Pocahontas County Marketing Coordinator

Final Report for CNE11-087

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2011: $14,175.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Jill Young
Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corp
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Project Information

Summary:

The local foods project in Pocahontas County funded the Market Coordinator position and mileage for a weekly fresh produce delivery route which focused primarily on restaurants. The proposed position would included working with producers to collaborate on production planning, update product availability throughout the growing season, make sales calls to established and new buyers, confirm orders from buyers, communicate orders to producers, aggregate products, make deliveries to buyers, calculate invoices to buyers and make payments to producers.

By the end of the 2012 growing season, the Coordinator had sold $8070.89 worth of fresh farm products to four restaurants, the public school system, a retreat and a C.S.A.-like buyers group. By connecting to larger volume sales, farmers were able to get a higher price for their product and they could sell everything into a pool of buyers without leaving the farm. Fourteen family farms participated in the project, with some seeing significant increases in the overall sales, while others participated occasionally–adding just a little to their bottom lines.

A group of core producers, encouraged by the market coordinator, have decided to incorporate as an agricultural cooperative to formalize the business structure and increase capital investments for a shared brand, online ordering system and distribution infrastructure. Based on the success of this year’s project participants are looking forward to a streamlined sales and invoice tracking through an online marketplace as well as shared cold storage.

Outreach for the project started with the producers. In order to recruit more producers, the coordinator developed a Membership Application that outlined the roles and responsibilities of membership (attached in Methods-Section 4.) When the opportunity to sell to the local schools was established, the WV Food and Farm Coalition documented the success with a short video – Link available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KR8qQm1mJoI . The project solidified and word of the Coordinator’s reputation for reaching kids spread, which led to an invitation to participate Tenth Grade Career Day at the West Virginia State Fair Grounds. Market Coordinator Joe Heathcock, along with VISTAs India Keller and Annie Stroud, discussed farm entrepreneurship and production opportunities with all sophomores from the public high schools in region. The culmination of the project was a presentation at the Greenbrier Economic Development Corporation, “Market Logic: Agricultural Cooperatives”.

The project was successful in documenting the demand, developing the initial infrastructure of aggregation and distribution, and in supporting the local foods community’s ability to see the potential of increased profits through collaboration.

Project Objectives:

The objectives in the original plan of work were:

Define local market opportunities and encourage production
We experienced consistent demand and good prices for salad greens, berries, fresh herbs, honey, eggs, potatoes, garlic and many vegetables. There were multiple local outlets on the delivery route in 2012 where demand exceeded supply. The project initiated a conversation among the growers regarding standardizing product specifications, coordinating growing plans, recruiting new members, and increasing production and handling capacity in the 2013 season.

Establish a Distribution Infrastructure
Each producer was responsible for packaging their products for sale and the Market Coordinator picked up the order and transported it to the buyer in a cooler or plastic bin. The sparse population of the County and long distances between farms and buyers increases the transportation cost for producers, but the network established by the project gave producers access to volume buyers without spending time away from their crops. From the restaurant manager’s perspective, the route coincided with their work week to maximize the freshness during peak business and provided the consistency in terms of availability and quality that had been lacking in our area before the project.

Increase farmer profits
Participants were able to sell wholesale volume at retail price. The project increased farmers’ profits and saved them time. By demonstrating strong market demand and the efficiency of shared resources, the project helped growers to move up the value chain. Although producers were able to sell their raw produce at the farmers’ market, many chose to do the extra washing and packing necessary to get the higher prices paid by quality conscious restaurant consumers.

Increase buyer confidence and satisfaction
The Market Coordinator was able to increase buyer confidence and satisfaction maintaining high quality standards and occasionally rejecting an inferior product. Buyers communicated their expectations to the Market Coordinator, who would prepare the producers to meet those expectations.

Introduction:

The project was initiated in the context of overcoming barriers to potential growth. Fresh vegetable growers in the area were unable to increase scale because of the challenges that arise from high transportation costs, unreliable markets, and a lack of processing and distribution infrastructure. Despite a strong demand for locally grown fresh produce, including Farm to School programs and local eateries based on locally-acquired ingredients, farmers were only capturing a small fraction of the potential market. Due to the fact that no single famer produced the quantities necessary to satisfy even one large buyer, it was advantageous to share marketing and distribution services and therefore enable producers to gain access to higher volume outlets.

The project sought to bridge the gap between producers and food service professionals by creating a part-time marketing position. This allowed producers to increase production without having to worry about the increased demands of additional marketing and distribution. Local restaurants, heavily impacted by the tourist economy, had a one-stop shop for local products that delivered based on their weekly business cycle.

Procedures were set in place to notify the Market Coordinator of product availability, sales calls were made, orders were placed, produce was picked up from the farms, aggregated into specific orders, delivered to the buyers, buyers were invoiced for those sales and payments made to the producers.

The project sought to bridge the gap between producers and food service professionals by creating a part-time marketing position. This allowed producers to increase production without having to worry about the increased demands of additional marketing and distribution. Local restaurants, heavily impacted by the tourist economy, had a one-stop shop for local products that delivered based on their weekly business cycle.

Procedures were set in place to notify the Market Coordinator of product availability, sales calls were made, orders were placed, and produce was picked up from the farms, aggregated into specific orders, and delivered to the buyers.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Joe Heathcock

Research

Materials and methods:

Before the delivery route began operating, Joe Heathcock distributed the document Pocahontas Local Foods Member Agreement to prospective producer members. The document is divided into three parts. Everyone was required to sign and return the Marketing Agreement which authorized the Market Coordinator to advertise and transport their products. Most regular participants return signed part two, Membership Applications. Part 3, Mediation and Arbitration Agreement was only used with potential members who could not demonstrate product liability insurance or for other partial documentation.
A seasonal availability chart was compiled and provided to prospective buyers.
Membership applications were used to collect info among prospective producers.
Total weekly sales were recorded for the delivery route.
Available inventory was initially posted online and after difficulty in getting food service personnel to check the website, phone calls became the primary method for discussing availability and taking orders.
As part of the Fresh Fruits and Vegetable Program, the project hand delivered locally produced vegetables to each classroom at Marlinton Elementary, including discussion season extension methods and benefits of local production. Products served include: beets, kale, mixed greens, cherry tomatoes, ground cherries, sweet peppers.
The Market Coordinator attended special events in support of farm to school programs including Wild Eatin’ West Virginians, an annual local foods festival held at Marlinton Middle School on May 25, 2012 and a career day attended by all Greenbrier County 10th graders in November 2012.
In October 2012, the coordinator distributed the document Cooperative Start-up Membership Application to participants who expressed interest.
In order to plan for the upcoming year and formalize the business relationships, Google docs was utilized to host a group discussion regarding the bylaws of a marketing a distribution cooperative. See attached documents Collaborative Conversation for Draft Articles and Draft 1 Articles of Incorporation. These included links to the Ohio Cooperative Development Center’s co-op formation kit and examples of By-laws for similar organizations.
Farmers shared thoughts like “I am committed to the Lewisburg Farmers Market, but have produce available mid-week for sale within the co-op and am very interested in alliances with other farmers concerning infrastructure, marketing, and sustainability in general. Thank you for your time and energy.”- Michael Buttrill Bootstrap Farm.
Dawn Barrett Baldwin of Brightside Acres asked for 2013 projections and had important questions such as, “I really don’t have a sense of what our immediate capital needs are and thus what our target initial capital investment should/would be. Joe, it would help if you could sketch out a 2013 budget with minimum operating costs/capital investments enumerated. I’d like to see what your costs were in 2012, the % growth you envision for 2013, and how much working capital you think it’s going to take to get there. Certainly there is an ideal target investment in storage, preparation, transportation, insurance, and branding…and a minimum amount needed to simply move ahead beyond 2012 income levels.”

In late October 2012, in response to the discussions, Joe prepared and shared the document 2013 Cooperative Expense Projection.

In November 2012, the SARE application for project funding in 2013 was prepared and submitted. See attached document NE SARE_2013_full proposal.

In December 2012, the project was also submitted to the Central Appalachian Network for potential grant funding. See attached Sustainable Agriculture Value Chain Proposal.

The Market Coordinator participated on the statewide agriculture planning committees which included the Aggregation and Distribution Working Group. Meetings were held at the Monroe Farm Market on June 28, 2012 and at the conference, “Road Map for the Food Economy” in Bridgeport, WV on January 29, 2013.

Research results and discussion:

Growers who were limited to on-farm sales or Saturday morning farmers’ market sales experienced significant price limitations due to competition from hobby gardeners and surplus sales from neighborhood gardens. The project enhanced the economic viability of a network of small producers by reducing redundancies and increasing the professionalism of sales, storage, and delivery services.
During the period that the project operated, farmers experienced an increase in income because of reduced transportation costs, greater time spent on the farm, and larger volume sales. (See attached sales chart and data detail.)
The Pocahontas County School District set up new accounts with four farms and purchased berries, salad greens, and vegetables that were grown within the County. This built upon the work of multiple AmeriCorps volunteers and greatly increased the economic impact of the farm to school initiative.
The WVU Pocahontas County Extension Service local agent, County Commissioners, and County schools’ food service workers discussed the ongoing need for a processing and cold storage facility to be utilized in coordination with producers, food service, and public consumers.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

A short video describing the farm to school program and nutrition education in Pocahontas County was produced by the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition. Link available here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KR8qQm1mJoI

As part of the Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program at Marlinton Elementary, the market coordinator and VISTA Elizabeth Williams distributed local vegetables to each class and facilitated classroom discussion about the benefits of local food production. Fall 2012.

Presentation at the WV State Fairgrounds, ‘Careers in Local Agriculture’.
At the annual Tenth Grade Career Day at the West Virginia State Fair Grounds, Market Coordinator Joe Heathcock and VISTAs India Keller and Annie Stroud, discussed farm entrepreneurship and production opportunities with all sophomores from the public high schools in the region. November 2012.

Presentation at Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation, “Market Logic: Agricultural Cooperatives” in conjunction with other producer presentations. January 2013.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

In terms of growth potential, the project was successful in demonstrating a strong unmet demand for locally produced, high quality foods, the importance of shared infrastructure, and the possibilities of working together. The successes at increasing market share overall, however, will be contingent on a large increase in production.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Potential Contributions

Although funding for this project was not sustained past the 2012 growing season, many of the participating farmers wish to continue sharing sales, storage and distribution infrastructure.

A core group of producers, along with buyers, restaurants, and community partners, have continued the project in the 2013 growing season. They have worked to maintain and expand the aggregation and distribution to local buyers. They have coordinated with other projects (such as the Blueprint Communities Project through the WV Community Development HUB, and the Grow Appalachia Project at High Rocks Educational Corporation) to support the establishment of a permanent aggregation site with cold storage and to acquire a refrigerated truck for deliveries. The group continues to explore the possibility of forming a cooperative, especially as the WV Legislature looks to update the state’s statutes governing cooperatives.

The effects on the wider farm community should be put into context. The project showed that small scale vegetable producers using season extension techniques can produce a higher value per acre than the traditional livestock based farm system of our region. The project helped to disseminate information about specific crops such as salad greens, berries, garlic and honey which have strong demand. As a nod to this project’s success, we are seeing an increase in production among these crops and continued expansion of season extension methods. Due to the lack of a coordinator those details are not being documented.

Future Recommendations

The future of small, family farms is bright in the Greenbrier Valley. The Pocahontas Marketing Project has been instrumental in shifting the focus of individual producers from a view of their own farms individually, to a view of the larger group and the possibilities of working together.

The next big project for the Greenbrier Valley Local Foods Initiative is building on the successes of the Pocahontas project, both as a sustainable operation and as a model for other rural counties in our state/region. The GVLFI is studying the feasibility of a centralized Processing, Aggregation, and Distribution facility. The Pocahontas growers are considered to be a feeder organization for this project, which will gather their products and transport them to the main facility for processing, aggregation, and distribution on a larger scale. The GVLFI will be sharing the model that has evolved from this project with other Greenbrier Valley regional groups that may also want to join as feeder organizations.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.