Recently I had a couple conversations that I found disturbing. The first was with a new young produce manager I have been working with on shrink, margins and ordering. While we were putting together an order he received a call from a local grower. I heard him explain that the reason he wasn't going to buy the grower's greens was because he could get them $3.00/box cheaper from a California grower through a wholesaler.
The other discussion took place a few days later, back home in California. A farmer friend who has been growing organically for 20 years commented on how a few of the large natural food stores had stopped buying from him -- their reason being that his product selection was too small (he grows 30 different crops!) and that working with farms his size didn't fit into the centralized buying system.
The future of local organic agriculture is not fading away completely. I have found many wonderful examples of co-ops and farmers working together to keep a healthy buyer/seller relationship. Kristen Fellows of Community Mercantile in Lawrence, Kansas was excited to tell me about her co-op's commitment to buying locally. Along with produce they also buy local honey, popcorn, eggs, dried flowers, crafts and a blue corn chip product. A cooperative of local farmers, Rolling Prairie Alliance, uses Community Mercantile as a distribution site for subscribers to the CSA (community supported agriculture) program. Rolling Prairie members set up tables in the deli area of the store for distributing that week's produce. This can be hectic in the store, but the co-op feels the benefits outweigh the hassle.
At Wheatsfield Grocery in Ames, Iowa, John Murphy, their interim general manager, says that 5-7% of their organic produce is from local growers. Bruce Smith of Iowa Fresh Produce supplies most of the produce, but they also support a group of CSA farmers, who have formed an organization called The Magic Bean Stock. Wheatsfield supports them by providing sign-up forms and co-sponsoring events. Because of this long-term commitment, says John, "the co-op is the farmers' first choice to sell to even though there are three supermarkets in town."
I also spoke with Edward Brown of the Wedge Co-op in Minneapolis, where 13% of the produce purchased comes from within 150 miles. Edward believes that local farmers are one of the community's most valuable assets. By supporting them he minimizes transportation costs, increases freshness, supports the local economy and adds stability to small and medium sized farms.
In November the Wedge sets up or evaluates agreements with the farmers. These contracts help the growers project what they can sell. For example, the co-op says it will buy 7 cases of kale for 19 weeks. They set a target price based on a living wage for the farmer and local cost of production. Large scale West Coast farms can produce and ship product cheaper than a local Midwest farmer. Last year, when salad mix from California was landing at $8.00/box, Edward was paying a local grower $16.00/box. Though this sounds like a huge difference, it supports a farm at a time when many of them are disappearing. The farmer also agrees to create a farm sign for the Wedge's produce stand and to do in-store demos and farm tours. To avoid the chaos that can occur when farmers are allowed to call or deliver any time they want, Edward has set up a system of ordering and delivery times with very specific guidelines.
At Food Front Co-op in Portland, Oregon, Danielle Jones emphasized the one-on-one relationship she has developed with local growers. Growers will call her up, for example, when they have an abundance of a particular crop, and work with the co-op on price and quantity. Her direct communication about what works in her store helps them succeed together. When 50% of the produce you sell comes from within 300 miles, as in Food Front's case, this type of communication can make a big difference.
Supporting your local farmers not only keeps them on the land and producing; it also provides us with fresher food and supports our local economies. This makes all our communities stronger. For years, local farmers have made a commitment to us to provide fresh quality food. When people were first selling organic produce, most of it came from local farms. Now we have the opportunity to commit to them and keep local family farmers alive and well for the next millenium.