The local growing season brings many opportunities to your co-op's produce section. Unlike the bigger chain supermarkets who buy primarily from large wholesalers, we have the flexibility to purchase from smaller growers. If properly managed and merchandised, buying local provides a marketing opportunity to distinguish your store's produce section from your competition.
This article will outline some of the strategies we used at People's Food Co-op (PFC) in Ann Arbor, Michigan to develop a program of buying as much as possible from local growers.
Why present an article on buying and selling local produce in November? Indeed, hard frosts have occurred in many parts of the country, and except for storage crops the local season is, for all intents and purposes, over. In my opinion this is precisely when to develop the next season's local buying strategy. Late fall and early winter is the time to meet with your growers to discuss last season's successes and failures and begin to set goals for the next season.
The key here is to match your store's needs with what your growers can supply. We do not sign contracts, but we do make commitments to purchase certain amounts of produce from growers. In return, our growers agree to make us their first priority for those products. You may find it useful to sign contracts, but ultimately trust and performance by both parties will determine your long-term arrangements.
Our philosophy at PFC is to return the best possible price to our farmers. If we cannot provide enough return to our farmers to be able to stay in business, then why bother buying local? We typically use the classic concept of supply and demand to determine our prices with the growers. If the product sold poorly or if we had an excess supply of an item, we negotiate a lower price with the grower. Conversely, if a product sold so well we couldn't keep it in stock, we usually offer a higher price to the grower.
An important point here is that the buyer rarely if ever dictates prices. The grower and the produce buyer mutually agree on a price. Both parties need to be happy to have a long-term working relationship. Other determinants of price for our region included local conventional prices and California organic prices. We always pay at least 20 percent over local conventional prices but usually not more than delivered California organic prices.
Late fall and early winter is the time to discuss last season's successes and failures and begin to set goals for the next season.
Another pricing strategy is to pay premium prices for early or late crops. For example, one of our organic farmers grows his first crop of tomatoes in a greenhouse. He starts harvesting in late June and receives $1.25/lb. for his tomatoes until perhaps early Augnst. We also buy his outdoor tomatoes all season long, partly in acknowledgement of his efforts in providing early tomatoes.
Quantity and quality
When I first started buying from local growers, we typically had little control over quantities or quality of the produce. Many of the growers delivered their produce unannounced, and the quality and consistency of the vegetables was unpredictable. Baseball bat zucchinis just don't sell well. To help change that, the co-op's produce buyers began meeting with our growers at least once a year to estimate what our needs would be for the next season. We frequently enjoy a good meal and a tour of the farm as we match our store's needs with their growing expertise. While this process is collaborative, the buyers are the ones deciding how much and when product will be needed. During the heat of the summer months, we rarely can buy as much produce (except fruit) as we can in early summer or fall. Our buying patterns reflect that summer downturn in vegetable sales. Just as important, the buyers decide what quality will be acceptable. For example, zucchini needs to be a consistent size similar to what we could get from our wholesaler.
We encourage them to use strong stackable boxes and consistent case sizes of consistent excellent quality. We've learned that just showing the growers what quality "looks like" is some of the best training we can give. We also expect regular delivery days from most of our growers. In return for these expectations, we offer the best prices in our area for their product. We also offer loyalty. If both buyer and grower are satisfied with the arrangement, we continue to buy from the same growers year after year.
During the local growing season, we need to favor our local growers as much as possible. We try to put out big displays of their product if they have peak production and we have a good price on the item. If our prices are close to conventional prices around town, we only buy from our local source, provided they have an adequate supply. We also mention the grower by name in our produce signs. Our growers appreciate the recognition.
Why bother with all this extra work, you might ask? Isn't it easier to simply make one purchase from your area's produce distributor? It is easier to pick up the telephone once and purchase from one supplier. But at PFC, we found that there were a number of tangible and intangible reasons for buying local. A few of these reasons include:
* Knowing the people you get your food from. As buyers we look forward to the part of the year when we can actually see and visit with the people who grow our store's produce. Our customers seem to like knowing their melons and tomatoes came from John Chamberlain and that their shiitake mushrooms were grown with care by Norma Green. We also promote our local growers with window displays featuring pictures of our growers "outstanding in their field" and newsletter articles featuring their families and farms.
* More money goes to the farmer. When our co-op buys directly from local growers, about 6070 percent of our selling price goes back to the farmer. A recent editorial from The Country Today states that the average farmer gets less than 25 percent of the price you and I pay for their food in the store. The rest goes to processors, packaging wholesalers, trucking, and retailers. Buy locally and see much more of your money go where it should go -- to the person who grows the food.
* We support small family operated farms. By purchasing locally, we buy from people who are generally too small to satisfy the demands of a large supermarket or wholesaler.
* We support sustainable and organic farming practices. Virtually all of our local growers are using sustainable farming practices which improve soils, reduce erosion and keep our groundwater safer than current agribusiness farming that is dependent on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
Buying local has made the summer and fall the most enjoyable season of the produce year for me as a buyer. It has proved to be an excellent way to promote our co-op's produce section to both farmers and customers.