The Nebraska Community Food Network envisioned a regional network marketing group, a super coop if you will. Its goal seems to have been overtaken by a number of developments in the works, i.e. the promotion and proliferation of smaller marketing coops, the growth of farmer’s markets, and numerous on-line food networks. Though the marketing network was short-lived and served primarily a specialty consumer, all Nebraska meal events, it provided NSAS and local farmers with some valuable lessons for cooperative marketing efforts as well as serving as the forerunner to more successful “networks” of marketing producers.
This project was conceived and planned at a time when small farmers in southeast Nebraska were particularly hard hit by rising input costs, low commodity prices, extremely challenging weather patterns, as well as the increased awareness of environmental damage and contamination. At the same time over half of American consumers are increasingly interested in buying safe, high-quality, locally sustainable, as well as environmentally-friendly food products. Though the local production and direct marketing of food products was clearly on the rise and consumers were increasing their participation in locally available food at farmers markets and roadside stands, there was and still is a tremendous opportunity to bring both more producers and more consumers into a food network. The Nebraska Community Food Network was a pioneering effort to bring increasing numbers of producers and consumers together around food.
The objectives of this project are simple and straightforward. The first objective was to identify all of the stakeholders in the local food systems and then bring as many of them together as possible into a network. The second objective was to develop, test and evaluate a model for marketing and distributing local foods. The third objective was to build public awareness of the environmental, economic, and social benefits of a regional food system.
The Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society organized and facilitated quarterly meetings of the Network. At the quarterly meetings Network members discussed marketing issues such as standards and quality, pricing, existing relationships, potential customers, storage and liability issues. Consumer members of the Sierra Club were to survey restaurants, institutions, and grocery stores to learn if they offered sustainable, regionally-grown food. A marketing coordinator was hired to build a database of interested producers and customers. The coordinator also developed a shopping list of food available through the network. Members of the Network received training from media professionals on how to best promote sustainable agriculture and food systems to the public. Much of the promotional work occurred at local farm tours and NSAS’s annual Healthy Farms Conferences. Articles were written for NSAS’s bi-monthly newsletter and in addition to the distribution of nearly 600 issues of the newsletter around the state, newsletters were made available at local coops, food events, and community gatherings. Plans were made and work was begun to publish a marketing directory.
Between the time of project submission and project approval a number of developments were in the works that changed the outcomes of this project. To name just a few, there were turnovers taking place in personnel, network members and the Sierra Club representative(s). Producers were pursuing their preferred options, i.e. formal cooperatives, on-farm stores, stronger consumer relationships, CSAs, etc. While these changes did not keep the project from moving forward with quarterly meetings, training, promotions, and distribution plans, it became obvious that the group was not “glued” together by commitments of project developers and supporters. Financial rewards did not seem to be clear enough to provide incentives for dedicated participation. Each quarterly meeting saw new members attending and original members not showing up. However, the project personnel continued to build the data bases of food, consumers, and producers. These were eventually consolidated into our marketing directory. Efforts to distribute were moved to the new “Buy Nebraska” project initiated by the Coop Development Center. Through this partnership, between NSAS and the Nebraska Cooperative Development Center, food deliveries were organized and distributed to over 50 special events/meals over the two-year period. Additionally, a state value added grant to develop a year around market was awarded, with its interim manager and tireless supporter being our network coordinator. Much of the data gathered as part of the Community Food Network was used initially by the year-round market, today known as Centerville Market. A particularly valuable outcome was realized through the difficulties of trying to form a volunteer effort to distribute food. Farmers are simply too busy and schedules too diverse to come up with an organization to distribute food. Even formal coops find this to be one of the biggest challenges. However, producers and consumers realized the value in collaboration between producers to broaden their customer bases as well as their product offerings. Food is often exchanged, through a variety of different arrangements, at farmer’s markets, during normal deliveries, or in some cases strategic locations. These collaborations have become common and too numerous to document. It should be noted here that the primary standard for this project and all succeeding projects has become locally grown. It appears that sustainable and organic standards seem to follow the relationship developed between local growers and their community.
- 1. Although producers are not marketing as a network per se, there is clearly a stronger and more viable network of producers and consumers.
2. There is greater awareness of the benefits of sustainable and regionally grown foods.
3. Family farmers interested in growing food for the market have greater opportunities to do so than before this project.
4. Farmers have become aware of the benefits and market appeal of locally grown food.
5. Farmers have diversified their farm and product offerings due to customer demand.
6. There is a greater degree of collaboration between direct marketing food farmers than before the project began.
7. Consumers and producers now have access to a marketing directory which provides information on products offered and wanted, preferred method of delivering and receiving the products, as well as other information pertinent to sustainable ag interests.
8. A year round farmer’s market is currently operating in the Lincoln area.
9. The relationships formed in a local food system direct the type product and production methods used.
Due to the changed conditions and changed outcomes of this project, meaningful economic results are not available. The results listed above indicate that there are now more farmers participating in the local food systems, farmers are increasing their production and diversity of products, and more local food is being consumed. Much more! Anecdotal evidence would indicate through all of the work done in the past few years, including the Community Food Network’s, that local food in the system has tripled!
It would be difficult to gauge farmer adoption. Farmers have adopted local food systems in the following ways: Increased food production, increased consumer relationships, increased diversity and openness to marketing options, growth in number and size of farmers markets, increased presence of locally grown foods in grocery stores and restaurants.
Educational & Outreach Activities
1. NSAS Food Network Directory
2. 12-15 farm tours per year
3. Annual Healthy Farms Conference
4. Festival of Healthy Living
5. Bi-monthly newsletter
Areas needing additional study
Community leadership — from the Governor, to the Universities, to local Chambers Of Commerce — need to become informed on the benefits of local food systems, particularly as regards community health and economic vitality.