Sunflower Fields – my farm- is located in Allamakee County, Iowa, the farthest northeast county in the state. The farm produces 30 acres of vegetables each season on a total of 215 acres. The remainder of the farm’s acres are devoted to young trees – 42 acres to be increased to 62 in 2006, a new prairie restoration in 2006, hay used as a soil nutrient management tool, pasture, and home to the central vegetable handling facilities for our cooperative, GROWN locally.
An organic system of cropping is utilized at Sunflower Fields although we do not have the need to certify as we sell all products directly to end users. Our most important focus is on raising the highest quality, freshest, most nutritious and tastiest foods we can. Organic production methods give us the best chance from year to year to accomplish our goals.
I have used sustainable practices at Sunflower Fields since purchasing the land in 1995. I began using organic methods immediately and have continued to use them. Additionally, I have added many new grass waterways, field borders, an extensive crop rotation system and use of on-farm composting to the farm’s system. Since 1995, I have also planted 2 new forests and my partner and I will extend these in 2006 as well as add a new section of prairie on 20 acres.
GROWN Locally growers are all involved in sustainable practices and the focus of the cooperative is based in these ideas, methods and goals. This is illustrated in both farming and production practices as well as the sustainability of the business in general. The goal of the Local Foods Buying Club project was to allow GROWN Locally to create more sustainability within our business and, as a result, allow the producers an enhanced environment for sustainability on their farms.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
1. The objectives for my project were:
• To design and implant a model which builds upon and expands the definition of local food systems, primarily in rural areas.
• To create a method by which consumers can easily become acquainted with and make purchases of locally produced farm goods.
• To allow producers a method by which they can become aware of the needs of local consumers.
• To create incentives for producers to grow products identified by local consumers as products which they would like to purchase from local sources.
• To develop a system by which consumers and producers have a forum for discussions to identify needs to both parties.
• To enhance and develop sustainability for our farms and for the business of GROWN Locally.
• To provide a model for other producers and groups of producers as they create and develop their own collaborative efforts.
2. Description of planning and implementation of project
PROCESS- The idea for this project originally came from the input and feedback we were receiving from family unit customers. We were involved in a CSA-type operation as a cooperative, and for many, the concept worked well – a box of produce each week for the growing season for a set price. But, for many others, the idea of receiving a box full of produce which they didn’t actually choose was too daunting. This spelled out a challenge for us:-“how do we address families in out area who cannot, for whatever reason, deal with out Farm Shares program?’ What we heard was that they would be happy to receive our fresh, local products, but would like to have a choice in what they received.
We considered this for some time- pre-SARE grant- and finally concluded that we actually had a potential solution right in front of us if we could develop it as a completely different level. We had been utilizing a website for our institutional customers to place orders for some time and it was working quite well for them – and for us. Could we, somehow, develop the website idea into a way which customers could order products from us in amounts they choose, at a time which is convenient for them and in a way in which allows us to produce efficiently and without waste?
We determined that, to develop this process, we would need much more than just a website. Through discussion among us growers, questions and surveys for customers and others and through ongoing concept development we were unable to create a preliminary plan for a system of product availability from growers and producers, an ordering system for customers and methods by which growers and customers could potentially exchange needs and ideas. This plan included a major expansion of our current website as well as educational and promotional tools to address ways in which we could expand our market base to include families who cannot participate in our Farm Shares program.
The first problem we faced was that of internet access in our rural area. Although much of the population in our area had access to internet services- primarily dial-up- many people either did not know how to use it or they chose not to subscribe. This created a challenge for us because, if our ordering system was to be web-based, we would be excluding many families in the area – exactly opposite a result from what we were developing this plan. We had many discussion related to this and concluded that, although we would promote the use of a website for ordering, communication and education, we would also develop a telephone link for those who did not choose to use the internet.
Our new family ordering system was based on a first come, first serve idea (as was the original institutional website) – not unlike a store or farmers market – so the website was a good vehicle for this. But by also using the telephone to accept orders, we were faced with a number of challenges: how to have access to calls as they came in while we were in the field, how to let customers know what we had available and to accept their orders, how to keep current with the website inventory, etc. But, in our minds, not to offer telephone access was to create a much worse problem.
We were excited about the development of this plan and it was apparent that there were other producers and groups of producers who would benefit from the model we were creating. But to make this model something other than just an idea, we would need to secure money to aid in its implementation. This is the point at which we decided to pursue a SARE grant. The infrastructure we had in place as well as some available computer equipment was a good starting point. Our delivery system was also well developed and we had a customer base with whom we could consult. But, the majority of our plan was new and it was going to take an extra amount of money to allow us to continue to plan and implement it correctly.
Upon receiving SARE funding we were able to consult with the web design company which had developed our original site to project the best ways to address the needs of an on-line ordering system. The process was a great experience in that it forced us to be specific about what we wanted to accomplish, how we were to get it accomplished and what results we could reasonable expect to see. With our SARE funding, we were also able to spend a good amount of time updating our business plan to include what we now called our Local Foods Buying Club – more on the project name below.
In the process of the website development, we learned that there are times when what people say they will do and what they actually accomplish are two different things. The original development company promised to work in the web up grade and then did not fulfill their stated obligation. That forced us to find another company – not a fun or quick process. Eventually we have found a new company and they are working on the final upgrades for the website. The lessons learned are that you need an airtight contract, you need to retain rights to the website’s code and that you need to be able to state precisely what it is you want to accomplish without locking yourself into a plan which is not flexible enough to incorporate new approaches to the challenges faced as the process proceeds.
Relative to flexibility, we developed our project both with preplanning and with ongoing discussion and evaluations after the program was initially begun. Because we had done a great deal of planning before the grant was awarded and also because we felt a growing urgency to implement our new program, we actually had a system in place five months after our initial funding date. But this was not the final form and we applied much tweaking to it after the launch. We offered many opportunities for both producers and customers to give feedback in the forms of conversations, surveys and newsletter questions. We also monitored our ordering process for website problems and other indications of inefficient procedures and processes. Each problem was looked at in both a situational and global view so our immediate problems could be addressed as well as preventing the same problem from surfacing again making for unhappy customers and producers. The great thing about this part of the development was that the producers were drawn together into a common goal and the customers could see this happen which strengthened the producer customer bond as well. We found that, even though we had many problems in the beginning- inevitable as they were – we were able to address them in a timely manner and were also able to avoid much of the backlash and repeat problems.
People- The list of people who assisted in the planning and implementation of the Local Foods Buying Club project includes:
Michael Nash & Solveig Hanson, Sunflower Fields Farm, 776 Old Stage Road, Postville Iowa, vegetables
Fransis & John Blake, 1972 State Highway 76, Waukon, Iowa 52172, sweet corn, popcorn, bison
Merl & Cindy Steines, 2700 Happy Hollow Road, Decorah, Iowa 52101, vegetables, potatoes
Jeremy & Jodi Peake, 319 North Line Drive, Waukon, Iowa 52171, vegetables, dairy
Al & Sandy Peake, 705 Hillside Court, Decorah, Iowa 52101, apples
Kyle & Mari Holthause, 2168 Winnmakee Road, Waukon, Iowa 52172, vegetables, eggs, flowers
Cindy & Pat McCaffrey, Twin Springs Road, Decorah, Iowa 52101, teas, culinary herbs, body care products
Steve & Jeannie Daughton, 132 Quandahl Drive, Decorah, Iowa 52101, honey products
Wayne & Cheryl Wangsness, 1869 Middle Ossian Road, Decorah, Iowa 52101, cabbage, sweet corn
Joyce& Karel Rawson, 13814 220th Street, West Union 52101, baked goods
Chuck Humphrey, 1747 112th Avenue, Postville, Iowa 52162, vegetable
Marissa & Scott Nordschow, Decorah, Iowa, vegetables
Teresa Wiemerslage, Iowa State University Extension- Allamakee County, 21 Allamakee Street, Waukon, Iowa 62172, 563.568.6345, consulting, promotion, farmer connections, help with training workshops
Robert Karp Rick Hartmann, Practical Farmers of Iowa, P.O. Box 349, Ames, Iowa 50010, 515.232.5661, promotion
Tracy & Luigi Della Vecchis, DV Technologies, P.O. Box 370, Columbia MO 65205, 573.449.2211, firstname.lastname@example.org, website construction and coding – not currently involved
Ted Gaunt, Computer Iowa, Marshalltown, Iowa, 1.877.376.0049, current website designer and consultant
RESULTS- The results of the Local Foods Buying Club project generally met the ones we stated in out proposal- increases in producer sales, long-term viability for GROWN Locally and increased interest from local consumers for local and regional foods.
In addition, we have successfully addressed an unserved sector of our local population and developed what we consider a good model for others interested in a collaboration of growers and consumers which can effectively provide economic and social sustainability for producers and fresh, nutritious locally raised farm products to consumers in an efficient and affordable manner.
One area in which our projected result was found to be false was that we had anticipated the Local Foods Buying Club to be a “stepping stone” to our Farm Shares program. This has not been the case. Instead, we have found that the Local Food Buying Club has actually grown faster as an entity in itself and not led to families switching to a Farm Share later. We do not have years of data yet to verify this, but in the amount of time we have run the program, we have not found families wanting to change the way they purchase their foods. In other words, the Local Foods Buying Club project has created a much more stable operation for us than we had originally expected. And we are feeling as if this is a good thing in that, through the organization of the Local Foods Buying Club, we are able to handle the higher sales volume, higher growing demands for producers and higher volume of customer contacts necessary to make the program successful. And, actually, the rise in customer contact has proved to be a valuable asset in our overall operation on GROWN Locally.
The last “result” of the project has been the necessity to rename it. The producers were not satisfied with the name Local Foods Buying Club so we decided to use “GROWN Locally Food Basket” instead. This has worked well for the first two years of operation, and the Food Basket programs have essentially melded together. We are observing families ordering, for example, a vegetable share box, a chicken share, bread from our website as they need it, eggs as needed and a standing order of extra sweet corn and raspberries. In other words, they are utilizing the “different” ways of ordering to suit their own specific needs and desires without worrying whether they are a “Farm Shares” customer or a “Food Basket” member, a very logical result.
So, our thought is to eliminate all “program labels” and just offer our products to consumers as items which they can purchase by the unit, by a standing order or by a “share”. This is seen by us as a positive step and a direct and good result of the Local Foods Buying Club project. We have become a different cooperative using some different methods than we preliminarily projects, but we are happy with the final outcome and well on our way to having a system which can address current needs and has the flexibility to handle new ideas, solutions to new challenges and sustainable growth in our business.
2004 Buying Club income:$ 7,797 which is income not generated at all in previous years
2005 Buying Club income $16,387
2004 GROWN Locally income: $ 47,181
2005 GROWN Locally income to date: $69,466
These amount include a 20% cooperative withholding and the remainder going back to the producers
Our primary and most effective outreach tool is our website http://www.grownlocally.com. We are receiving countless hits from interested parties both consumers and those who are interested in the concept of the on-line ordering model. In this website is included both a public area which contains information about our cooperative, purchasing options, explanations about our programs, a forum board for producers and consumers, amps and a picture, a list of local institutions and current and past newsletter. It provides a wide network for our contact information as well as a place to share our model.
We have spoken at numerous conferences in the past two years about our project – The Upper Midwest Farming Conference, the Midwest Value-Added Conference, The national Food Policy Council Conference, The Southwest Marketing Network Annual Conference, the Indiana Cooperative Development Service Training Conference and other local and regional meetings. We found that personal contact was the best way to respond to questions and ideas from other growers. We will continue to present our evolving program to other through conferences and meetings.
A number of local newspapers and radio stations became interested in our project through our annual Tasting Fairs held in four communities each year. We are able to connect with many families who we would not, otherwise, reach at these events. For newly introduced families. Much of the interest in the choice and personal attention this program offers and even though they might purchase shares eventually, they are first drawn to the familiarity of choosing their own products.
Of course, the most effective sales tool we have is our annual brochure. We are always surprised at the distribution these publications receive. We make them available on our website as a download as well as printed material. We have promoted the Food Basket program in these brochures and we will continue to do so in the more evolved state of the program as it is currently.
I am generally pleased with the North Central Region SARE program. I feel that the staff has been supportive, the explanations of requirements are clear and reasonable, the process of application and administration for the grants is thorough but not unrealistic and the funding is focused on important and sometimes under-served needs.
I will address two suggestions for improvement. First, I would like to have more involvement from the staff in the progress of the project. I enjoyed and gained mush for the visit Ken made to my farm when I was the administrator of my initial SARE grant. I felt this was a great benefit for me and would like to see more effort put toward this end. I believe that it would strengthen the projects themselves as well as do much to promote others to submit project proposals.
Second, I would like to see more opportunities for connection with others working on projects through conferences and workshops. I have attended two such programs within the duration of my two grants and was very satisfied with the experiences. I think the more we, as project coordinators, are able to have face to face discussions with other people involved with SARE projects, the better off we are in the long run. I am excited to attend the next conference in August of 2006 with the intentions of both presenting my project as well as hearing about others’ work.