Final Report for CNE10-083
The Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market provides an outlet for farmers to sell their product seven days a week without committing additional time to sales. The co-op has been asked by numerous organizations including other city governments, cooperative extension offices throughout New York, and farmers to share our model for creating a local-foods based, community owned grocery store. Based on this demand, we created a guide to opening a co-op based on our experiences and the feedback of other local co-ops at other stages of development. During the course of development, we have offered support to three local organizations seeking to also start co-ops, and have provided the finished handbook to the Food Co-op Initiative, who will be posting it on their website. We will continue to offer information to any co-op organizational group that requests it.
During the process of creating this guide we also honed our best practices based on grower and consumer feedback. One of our primary changes for 2011 is the development of grower contracts. Currently, approximately 30 growers and producers now have the option of drafting season-long contracts, ensuring steady prices and demand for their product.
In addition to creating a guide, the co-op has worked to strengthen its weakest production link: transportation of local products. Consolidated distribution points helped us reduce our transportation costs by $331 per week, or $7,954 over the course of the season. We used this money to purchase additional product and to finance the purchase of a new produce cooler, which will help us enhance our produce quality.
The first step in building a more efficient food transportation system for the co-op was to inventory and map all farms working with the co-op or as potential suppliers to the co-op. This step was executed by the Market Manager. We hired an additional person to work at the store while he was doing this work. Using this inventory and map, we planned weekly routes based on which farms provide product at any given time. A general weekly transportation map has been created which has two separate consolidated routes on it. The producers included on the route vary slightly from week to week, but consolidation, including drop-off points, has helped make this process much more efficient. Additionally, a driver has been identified to complete this route twice weekly. This driver will save the farmers and the co-op time in transportation. It was not possible to find a farmer from the group who was willing to commit to picking up and delivering product twice weekly, even for a fee. However, a co-op member who is retired was willing to do it for the same fee.
Our transportation adjustments saved a total of $7954 over the course of 24 weeks, saving a total of $331 per week (Table 1). Our goal was to save $368 per week, but we felt that our reductions in transportation still represented a success, especially since we added producers over the season.
Next the Market Manager, in cooperation with the local Cornell Cooperative Extension, Chamber of Commerce, and co-op board members, created a guide to creating a locally-scaled local foods-centered cooperative for other communities that are interested in this concept. Parts of the guide include: Determining the current level of community support; translating community support into monetary commitment; forming a cooperative corporation including legal issues and board creation; determining the scale of the co-op including budgeting, farm product availability and financing sources; and running a co-op including farmer relations, transportation, volunteer relations. This document is attached.
Cooperators on this portion of the project included two farmers from the co-op board of directors who worked with 6 local farmers and another local co-op manager and the local Cornell Cooperative Extension Regional Vegetable Specialist. The Fulton County Chamber of Commerce president played a less significant role than expected. We built on information that is currently available about starting co-ops, specifically focusing on scaling a co-op to be successful in any sized community and on working directly with farmers to increase the quality of life for both producers and consumers.
We conducted one member survey and one focus group instead of two separate focus groups to draw insights about what people value in the co-op and what they envision for the future of the co-op. Members and patrons of the store, were surveyed using SurveyMonkey. We received 105 responses (attached). Our results are attached to this report in their entirety. Our focus group was for farmers, and was hosted at a catered dinner during December 2010. 15 farmers attended the focus group (which occurred the same day as one of our weekly snowstorms), and provided useful insights into the contract writing process. Writing was scheduled to be completed by February 2011, but was actually completed in March.
The success of our handbook is being measured first by the number of people that access it. The next longer-term measure of success will be how many people use the information to make an informed decision about starting a local-foods co-op. We will not be able to fully assess the second measure of success, but will use the best tools available including tracking and following up on requests for our handbook and specifically requesting feedback within the handbook.
Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market was formed in an economically depressed, rural area where support for farmers is desperately needed. Our model of creating a community owned grocery store with very modest finances has been working very well, and other communities in updastate NY are interested in replicating our model. Other similar communities across the northeast would certainly als be able to adopt similar models, adapted to their specific needs.
In order to develop transportation routes that would work for everyone, the Manager worked with each grower to understand their needs and limitations. Creating routes and schedules for pickup was relatively easy, since growers were able to flexible about when to harvest product. However, it became clear that the growers did not perceive transporting product cooperatively as a good option, but that they were willing to pay a small surcharge to have their product transported for them. Therefore, the Manager accepted the responsibility of transporting product to the store. The Manager has now found a volunteer willing to transport product twice weekly if his costs are covered, and is looking forward to perfecting this new system in 2011.
Creating the handbook involved reviewing all of our notes since inception to articulate our processes, and then working with growers and consumers to understand what was working really wall and what needed to be improved. We detailed our best practices in the handbook, but also discussed some of the practices that we felt could be improved on to provide an accurate representation of our process.
Outreach for the handbook is still an ongoing process. We discussed our project at the Empire State Fruit and Vegetable Expo, to an audience of approximately 45 growers, and have been working directly with 3 organizations who have approached us interested in creating cooperatives. Additionally, the Food Co-op Initiative is going to place our handbook on their website, so that thousands of people across the country will have access to it.
1) Reduction in transportation costs for farmers and for the co-op: During the first year of our mileage reduction plan, we were able to reduce our mileage by 15,907 miles, which saved us $7954 this year. These savings allow us to purchase more product, and to make some necessary improvements to the store, including the addition of a new produce cooler.
2) Improve our best practices based on feedback from consumer survey and farmer focus group: Based on our consumer results, we have determined which products are most important to consumers and have focused on purchasing and marketing these products. We have continued to see steady growth of approximately 5% per month, which we attribute to our good connection to consumer wants/needs. We have changed our interaction with farmers, and are now offering the option of season-long contracts to increase farmer security. This was the number one recommendation by farmers at the focus group. Approximately 30 farmers have now been offered the option to contract with us. The stability of being assured a stable price and stable demand for product is extremely beneficial to local producers.
3) Dissemination of our handbook is helping other co-op’s form. We have been approached by multiple different organizations looking to create similar projects in their areas. We are currently working with a group of people in the neighboring county of Schenectady, NY who are trying to start a co-op, we are working with a processor who wants to connect with local vegetable producers to make shelf stable products for us and for other local and regional co-ops, and we are working with Tioga County, NY Cooperative Extension to determine the feasibility of creating a co-op. Information about our project was disseminated at the Empire State Fruit and Vegetable Expo, and perhaps most our most exciting outlet is the Food Co-op Initiative, which will be featuring our handbook on its website. The Food Co-op Initiative is a primary source of information for organizations seeking to start co-ops.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
See above sections. We will continue to disseminate our handbook and will speak at events and conferences whenever we are able.
In general, this process has made the co-op a more sustainable business. We have a clearer concept of what our consumers want from us as a local foods outlet, and we have a clearer idea of what local farmers need from us to be as successful as possible. We are still too small to help individual farmers succeed on our own accord, but we are helping as many as possible, and as we grow we hope to become a major income stream for local producers.
Improving transportation is and will continue to be very important to us and to local farmers. We have improved our efficiency a great deal already, but some clear needs have become evident. We need to obtain a refrigerated vehicle to transport produce and maintain maximum quality, especially on our consolidated runs. We also need to be able to store more local product directly in the store, to reduce trips to local farms.
Each month that the co-op grows, it is able to support more local businesses. We have also learned that our existence is spurring farmers to diversify their product lines, because they know that they will be able to test new things at our store. From duck eggs to sheep milk to goat, we have helped farmers try new aspects of agriculture without significant time commitments associated with farmers’ markets.
7. Potential Contributions—describe and assess any aspects of the project that could be replicated elsewhere and their potential contribution to the wider farm community.
It is our hope that other communities will be able to use our handbook to replicate our store (in a form that will most benefit them) in economically stressed areas. Last year we purchased approximately $80,000 in local products and created 1.5 jobs, and we expect that number to grow each year. If stores like ours, which are small but still have a local impact, could open in every county, small farms could have significantly more ability to sell local products without having to travel to large metropolitan areas.
We have found a tremendous need for two additional items: a refrigerated truck to carry produce on the consolidated pick up routes, and a medium sized (20 by 20) walk-in produce cooler located at the co-op for long term storage of local items. The refrigerated truck would allow us to create a better “cold chain” for our products, which would allow us to increase our transportation efficiencies yet again because we would be able to purchase more product at a time and to store it longer. Right now we are not able to keep perishable items such as berries and lettuce for as long as expected, primarily because they are not optimally stored from harvest to our doorstep.
In addition to facing storage issues from the farm to the store, we are facing issues with availability of storage items through the winter months. Almost no small to medium-sized vegetable producers in our area have walk-in coolers, which means that our ability to get storage items is being severely limited. We would like to store items not only for the store, but also for growers who are interested in selling at winter markets but are not yet financially able to make the investment of a walk-in cooler. We could rent space to these growers so that they could try winter marketing and make sure they want to commit to this form of marketing. We want to help growers in our area advance their own businesses by providing a way to explore and demonstrate the benefits of a year-round vegetable industry in the Northeast.