The Clean Food Network was created to meet the marketing needs of the areas sustainable farms, as there weren’t any reliable markets in the Huntsville/Madison area. The community also needed access to sustainable farms and their products. We pooled our resources and started an on line ordering system with weekly local deliveries. This creates a wider customer base for the farmers and a wider variety of products for the community to choose from and have it delivered fresh once a week to local pick up points in the area. Beginning farmers have a way into the market, there is no waste as farmers only harvest what has been sold. It is convenient to farmers and to the community.
In the Huntsville/Madison area of Alabama in 2006 there was only one farmers market, with a few conventional growers but 2 big store front wholesale resellers. Sustainable farmers couldn’t compete with the cheap food. So most farms sold from their farms or went to other producer only farmers markets located at least 60 mi. away from the farm. The only access the community had to these sustainable farms producing clean healthy food was by word of mouth and going from farm to farm to get what they wanted.
We banded together and created the Clean Food Network LLC a farmer owned network. We operate a on line ordering system. Customers order on line what they want, the orders are filled and delivered to area pick up points.
1. Create a farmer-owned cooperative, The Clean Food Network, Inc., in north Alabama and Tennessee to serve as a local marketing outlet for sustainably-grown fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, and processed foods. This network will work to increase sales for farmers in the area, expand markets for a longer part of the season, and improve community access to local food.
2. Increase the number of participating farms, including transitioning and beginning farms. As the network increases its sales, new farmers can ease into production with less concern about production highs and lows, and farmers interested in transitioning to more sustainable methods will have an outlet for their new products.
3. Create an outlet for value-added businesses such as food processors and bakers. The network will encourage production of value-added products, from processed meats to jams and jellies to honey to frozen vegetables. The cooperative will be able to provide a broader selection to its customers, storable products can be sold over a longer period of time, and surplus can be transformed into higher-value products.
4. Streamline distribution to lower-income communities. While this is not an automatic result of the creation of the network, the group will make a concerted effort to ensure that their products are accessible to lower-income community members.
5. Educate youth on farm opportunities and business options. Whether the youth involved in the network remain in agriculture or not, future entrepreneurs can learn from the efforts of the cooperative.
The Clean Food Network is a group of 11 farms that have organized as an LLC so the farmers would own it and you would have to be a producing farmer in order to be a member. One farm one vote. The manager is voted in and handles the day to day operations, but the membership decides the direction of the company.New members are taken on and have a 1 year probation period to work out any production problems, quality issues. Then the members vote to make them a full voting member.
We are one of the networks or markets that are using software developed by Eric Wagoner a farmer from Athens Georgia as basically a virtual farmers market. Our address is cleanfoodnetwork.locallygrown.net we have an about page,weblog page, growers page, market page where customers have over the weekend to order then the farmers are e-mailed or called with what they need to fill their orders including orders from non internet sales such as restaurants, people without computers, university events. Some farmers bring their produce to our farm, we pick some up on the way, some drop it off at our distribution site in south Huntsville, where we have a freezer and refrigerator for meat, eggs, milk and soap. All the vegetables, milk eggs and cheese are made or picked fresh within 24 hrs. of delivery so everything is in and out the same day except the meat which we keep frozen. At the distribution site we pack orders then deliver them to area pick up points or restaurants the same day. We don’t have very much infrastructure as everything is in and out the same day but deliveries were tearing up our personal vehicles.The grant helped with letting us get a delivery van.
The farmers receive 70% of the retail price when they sell their product. CFN retains 30% of the retail price for the cost of doing business, at the end of the year whatever money is made above the cost of doing business is distributed back to the members in the percentage they used the network based on sales. This way farmers receive the most for their product. We have a yearly business meeting where the plan for the year is decided, events, coordination of production, marketing plans etc. is discussed. The manager is in contact with everyone once a week at least so input is passed along thru the year. We also have a meet the farmers day. Farmers set up their booths and we make finger food from our food for the public to come and sample our wares.
We are increasing our season as our farmers acquire season extending capabilities, hoop houses, in field covers we deliver 38 weeks of the year working towards year round.
We have grown from 4 farms producing meat and vegetables to 11 farms producing pastured meats, eggs,vegetables, dairy and value added items such as cheese, goat cheese, butter, chocolate milk,goat milk soap, baked goods. It has been especially helpful to beginning farmers by providing an outlet for their products as they gain knowledge and experience. Every year the members have gotten a distribution check at the end of the year when it is most needed.
We have proven we can increase the income to the farmer and decrease the farmers time out of the field to market their product. The community is now really starting to respond to the opportunity but still have to be educated about in season availability of not only vegetables but eggs and meat production. We have some real cheerleaders who love the value of what we do and the quality of our product. Some other on line markets have a disclaimer that they are not responsible for the quality of the food. This is precisely what we take pride in and feel very responsible about not only to the public but the health of our land, If we have healthy plants and animals we are being good stewards of the land. The community appreciates our commitment to these principles, they like the variety and the quality of our products. We also offer our products at a reasonable price so a wider segment of the population has access to it.
We have provided a way for small and new farmers to get into the market and a place for value added products. In our network value added also means it adds value to our market and the community, the farmer doesn’t have to worry about creating a customer base just on their niche’ they can plug right in. This also encourages others. By creating a market we are also creating farms.
We have created a longer season than the farmers markets traditionally have and we are delivering up until the week before Christmas and Starting again in February, with season extension. Capturing the winter market. We are a place to get your food after the farmers markets shut down and you get the great brassicus and root crops you don’t see in the warmer months. Alabama has the season and the ability to grow year round with a little protection.
We have also worked with providing food to the elderly thru a local non-profit CASA.
Educational & Outreach Activities
We have flyers and cards our farmers hand out at other markets. We have included CASA in providing food for the elderly, we have provided technical help for their community garden. WE have worked with a local restaurant to develop a Slow Food Convivium and do the first farm visit. We have Meet Your Farmers Day once a year so the public can come and meet the people who grow their food. We are participating in the plans for the local food store the North Alabama Food Bank is building. Crabtree Farms in Chattanooga has published a food guide called Tatebuds that is distributed to the area restaurants, chamber of commerce and other public forums. We have advertised in this as part of marketing in Chattanooga. We also participate in events the local extension service is doing concerning farming and food. We have done a lot to reach our hand into the community and have been waiting for someone to take it and now they have. We are excited about the future.
We have grown from 4 farmers to 11. We started with no capital and was awarded the grant in March 2007. We ran on personal finances until we could get reimbursed. We ended the year with a profit and being able to give the farmers a distribution check. We have grown 2.5 times every year and this year we are already showing signs of a larger growth spurt.
ASAN (Alabama Sustainable Agricultural Network)& Hiefer Intl. Subsidized us, so we could provide small CSA bags of food to CASA a non profit, working to keep the elderly in their homes as long as they can. They also have a community garden that is operated by volunteers. They liked the food and we are keeping the program going by offering an elders box on our website so our customers can order one and we have had a good response.
We have done two Meet Your Farmer Days. At a local textile mill that has been converted into shops and artist studios we have had the farmers set up their booths with finger food so the public can taste our food and talk to the farmers that are growing it. We have increasing participation every year. This year they want to do a media event for the fall and tie it into the cities green coalition.
The Food Bank of North Alabama is building a local food store on the border of two neighborhoods one low income and one upper class. The store will be a worker cooperative and they want us to provide 10% of their produce.They are also including distribution facilities for us in their store plans. We have had our distribution point at a friends garage where we plug in our freezers etc. and pack orders the land is now being sold and we have to move so the food bank is letting us use one of their warehouses until the new store is finished. This will provide us a more central place that is easy for the farmers to bring their products and provide us with coolers and freezers to store products in and a dock where we can check farmers in and an inside packing area. We will then provide them with discounted food in exchange for a lease, and providing training for the workers in local produce,season availability and farming.
We have also worked with a local restaurant in getting a Slow Food Chapter up and running by providing the restaurant with food and assisting in their promotional dinners. They have recently had their first farm tour at one of our farms. It went well.
As we grow and streamline production, grow new farms, offer more products, interconnect with the community not just in providing food, but eventually helping to revitalize our local communities by helping to connect the dots in the local food system which does include more than just farmers and eaters. We will be employing drivers, people to pack orders, connecting interns with farmers, urban gardens with markets, providing entrepreneurial opportunities for not just value added farm products, but other green technologies. The partnership with the Food Bank will help in creating jobs, but be a big community connection with local food. We are also being asked to participate in the green coalition in Madison and the Green 13 council in Huntsville about how to advance the region in green building, policy development, incentives etc. We wish to be a participant in our community, to be a positive step forward for those who follow to make a healthier, aesthetically pleasing, economically vibrant community.
As the grant ends we will be splitting management and one person is taking the bookkeeping and marketing in the Chattanooga area. The other is maintaing the managers position and marketing in Huntsville/ Madison area. This we hope in the future will spin off into its own network for the Chattanooga area.
We have discovered, create a market and they will come. It has been slow because we started with no capital and had to make money before we could take advantage of the grant. We are all limited resource farmers so investing large sums of money was not an option in capital generation. It has been very helpful to have the partners we have had such as ASAN and Hiefer Intl. to help us thru some critical points in our development.
Especially for a start up marketing network some beginning capital and a reimbursement for advertising would have helped us to get off the ground in fine fashion.
We don’t have a lot of infra structure or overhead because we don’t keep inventory except for frozen meat, everything is in and out in one day, that keeps costs low. So a delivery van was what we really needed.It was very helpful that the grant helped us get a delivery van as it was tearing up our personal vehicles.
Even as an on line market, it has been slow to catch on in Huntsville because it really is a working town, it is a small city. Unlike Atlanta with millions of people isolated from their food production. Huntsville is still small enough that in 15 -20 min. you can be at a farm. With farms so accessible around the city and national trends a little behind the curve here. Without a descent farmers market until 2 yrs. ago. Educating the public about seasonal food, food production and supporting a connection is still very much in need. My recommendation is that while a market can be reached in a small working city it will take longer, marketing avenues should be supported by the grants offered in community innovation. Producers are growing many of them new to farming and marketing, many have never done a farmers market. Educating the producers about when to pick, plant, have consistent production is something that the network is good for. The most impressionable lessons are the ones that cost you. So when a producer doesn’t meet our standards and we don’t buy their product because they haven’t planted it at the right time, or haven’t done post harvest well. It shows up in their product. Even though it is explained to them and it is helpful that the manager is also a farmer so the problem can be fixed quickly. They can call or get connected with another farmer that can answer their questions. There is no better teacher than experience and we have seen some growers blossom, and I am very honored to represent the farmers and the wonderful products they work so hard to produce.