I’m the former program manager for the Sustainable Farming Association of Minnesota and a market gardener. At the time that this grant proposal was written I was a member of the Central SFA’s marketing committee and had involved that committee of farmers in the Feed the Saints Project which I’d initiated while acting as Program Manager. We were in discussions with three colleges, Saint John’s, St. Ben’s, and St. Cloud State, about the possibility of selling food from Central Minnesota farms to them. Nothing had been sold to any of the colleges at the time the grant was awarded.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
The objective of this project was to establish the direct sales and distribution system between a group of Central Minnesota livestock and vegetable producers using sustainable practices (e.g. rotational grazing, reduced tillage, reduced chemical usage, etc.) and three Central Minnesota University food services.
As we wrote in our proposals…”We need to establish what our production capacity is, establish a producer distribution network, and create a business structure for the network. In other words, to take advantage of this excellent institutional marketing opportunity, we need to learn to work together and to build a farmer’s marketing infrastructure… Motivation from the producer and comes from realization that their share of the food dollar has steadily shrunk, and that direct marketing is a very concrete way to reverse this trend. At a workshop hosted last year by the Sustainable Farming Association, it was suggested that working with institutions within the community could provide an opportunity to build the infrastructure needed to direct market in as a group.”
Our goal was to learn how to market to institutions as a group.
Discussions over nine months with faculty and food service directors at St. Cloud State University, St. John’s University, and St. Benedicts prior to receiving the grant indicated that people at these institutions are prepared to work with sustainable producers to develop a community based food supply system for their schools. We had worked with a University of Minnesota intern to survey the college’s needs. We were prepared to take orders and learn how to deliver them.
At the time we received the grant, in September 1997, we had entered into discussions with the Earl Brown Conference Center on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota.
In September 1997 we delivered $600 worth of ground beef to St. John’s. Dave Shonberg, food service manager at St. John’s invited us to speak to an October gathering of Midwestern college food service directors at St. Ben’s. In September we were also told by St. Cloud State food service director that he would be placing a producer order with us.
In October we delivered a small quantity of ground beef to the Earl Brown Center at the University of Minnesota. Our beef was featured as part of a locally grown menu at a conference. Another order from Earl Brown was delivered later in the year.
In September, as part of a lengthy feature on Minnesota Public Radio on our project, we were contacted by the Audubon Environmental Learning Center in Sandstone Minnesota. In January (they closed during the period 10/97-12/97) Tim King met with their staff and gave them samples of our products.
In November of 1997 it began to become clear that the Universities were unable to follow through on the level of commitment they had communicated to our group. At that time we began to consider marketing to other institutions. With the assistance of the Executive Director of the Minnesota Project, Beth Waterhouse, we began an educational/marketing effort at the Judson Baptist church in Minneapolis. We also began discussions with staff at non profit organizations such as the Land Stewardship Project, Institution for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), Minnesota Food Association (MFA), Institution for Local Self Reliance and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. In December Tim King made a presentation to IATP staff. These non profit staff has formed the core of our growing marketing effort. Much of this work has been done using an email account provided by MISA. Kathryn Gilje at IATP and Helene Murray from MISA, with generous help from Deon Stuthman in the University Agronomy department, were particularly helpful.
In February of 1998 Tim King began meeting with Jan O’Donnell of MFA to discuss our involvement in the Community Food Project. CFP was a successful legislative initiative that allowed the MFA to work with Minnesota Department of Agriculture to distribute Minnesota grown food to low income families. Our involvement in this program has accounted for nearly half of our $25,000 in sales since the inception of our project. If our network had not been in place we would not have had access to this project.
In December of 1997 our marketing committee incorporated as the Whole Farm Co-operative with 25 founding members. The Central SFA and the State SFA were very helpful in this process.
The narrower goals of this project failed. We were unable to create a relationship with any of the four Universities we worked with. Our failure at the University of Minnesota and St. Cloud State was based on the presence of national food service contractor Aramark. At St. Cloud Aramark regional executives appear to have vetoes Ed Devoid’s initiative. At the University of Minnesota a contract for food service was negotiated at the same time we were working with the food service director Earl Brown. When Aramark took over the Earl Brown food service director was transferred to another location. St. John’s was a different matter. We sold meat and vegetables there on two occasions. The director expressed significant enthusiasm but the staff refused to work with us. We don’t believe that St. Ben’s was seriously interested even though they met twice with us and expressed significant interest. They kept putting us off after that.
The other institutions kitchen we attempted to work with was the Audubon Learning Center. They contacted us and later, expressed deep interest in connecting with sustainable farmers. Because, we think, of budgeting problems they were unable to purchase from us.
I think budget and the fear of buying food from farmer rather than big processors with a track record caused these institutions not to work with us.
Our success has been in switching from marketing to institutions to marketing to individuals within institutions who are committed to supporting sustainable agriculture and family farms. Based on those relationships we have sold $30,000 worth of beef, pork, lamb, poultry, cheese and vegetable products to a committed customer base of hundreds of individuals. In the process we have successfully created a network of farmers from which we can draw food products from and we have successfully created a distributed system to do that as a group.
We are now in a position to successfully respond to other institutional marketing opportunities because we have a network and distribution system in place. This, I think, is a major accomplishment and is the major goal we intended to accomplish with the SARE funds.
The actual economic impact of this project will best be measured in the future. We had $30,000 in farm sales from 9/15/97 to 11/15/98 and are projecting $80,000 for our next year. 85% of the sales go to the farmers. More importantly we’ve created a co-op with a board, a business plan, a marketing strategy, a financial management system and a distribution system.
Socially and environmentally we give hope to farmers who have been using sustainable practices such as grazing livestock and raising organic produce.
In September 1997 we held a meeting for all Central SFA members and invited all other SFA chapters to participate (50 people). We explained the Feed the Saints Project. Also in September Minnesota Public Radio did a feature on us. So did the Sustainable Agriculture Newsletter of the Minnesota Extension Service, Agri News, The Land and the Long Prairie Leader.
– In October farmers met with regional food service directors at St. Ben’s (30 people)
– In November our project was featured as part of a Minnesota Grown menu at Earl Brown center (45 people)
– In January we gave a presentation at the Central SFA meeting in Aldrich and had a table there (60 people)
– In February we gave a presentation to SFA Minnesota (150 people)
– In March we held a member meeting and explained to all interested the progress on our work (30 people)
– In June four co-op members gave presentations at a meeting on sustainable agriculture at St. John’s. Our cheese was part of the hors douvres (65 people)
– In July in co-operation with the Central and State SFA’s we conducted a day long workshop on how to do a business plan (20 people)
– In August we attended numerous field days to explain our work to farmers (200 people)
– In August our food was featured at an IATP advisory committee meeting and our project was explained (25 people)
– In September the Minnesota Environmental Fund featured our products at their annual meeting and Dana Jackson, of Land Stewardship Project, explained our project (30 people)
– In October the Long Prairie Leader did an article on our co-op
– In January, 1999, Sierra magazine will mention our project.