority, potentially local products from the co-ops’ perspective. Eleven co-ops then ran the numbers and looked at how many pounds or units of the products they sold in the 2009 calendar year.

Here’s what they came up with:

Producing and therefore sourcing these products may be challenging given infrastructure, distribution, and pricing issues. These obstacles also may not be easy to address at the individual farm or individual co-op level. By compiling sales data for these products from numerous food co-ops in the region, we hope to demonstrate a level of demand where investment in infrastructure and distribution makes economic sense.

In other cases, an individual farm might have the desire to scale up or modify production in order to meet the demand for the products we’ve identified.  New farmers, for example, could explore the possibility of freezing their excess production of fruits and vegetables.   Several food processing centers exist throughout the state, and are designed to assist farmers with creating value added products. The Vermont Food Venture Center, currently expanding at a new location in Hardwick, is one example.  Another example is the Agency of Agriculture’s mobile freeze unit, which is currently being leased by Green Mountain College (GMC) in Poultney, VT.  GMC invites local farmers to use the unit based at the college (contact Garland Mason at (802) 287 2940 or masong@greenmtn.edu for more info).

UVM Extension offers several valuable course opportunities to plan for product development or new farm enterprises.  Building a Sustainable Business is being offered this December.  It is one of several courses being offered through the New Farmer Project that brings together a team of farm business management professionals to assist farmers with enterprise planning.  The Farm Viability Enhancement Program is another service that offers business planning and technical assistance to Vermont farmers as part of a statewide effort to improve the economic viability of Vermont agriculture.  The Vermont Small Business Development Center offers personalized business advising for farmers and food entrepreneurs already in business.  Contact VTSBDC advisors at various locations throughout the state for more information.

Included above is only preliminary market data, which the NFCA is now sharing with agricultural agencies and food system advocates, farmers and farmer co-ops, and community economic development groups across the region. We are sharing this information with the hope of building shared goals and identifying areas where we might work together with like-minded organizations to help address the barriers that these gaps in the regional food system represent.

If you have any questions, feedback or ideas for collaboration, please contact Erbin Crowell at the NFCA (erbin@nfca.coop).

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About Ben Waterman

Ben writes about land access, tenure, and stewardship issues that are relevant to new farmers in Vermont. He coordinates the Land Access Program at UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture: http://www.uvm.edu/sustainableagriculture/?Page=begland.html=
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