We had a chance to catch up with our busy produce department buyers and found out a bit about this incredible, innovative program …
What is the Local Farms Program?
The Local Farms Program is the system we use to work with farmers to plan fruit and vegetable purchasing for the Co-op. We meet and talk annually about who is growing what for the year, they grow crops, and we buy them. Farmers update us weekly about what they have to sell us and our local farms coordinator compiles that into an order guide to managers to use. The Deli at the eastside store also uses this guide to purchase local produce for their salads. We have a lot of communication with farmers during the growing season. Since we need to check in a lot about quality and quantity available we end up emailing each other a lot.
Who created the Local Farms Program?
The local farm program was largely started by Samantha Chandler. The produce departments at both stores would randomly buy produce from local farms. They would call and talk to the manager to negotiate a price and get the buyer to purchase. Produce buyers would look at market pricing for that item and pay farmers based on that. This was inconsistent and left some farmers unhappy about prices. Produce managers of the time describe the situation as “chaotic” and “willy nilly.”
Samantha created a series of proposals to set up a system that included creating a standardized weekly guide that included available products for each farm, a local farms point person so that farmers could just negotiate with one person who would hand off information to Co-op buyers, a prioritization system where different farms got first and second priority to sell different crops to the Co-op, and the practice of paying farmers more and taking lower margin on direct local produce. This included an annual meeting with farmers and Co-op managers to check in about the program and plan prioritizations.
This made it way easier for farmers to contact us and produce buyers to buy from them. We then worked to grow the program to get more farms involved and to get other organizations who were interested in buying local produce, like the school district, involved.
In about 2006 Patrice switched from market pricing to set pricing. Before this the prices would change week to week. With set pricing, prices were set based on an average market price and agreed upon before each season. With this, farmers knew what they were going to get paid and took out the added work of negotiating prices all the time. This is a really transparent system and farmers know the prices for all crops, not just the ones they sell us.
What has been the result of the Local Farms Program?
Overall, the Local Farms Program has provided the Co-op with more local products throughout the season because it’s created a more consistent supply. The farmers who we work with have a sense of what we’re going to buy and what they’ll get paid for it. Since farms generally keep the same crop prioritizations year after year, they also have a good sense of volumes. Farmers can plan their seed buying and planting better and this leads to the Co-op stocking more local produce on the shelves.
We have good relationships with the farmers who sell to us. We see them delivering, they shop in our stores, we have an annual meeting to check in about the program, and we email and call quite a bit. The program also serves Co-op shoppers. We’re able to get way more information about what’s going on with crops that we can share. Co-op shoppers get to purchase produce that is chose with more care than large scale produce and taste varieties that aren’t grown to be shipped and often taste better.
We’ve had a core group of farmers for many years. Some of the farms in the program started out selling us just a few things and now sell us large amounts of produce. We’ve seen new start up farms and longtime farmers retire. The program has room for farms of all different sizes we have farms from .10 acre to over 50 acres. This support of local farms has a part in strengthening our local food system. We continue to share our local order guide with many local restaurants and producers who then buy directly from local farms.