This project helped create a marketing network of sustainable farmers and customers who share belief in an alternative food system. The focus of the effort was to target church congregations (and similar interest groups) as education and marketing points. The project was successful in establishing relationships with nine churches and one convent. However, we discovered that it takes hard work and patience on both sides to make the relationship worthwhile. It is not always convenient for customers to buy food this way. They must be motivated to making it work as a partnership with those who raise their food.
This farmer directed project was intended to develop a marketing and educational network of producers using sustainable practices, and consumers who care about how and by whom their food is raised. The consumers included, but were not limited to, members of church congregations. Our goal was to establish relations with the members of eight churches that would be firmly grounded on the friendship and common goals of the participants. The marketing network and infrastructure developed with the help of this grant was to help the Whole Farm Cooperative (WFC) to grow. We hoped a model would be created that could be replicated by groups of farmers in other geographic areas.
The Whole Farm Cooperative (WFC) was established to market member’s products by the Central Chapter of the Minnesota Sustainable Farming Association (SFA) in December of 1997.
The model for this project was based upon our experience with the Judson Baptist Church in Minneapolis. We learned from these people that churches hold groups of people who are ready to ally with farmers to create an alternate food system based upon sustainability and social justice.
Early in the project we contracted with an intern from the University of Minnesota’s Sustainable Agriculture program to conduct a survey of customers needs and values. The same intern also interviewed producers and wrote profiles of the original 25 members and their farming operations.
We also established a quarterly newsletter, set up a web page, and held an annual “Fall Gathering” where customers and producers could share time together over a meal of WFC products.
The project was very successful as we are currently delivering to eleven churches and have several more that wish to begin deliveries. Our base of other customers has also increased using the same method of identifying a group in an area and establishing a drop site with a coordinator. At the end of the grant period, people marketing products through the Coop. had grown from 25 to 64.
The customer base that we have developed is very loyal, and knowledgeable about food and sustainable issues.
Impacts and Potential Contributions:
Because the project has been successful, it has caught the imagination of many people who are looking for alternatives to industrial agriculture. The impact upon members of the WFC and our local area has been significant.
The objective was to create a sustainable marketing connection between farmers and members of eight urban and rural church congregations.
We proposed developing a method for linking groups of consumers and producers that will educate consumers about sustainable farming, and put a human face on the currently faceless exchange of consumer’s money for food.
The Whole Farm Cooperative (WFC) was established to market member’s products by the Central Chapter of the Minnesota Farming Association (SFA) in December 1997. Farmers from across the SFA membership as well as non members who met WFC standards were invited to participate as the project grew. Since WFC was incorporated to market any product that members produced on their farm, the range of products is quite diverse.
The model for this project was based upon our experience with the Judson Baptist Church in Minneapolis. We learned from these people that churches hold groups of people who are ready to ally with farmers to create an alternative food system based upon sustainability and social justice.
We utilized grant funds to contract with a coordinator (a farmer member) and Jan O’Donnell of the Minnesota Food Association to work with potential churches. Dale Hennen of the Archdiocese of St. Paul also provided a valuable link to Catholic churches in the metro area. Members also provided countless hours of volunteer time to attend church meetings and events to create the necessary links and provide educational material.
Media coverage of the project created interest and drew in additional customers.
Early in the project we contracted with an intern from the University of Minnesota’s Sustainable Agriculture Program to design and conduct a survey of customer’s needs and attitudes. The same intern also interviewed (and photographed) the 25 original producer members of the WFC. She used this information to write profiles of each operation. We maintained the identity of the producer of each product so that customers could connect a name with what they were eating (“Food with A Face”). The profile gave them more information about the farm family and how they raised the particular item of food. To compliment this, we have hosted farm tours for customers.
We established a quarterly newsletter called “The Kitchen Sink”. We set up a web page that includes the profiles, the newsletter, current product and price list, and information about the WFC.
We also started a tradition of holding a “Fall Gathering” in September where producers and customers are invited to come together for a program, meal of WFC products, and have a dialog about the coop. This has been very popular and has greatly improved the communication and understanding of what each group’s needs and values are. Feedback that we obtain at this meeting has had a major influence on the WFC’s operation and strategy
When invited to visit a prospective church, we put on a program about the WFC and what we are trying to do. If there is interest in participating in the project, we ask the group to appoint a coordinator to oversee the project. We then work with the coordinator to arrange the details and set a date to begin deliveries.
As the project and volume of sales grew, we needed to increase our ability to service more customers. This meant finding more producers to supply product that meet WFC standards, and developing capability to handle, store and deliver the product. It seemed that we reached many points during the two year grant period where major adjustments needed to be made to adequately serve customers. Thus a “bunch of farmers” learned gradually about running a business.
The project was very successful and we are currently delivering to eleven churches. Several more have indicated that they wish to begin deliveries. Our base of other customers has also increased using the same method of identifying a group in an area and establishing as drop site with a coordinator.
As sales volume has increased we have been able to build infrastructure and gain experience at running a business. We have also been able to market more of member’s products and accommodate more farmers. At the end of the grant period, producers marketing products through the coop. had grown from 25 to 64.
This SARE grant also allowed us to attract additional grant funds. Producers in the coop have received a SARE marketing grant for milk products. Also we have received funds and technical assistance from Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Minnesota’s Agriculture Utilization and Research Institute (AURI) , University of Minnesota, Blandin Foundation and USDA’s Cooperative Development Program.
The customer base that we have developed is very loyal and well informed about food and sustainable issues. They have had a strong voice in setting the standards that WFC sets for producers. For example, they wanted additives removed from processed meats. We worked with our local processor to do that and now have bacon and sausages that are free of MSG’s, nitrates, etc.
We have learned that maintaining customers is hard work. The job is not done once a drop site is created. Unless we develop a close working relationship (a partnership) with each coordinator and church, the number of orders will fall off. This means that you must come up with ways to keep a visible profile at the church. This can be done by putting on programs periodically, being part of a harvest festival, etc. Each church is different and you have to work with the people there to discover what works.
Educational & Outreach Activities
We have disseminated information about the project as it has unfolded through SFA’s Cornerpost workshops, meetings, symposiums, media articles, answering inquiries from interested individuals, etc. Please refer to the appendix of this report and the annual report for a sample of items.
As mentioned above, at the end of the project we had 64 producers that marketed some of their products through the WFC. For some, the impact was small, but for others it made a significant difference in their operation. For example, those that sell pork through the coop are averaging $0.70 per pound live weight for their pigs. At one time during the grant period, regular market price they were getting was $0.07 per pound.
Because producers have a vested interest in getting their product sold so that they can be paid, most members realize that they need to spend time helping at the coop to make that happen. As a result, the coop has been blessed with people who volunteer many hours to accomplish what needs to be done. This part of Minnesota contains several of the poorer counties in the state. Therefore, producers do not have money to invest in a coop, but have been generous with sweat equity. This has allowed the coop to do amazing things with a small amount of funds (such as the SARE grant).
The members of the coop also feel that grass root control of the coop is very important. Thus we have developed a system of management that is fairly unique. Each product area (dairy, meat, poultry, vegetable, miscellaneous) is the responsibility of a committee. The committee is made up of a chair appointed by the board, and any member who produces a product in that area can be on the committee. Each committee sets prices that the producer will receive, establishes the minimum standards that all producers will have to meet, coordinates supply so that product is available to fill orders, and serves a mentor role for new producers.
The day to day operation of the coop is directed by a management team that meets once a week. The team is made up of three board members and two staff members (the operations manager and sales manager). Other ad hoc committees are appointed to deal with specific tasks or issues.
Involvement of other Audiences
Obviously there was extensive involvement of other organizations, groups of people and individuals in this project. Many of those connections are described elsewhere in this report. To summarize, we were assisted in this effort by our customers (about 400 people). This included university people, members of non profit organizations, food cooperatives, neighborhood groceries, restaurants, church members, friends, relatives, and friends of friends.
This effort also encompassed those with knowledge that we called upon to help us know what or how to do specific tasks. For example, food inspectors, extension service specialists, other coops, technical advisers at the state and federal level, etc. We took advantage of every connection and network that we could uncover. Our members were a major source for knowing of and following up on these connections. It was truly a group (community) effort.
Areas needing additional study
We need to begin a process that looks closely at the business and marketing side of our cooperative. We know that the elements for success are present. However, to survive and grow we need to analyze internal operations and our marketing strategies. This would include the following areas: personnel, accounting procedures, hard asset management, inventory management, internal procedures, products, distribution network, pricing system, promotional materials, and target customers.
We also need to review our goals and objectives, and know what we will do and what we will not do as a cooperative.
In the product area, we need to continue developing value added products that will create more profit for members and the cooperative. We are currently focusing on milk products because that is where members (dairy farmers) are hurting financially. Another area that we need to emphasize are vegetables. We need a better system of handling, cleaning, sorting, storage, packaging and distribution. This is a tough area because grant funds seem difficult to obtain for this category.