Local and Organic: Going Beyond the Expected

Bloomingfoods Co-op in Bloomington, Indiana just celebrated its 18th birthday. We have two stores. Our original store has 1,600 square feet in retail, about 2,000 total. It's downtown, close to the campus, mostly walk-up customers, not too much parking. We have had a full line of natural and ethnic foods, and we have made money there.

Three years ago, Bloomingfoods opened up a larger store on the east side, which is more upscale, residential. The second store, located in a small shopping center, has about 8,000 square feet, with about 6,000 in retail. For competition we have two large chain stores within a quarter mile.

I'm the produce manager at Bloomingfoods. I'm also in charge of the farmers' market held every Saturday in the parking lot of the co-op.

From growers to store

When I grew up, my dad, a fifth generation Hoosier, always had a big garden; it seemed like he could grow just about anything. When I was hired, Bloomington already had one farmers market (now 20 years old). When you went there, you saw that they had a full spectrum of fruits and vegetables that can be grown here in Indiana.

At the end of the 1991 season, I contacted some of the growers at the farmers' market. I looked for the highest quality; I wanted our store to have that image. There were only two small certified organic growers at the time. I asked growers if they would supply me with whatever they had left over week to week, hoping that I could work with them over the winter to see if they could grow for me. My mission: first, to get as much locally grown produce as I could; and second, to get some of these growers certified, if they were interested.

A lot of them shook their head when I first asked them if they could grow organically or if they had heard about organics. So I began trying to educate some of the growers that I had started working with.

Trying to organize the growers and get them to grow for me at Bloomingfoods was a tough, tough route. I had to gain their trust. When finally a few of the farmers did trust me, the word got around and the others began to trust me also.

I took on two major growers -- one 50 miles south of us and the other 40 miles north. They supplied a full range of produce, very diversified. They were the biggest growers, but neither of them had even thought about growing organically.

Duringthe winter, I got togetherwith these two farmers and planned a schedule. I set up a spreadsheet that started in April and went week for week all the way into November. They told me what they could grow, what they needed for the farmers' market, and what they could grow for me.

We started off small, a couple cases of this and that. I tried to plan a harvest date and project a yield for all the crops that they could grow. Then I would have what I called "insurance" --other, smaller growers that had a good product and specialized in one thing or another -- as a backup in case Mother Nature stepped in and wiped out one person's crop.

I contacted some local restaurants and set up a network with them. When I had extra of this or that, these restaurants took it. They thought it was a great idea. They could carry local produce in season and advertise it on their menus, and the waiters or waitresses could mention it when they sold entrees.

Things progressed, and I budgeted an increase in volume the next year. Eventually I became known for having local grown produce seven days a week in season at Bloomingfoods. But a couple of my dreams hadn't been fulfilled yet. I wanted to be able to have a farmers' market, to get some of the smaller growers certified that wanted to be certified organic, and to have them supply me so I would no longer have to order organic produce from California.

From store to market

There was a small market in our parking lot on on Wednesdays, started a couple years before Bloomingfoods arrived. It was a small group of 10-15 vendors, a very close-knit market tbat had allowed in only one new grower in the previous several years.

I decided to try to start a farmers' market in our parking lot on Saturdays with smaller growers who didn't have much luck at the downtown farmers' market. There was a waiting list downtown; you had to get there at 4 or Sin the morning; if you were late, you couldn't even get in the market to sell!

I had a lot of farmers that were trying to grow organically. But I had problems getting them certified, because Indiana didn't have a certification program at the time. I tried to get them hooked up with OCIA, the Organic Crop Improvement Association, and with Cissy Bowman, a true pioneer over here. She and Val Carr set up a certification program in Indiana, not for livestock or poultry but just for produce, and also got some grant money to get some agriculture inspectors trained here. We utilized them to help some of the smaller growers. Each certification averaged about $60, including inspection and all the paperwork.

Soon we had a half a dozen growers certified. I got the okay from the co-op's general manager to organize a Saturday farmers' market in the Bloomingfoods parking lot. I wanted to go with 20 growers. I already knew which ones I could depend on -- I built my market around them. From the store, I already had three years' experience working with most of these growers. With my two main farms -- one from the south and one from the north -- I had local produce as early in the season as I could get it and as late as I could get it.

I had my first meeting with growers in January and then another one a month or two later. I got them together to talk about what their feelings were. They told me what they thought about how we should set up the market and who we should have. I had a lot of ideas for other things, but they recommended that we stick to produce. Later, I added a few vendors with related non-food products.

In exchange for helping promote them and the expansion of their farms and organic produce, growers made a commitment to me to be there every week. All except for one or two have been there every single week since the start of the season. Any that didn't I had to replace with somebody who would make the commitment.

Since ours was a new market, I decided to charge only $125 to the people who were taking a chance with a yearlong commitment to it; seasonal people were charged 10 percent of sales. I didn't want to have the farmers to be motivated by a percentage. Anyone in our market takes in a lot more than $125 in any given week.

I took the money from that to start up the market. There were a lot of hidden costs. We had hoped to have a tent over the whole market, but it proved to be too expensive.

Building the market

The downtown market was run by the city, and the city's insurance said that they couldn't carry any processed foods. But the Bloomingfoods insurance company said that as long as we were selling it on our property, we'd be covered for any processed foods we carried. So we have farm eggs, persimmon pulp, apple butters, herb vinegars, tinctures, and remedies.

I picked the local honey dealer that the co-op had been dealing with for 10 years and promised him that he would be the only person that I would deal with as long as he could meet our demand.

I looked around for a large flower grower who could supply house plants for the campus population, and who had dried flowers and fresh flowers. Even though my two major farms also grew flowers, I wanted someone to specialize in flowers and plants.

I got someone local to grow oriental vegetables -- we have a diverse ethnic community at the University -- especially to grow the exotic tomatoes, all the different colors and sizes and shapes.

We also have an herbalist there every week, someone who has dried and fresh, locally grown, certified organic herbs and spices, and who can answer questions about their medicinal value.

We even have French bread from a local bakery -- the French baguettes are really popular. We hope to someday include locally grown beef and chicken and farm-raised fish.

We have a huge variety of apples; however, none of our area orchards is certified organic at this time. When there is no more fresh cider, the co-op has a huge freezer full. I talked one orchardist into pressing enough juice for us to freeze for a winter supply. Wejust freeze it in gallon containers, put them in milk crates that we have saved up, and stack them in our walk-in freezer. We sample out hot apple cider in the winter, and it's local and preservativefree.

One of my other dreams was to have the highest quality tomato all year round. I have been working with my main tomato grower for three years. He is a commercial grower about 50 miles north of us who had been growing commercially during the season and had a huge operation. I started trying to convince him that he should grow certified organic, or at least pesticide-free until he could be certified, and it took a long time. I convinced him that he could sell enough volume to make it worth his while and that I could sell the tomatoes all year round.

We tried it two years ago, and we made it with a window of only six weeks. This year we shouldn't have any lapse at all. We have beautiful red, ripe, hothouse tomatoes, pesticide-free, in the middle of winter, and people still can't believe it! Once he becomes certified, we'll have certified organic tomatoes year round for the first time in the Midwest.

This year for the first time he'll be growing salad cucumbers, which have not been available in winter without wax. We'll have beautiful organic salad and pickle cucumbers, plus red and yellow and green peppers and basil, all throughout the winter.

Promoting the market

Most importantly, I make sure that everything we sell at the market is available seven days a week in the store, and that the people at the market know it. I especially keep a good supply of the fun stuff-- corn and melons.

We bought a helium tank for balloons all around our signs for the market and at the corners of the vendors. We started off with very few children; the balloons help us get dozens of them now.

Because the parking lot is right on a main drag, an idea for promoting the market that has worked well for us is to have summer time car washes. I tried contacting the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, the swim clubs, the cheerleaders and everybody else, to schedule them for Saturday in our market, then advertised that you can get your car washed while you shop. It's great for them, they take in several hundred dollars. We don't make any money off it, we charge them just five dollars for using the water. But they bring a lot of people in, including parents and friends, who wouldn't otherwise shop here. There's a lot of activity, community involvement.

I also try to include a different local artist or craftsman every week. They show how they throw their pots, make their wicker furniture, spin their wool, weave their yarn, or whatever it is. I actually have kept on a couple of them that fit in well with the market. They seem to be doing very well.

I get our name in the newspaper calendars every week by listing the entertainment for the week; we have a lot of local talent that wants exposure. And the car wash enables me to be in a section which announces fundraisers. I make sure that I mention that it is going to be at the east side farmers' market in the Bloomingfoods parking lot. So I get the market in the paper two times, free, every week. In addition, in the classifieds section under "Announcements," I have a nice little $12 ad, and it seems to be working very well; I find it brings in the mid- to late-morning people.

We offer a senior discount at the co-op and at the farmers' market. There also is a senior discount for fees -- it's half price for a grower over 65 years of age. We also offer a co-op member discount, and we plan to make the discount part of our membership drive for next year. Coop members showing their Bloomingfoods card can get 10 percent off their produce at the farmers' market.

Another opportunity for cooperatives in dealing with local growers is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), whereby consumers invest or subscribe at the beginning of the season with a farmer, who guarantees supply for a certain number of weeks. We have a CSA here, one of the oldest certified organic growers; they also supply Bloomingfoods. For the past three years we have let CSA participants pick up their bags twice a week, stored in the coop's cooler. A lot of people in the CSA went to the downtown market but didn't shop at Bloomingfoods. Now most of them are regular shoppers at Bloomingfoods, and the CSA farm has grown enough to participate in the Wednesday and Saturday markets.

That same farm, my first certified organic supplier, also became my source of organic bedding plants. We started with 50 varieties three years ago. Last year we had 250 different types of flowers, herbs, spices, fruits and vegetables. This year we have over 350. I recommend that you look in your area for your largest organic grower and get them to start growing bedding plants. We've done just phenomenally well with that: thousands of dollars in bedding plants while encouraging co-op members to grow things in their garden organically and educating them about organics.

See other articles from this issue: #054 September - October - 1994