Final Report for FNC13-915

Exploring Collaboration Strategies in North Central Iowa

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2013: $22,487.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Jan Libbey
One Step at a Time Gardens
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Project Information

Summary:

A group of North Iowa local food producers will weave lessons from established producer collaborative marketing networks into a hydrid model that explores both wholesale and direct to consumer marketing models that can gain traction in the culture and infrastructure of North Central Iowa. Our work will focus on marketing the message and the product.

Introduction:

Farmers markets serve as the frontline for local produce in North Iowa. However, given North Iowa’s demographics and widely disbursed population, few of the farmers markets are what we would describe as “robust”. Other market outlets include a few CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farms, a number of regular farm stands, a couple of You Pick businesses, just a few producers with a good foothold in grocers, and virtually none selling into restaurants at the beginning of this project.

Healthy Harvest of North Iowa, a non profit focused on local food system development, began in 2012 to introduce the idea of collaborative marketing and discovered quite a bit of interest. Wholesale venues are beginning to increase interest and receptivity to local food, but there are a number of issues that need development before the connections can be made – including organization among producers and development of a protocol for a broker to serve as the single point of contact. Food buyers have been interviewed about this format and have responded very favorably.

We need to answer the question ”How can we work together to effectively and profitably connect local food to the eaters in this rural landscape?”

We believe local food system development is a central component of sustainable community development, and community-based market development should be a first priority ahead of the temptation to seek opportunities through larger metropolitan centers. Local is where we feel we can make the strongest economic, environmental and social connections.

 This project proposes to pull strategies used by experienced collaborative groups into a new combination to meet our goal of increasing profit and access to local food in our rural communities. This collaboration will involve:

  • Organizing producers to plan targeted crop production based on identified market needs
  • Utilizing a central coordinator/broker to manage sales and manage communications
  • Using email (with phone follow up if needed) or online ordering

The special emphasis of this project is to develop a collaborative strategy that can serve both:

  • wholesale accounts (grocers, restaurants, etc.) weekly through prime summer growing season
  • direct to consumer distribution hubs bi weekly during Year 2 summer and one special holiday market each year

 We also will focus some of the resources on marketing the message, working on social media skills and assets and some farm fresh event such as farm tours and farm to fork dinners.

Project Objectives:

In the project’s first year, 2013, we proposed to focus on organizational development and initial marketing. Our targets included:

  • Involvement of 5-7 producers
  • Involvement with 2 wholesale accounts
  • Development of operating protocols
  • Identification of an ordering system to meet our needs
  • Holding 2 Summer on-farm events
  • Generation of $4,400 gross sales through wholesale of $3,500 and a Holiday package of $900

In 2014, we proposed to increase producer involvement to

  • 7-10 producers
  • 2-3 wholesale accounts
  • 2 direct to consumer pilots (using an online system)
  • Continue Summer on-farm events
  • Hold a Meet & Greet event
  • Have brokered sales

By 2015, we

  • refined our market model to only wholesale
  • developed a crop planning process
  • recruited a non-producer broker
  • began development of a 5-year business plan
  • recruited 2 new producers for a total of 8 full member producers in North Iowa Fresh, LLC
  • added 3 new accounts for a total of 6 (3 grocers, 3 restaurants)
  • applied for a USDA Local Food Promotion Program grant

Research

Materials and methods:

In the beginning we experimented with a variety of collaborative efforts, marketing the message and the product.

We introduced a large number of producers to the concepts through information meeting piggy backed on winter producer workshops.

As we narrowed the focus, we developed a committed group of 6 producers who formed North Iowa Fresh, LLC. As we moved into the detail work of this food hub, we lost one producer and picked up three more. At this report, we have 8 committed producers.

Example of the transitions:

  • Marketing the message was part of this collaboration

    • we piloted on-farm events and farm to fork dinners that have evolved as the two anchor agritourism events coordinated by Healthy Harvest of North Iowa and community partners
    • social media training and strategies – several producers did pick up facebook accounts, but our intended strategy of driving connections between producer facebook pages and the regional platform of Healthy Harvest of North Iowa website and facebook proved too involved for the time our lead team member had available

  • Marketing the product

    • online direct to consumer sales in 2014  – using a modified website for sales. This venue did not work well – too few sales, too much organizing time. We dropped this in 2015.
    • Meet & Greet  – held once in 2014, yielding some new contacts for producers, but after that our broker was covering the meet and greet in relation to cultivating new accounts; 
    • Large group discussions and planning were held in 2013. By 2014, a group of committed producers formed North Iowa Fresh, LLC. With this formal business, the project shifted primarily to making this structure work. From here on, the majority of our work was carried out in small group discussion. The fine details were delegated to specific leaders. Winter 2014/2015 was focused on business & crop planning and 2015 was dedicated to implementation of our plan.

  • Cultivating a culture of collaboration – this project and the leaders and the local food system non profit, Healthy Harvest of North Iowa, have a strong interdependence and cooperation. This project has helped to cultivate a culture of collaboration as a signature of local food system development in North Iowa on many levels and continues to build partnerships.

Research results and discussion:

The outcome of this multi year, multi producer project includes

  • Formation of the 8 member North Iowa Fresh, LLC
  • Development of a Producer Manual that guides our product standards
  • Development of a google form based information management system
  • Establishment of twin agritourism events that serve to open local food planning in communitites under the coordination of Healthy Harvest of North Iowa.
  • Establishment of North Iowa Fresh, LLC in three grocers and three restaurants.
  • Establishment of a relationship with a potential next step aggregating center partner

The product mix of North Iowa Fresh is limited to vegetables, but North Iowa Fresh’s business plan identifies the need to explore a more diverse range of products. Determining what model may be a good fit to address this goal will take time.

North Iowa Fresh is leading to several new partnerships – a proposal for fresh cut local food processing is under development at this writing as is the possibility of North Iowa Fresh stretching to involve producers from some other parts of North Iowa in selling to a summer food program.

North Iowa Fresh, LLC also helps other economic development partners to take local food more seriously. We now have an almost complete business plan, a 2015 crop plan and the records to demonstrate how closely our products sales matched to the original plan. These records are critical for evaluation and projections of next goals.

Tangential to this project, additional funds were secured for a Strategic Planning project for Iowa Food Hub Development that took place in 2014. I helped recruit funding and leadership support for this project. North Iowa Fresh, LLC and future food hub development needed connection with Iowa’s broader efforts. The most immediate outcome of that project has been the formation of Iowa’s Food Hub Manger Working Group. This group, now is a valuable network for North Iowa Fresh’s broker.

Impact of Results/Outcomes

The 2014 Meet & Greet planted some seeds of the local food idea with some new potential buyers.

The  model of Summer on-farm events has turned into twin agritourism events that serve to open local food planning in communities under the coordination of Healthy Harvest of North Iowa. Fresh on the Farm Tours have been used in several different communities; the most successful has drawn 250 visitors. Farm to Fork Dinners have also become a feature program. In 2014, four communities held dinner, serving 278 diners.

Six producers formed North Iowa Fresh. We lost one and gained three for a total of 8 producers throughout 2015. We are already talking to a couple of new folks who are interested in joining.

We have increased access to locally grown products through steady supply to our 2015 accounts. We have gotten strong positive feedback on the quality of products delivered.

Our Producer Manual is a great tool to work with and continue to refine. Lends professionalism to our practices and an important asset for recruiting new producer members.

Our gross sales in 2014 were $3,200. Our goal for 2015 was $9,000. At the writing of this report, sales are at $8,580 and we have 3 months to go. I have no doubt we will meet this goal.

The Local Food Promotion Program grant I wrote has just been announced and we will use that support to grow North Iowa Fresh, LLC for the next two years.

Participation Summary

Educational & Outreach Activities

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Our Producer Manaul is probably our primary document. It represents several resources we developed through this grant, including:

  • Who we are
  • A Producer Checklist (we acknowledge several publications we used to develop our own)
  • Member sign up forms
  • Tips on water testing
  • Tips on insurance
  • Product protocols (we acknowledge several publications we used to develop our own)

We have provided a new and beginning producer section to help orient new producer members to our system.

Project Outcomes

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

Our original goal was to open up a new market opportunity in North Iowa as this region is pretty market limited. The term food hub was just coming into common usage as this project began. Now, in 2015, it’s a hot topic and drawing quite a bit of funding support.

I think our experience is instrumental for other groups of producers. We took our time to get some important details right in the beginning, such as time to discuss values and priorities. As we grow and develop, we have those beginning points to remind ourselves what we want to stand for. We developed a number of resources – all of which have been compiled into our Producer Manual – that has been provided for reference by other groups. We, admittedly, built it with information from other resources.

If we had not pushed for this collaborative model, North Iowa producers would be largely left with individual initiatives to pursue.  This grant helped us get organized and present a larger local food presence in North Iowa. It has also helped us discover just what hurdles there are in marketing together in North Iowa. We have been successful in meeting our goals. Next we have to push the bar higher and will need to be creative in reaching sales goals as putting all the logistics together to stretch sales is a challenge. And as we bring more producers on board, we will need to be very clear about expectations to maintain our high quality standards.

Future Recommendations

Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate. This practice is pervasive throughout this project and as we move forward.

The partnership between the non profit, Healthy Harvest of North Iowa, and North Iowa Fresh, LLC is important to continue to blend together. I would encourage producer groups to seek out such partnerships.

It has also been important that there was some statewide conversation about food hub development. This was not directly part of this project, but without that conversation, North Iowa Fresh’s efforts would be much more isolated. Now there’s a possibility for cross regional cooperation.

We have been able to start a relationship with Opportunity Village, an organization providing services to adults with disabilities. This may turn into a great win-win situation, providing North Iowa Fresh an aggregation site and packaging, labeling, and delivery assistance.

We will be exploring delivery routes with some local partners as we explore our future market focus.

Collaboration is at the heart of this project and will continue to be key for success.

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.