Producers/Buyers Cooperative: Linking Family Farms and Institutions

Project Overview

Project Type: Sustainable Community Innovation
Funds awarded in 2009: $10,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Southern
State: Alabama
Principal Investigator:
Kathryn Strickland
Food Bank of North Alabama

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: potatoes
  • Fruits: melons
  • Vegetables: sweet potatoes, beans, beets, cabbages, carrots, cucurbits, eggplant, greens (leafy), onions, peppers, radishes (culinary), turnips
  • Additional Plants: herbs
  • Animals: bovine


  • Farm Business Management: farm-to-institution
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, urban/rural integration


    Producers/Buyers Cooperative: Linking Family Farms and Urban Institutions

    Food Bank of North Alabama (FBNA) and the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network (ASAN) investigated models applicable in the southeast that link local farmers with institutional buyers. FBNA then facilitated a multi-stakeholder Working Group of farmers and institutions to identify barriers to local wholesale markets and educate stakeholders about successful models. Through these activities, FBNA has laid the foundation for an entity called the North Alabama Farm Food Collaborative that (1) adapts the two most promising models; (2) leverages existing community resources; and (3) fosters a mutually beneficial business relationship among producers, aggregators and institutions.


    Food Bank of North Alabama (FBNA) and the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network (ASAN) investigated value chain development including site visits to, extensive interviews with, and/or presentations by food hubs such as the Producers Buyers Cooperative in Wisconsin, La Montanita Cooperative Distribution Center, Red Tomato and many others. The purpose was to identify models applicable in the southeast that link local farmers with institutional buyers.

    In the course of this research, FBNA also performed outreach to institutional buyers, local producers and supporting agencies such as the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Alabama Cooperative Extension. The outreach included farm visits and/or extensive interviews with food service directors and chefs. FBNA then convened local producers, institutional buyers and supporting agencies together for a series of facilitated dialogues and presentations.

    In the course of this research, partners identified the following barriers impeding producer access to local wholesale markets.

    Barrier 1: Lack of Infrastructure –The existing food system in Alabama lacks adequate infrastructure to routinely facilitate wholesale sales for local fresh produce. For example, Madison County Schools attempted to purchase strawberries from a local producer. Although the producer had the supply, he declined the sale because the District needed the produce delivered to 26 schools. The producer did not have the time or resources to make such extensive deliveries.

    Barrier 2: Seasonal and Inconsistent Supply – Buyers expect year-round availability and report concerns regarding consistent product volume.

    Barrier 3: Price and the Supply Chain –The conventional supply chain has not sustained partnerships between buyers and limited resource farmers based on the value of local produce. Chefs and food service directors, for example, are accustomed to conventional food prices which reflect scale and are not sustainable to many local producers.

    Barrier 4: Systemic Differences – Growers and institutional buyers operate according to systemic differences that obstruct mutually beneficial relationships. These differences often lead to conflict and severed business ties. For example, chefs and food service directors are accustomed to ordering and canceling food on a daily basis. Limited resource producers, however, have upfront expenses and annual planning invested in a crop before it reaches maturity. Abrupt cancelations can severely impact a local farm’s net income.

    As a result of this research, FBNA and partners are adapting the two most promising models investigated: (1) Fifth Season, a multi-stakeholder cooperative in Wisconsin owned and operated by stakeholders across the value chain including institutional buyers, producers, processors and distributors; and (2) FoodLink Food Hub, a food bank in Rochester, New York that is utilizing its assets (refrigerated trucks, cold storage, etc.) to act as a food hub aiding the ability of local farmers to reach markets. These two models address lessons learned from this project and leverage community assets available in Alabama and the southeast.

    Project objectives:

    (1) Research successful models of institutional local food purchases including a Producers/Buyers cooperative in Eau Claire, WI and educate key stakeholders, particularly institutional buyers, about these operations;

    (2) Identify and address key barriers to local food purchases by institutional buyers such as hospitals, corporate cafeterias, nursing homes, universities and schools; and

    (3) Foster a mutually beneficial business relationship among rural, local producers and urban institutions that results in local institutions locally sourcing a percentage of their food purchases.

    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.