Building the Local Food Link in Valley City
Food must travel, on average, 1,500 miles before it gets to our plate. The food we eat is disconnected from our having a sense of how it came to be. This has a direct bearing on our very health and happiness. Freshness, quality and appeal are also lost in transit. Obesity has become a severe problem among our population. And, food safety has become a concern for many consumers.
Small-scale farmers are capable of producing seasonal quality food but are often unable to sell their produce and processed meats directly to the grocery stores, schools, hospitals, and other institutions. Often, local fruits and vegetables produced are wasted for lack of a market.
Valley City, ND has had a Farmers Market for 29 years, which has served the community by offering fresh produce on Mondays and Thursdays, and this year they added a Saturday market. Increased interest in a local food source in Valley City requires us to encourage more vendors to participate. Five years ago the Valley City School District hired a Nutritionist to work with the school cooks to improve meal planning. During this time, each school was mandated to provide a salad bar as a menu choice. The nutritionist serves as the buyer for all there kitchens and is willing to source some foods locally. Additionally, a statewide campaign by the North Dakota Agriculture Department has also raised awareness about local foods.
In the fall of 2008, the Farmers Market developed a pilot program to supply the Valley City schools with local foods. The nutritionist said that she needed one contact person to gather all of the items to fill their order; she wanted delivery Monday mornings, and she wanted to pay at the end of the month with one check. For this pilot project one person served as a forager, packer and delivery agent. The Valley City Farmers Market served as the bank. The school wrote the check to the Farmers Market and the Market paid the vendors.
This grant project is to continue building the wholesale pilot program with the Valley City Farmers Market. There are many steps to accomplish this.
1. Increasing the number of vendors and extending their season of production – both for the wholesale program and the Farmers Market.
2. Equipping a cleaning/packing facility in a barn on the Rasmussens’ farm with a water supply and a cold storage unit.
3. Hiring a forager to work as a link between the vendors and the wholesale buyers and serve as the packer and delivery person.
4. Formalizing the Farmers Market as a business entity to run the wholesale program.
5. Certifying a community kitchen to lightly process vegetables for the schools’ salad bars and working with the community’s organization for disabled workers to process the vegetables.
Many pieces of this strategy are well underway already. Valley City has a population of 7,000; it has three elementary schools and one high school; it has a four year college, one hospital and one elder care facility. It is just small enough to put a system such as we propose in place.
Established new market locations:
The city blocked off the former Farmers Market locations all summer to repair damages from the flood. We have co-market managers for the market; one of the managers provided the leadership to develop the wholesale market. The Valley City Farmers Market was also celebrating 30 years of continuous markets. Extra promotion was required.
The Monday/Thursday market had to move from a parking lot in the center of town to the Pamida parking lot on the west edge of Valley City. They lost the walk -n trade from four senior citizen residential buildings.
The Saturday market had to move from a greenway in the south central part of the city to a park in the city center on the east edge of town. This was actually a better site. These moves required extra promotion to build up the trade.
Increase the number of vendors participating in the VC Farmers Market:
We extended the summer market one month to be able to offer asparagus, greens and strawberries. We expanded the wholesale market by increasing the number of vendors and customers. We are presently testing a once a month winter market.
Promoted 30 Years of Farmers Markets in Valley City:
• Purchased two months of bill-board space
• Distributed buttons with “Celebrating 30 Years” imprinted. If the customer wore the button to each market they were entitled to a free treat.
• Sponsored an end-of-season drawing for produce. Customers were able to sign up at each market they attended.
• We distributed numerous copies of recipes that featured the use of locally-produced fruits and vegetables.
Wholesale Market development:
In 2008 we started a wholesale market by engaging the three public schools to purchase some of the fruits and vegetables they serve on their salad bar. In two months of operation (September and October) we sold nearly $500 worth of produce over and above what was sold at the Farmers Market.
As a part of this grant, we were able to expand this effort. In 2009 we kept the September/October market with the three public schools, added three restaurants and a hospital.
The wholesale market sales included some lightly processed fruits and vegetables prepared in our licensed kitchen. The sheltered workshop employees who prepared the vegetables consisted of a team coach and three team members. A public kitchen was inspected and licensed by the ND Department of Health.
The process consisted of a market facilitator survey of the vendors each week to elicit the type, amount and price of available produce for the wholesale market and then provided that information to the customers. The facilitator parceled out the sales among the vendors, collected the produce, arranged for any processing followed by packing and delivery.
Vendors: In 2009 we increased the number of vendors from 10 vendors to 19. Two vendors that participated previously did not participate in 2009. We secured 10 vendors to participate in the wholesale market. There are only three market vendors that grow greater than one acre of fruits and vegetables. Most of the vendors have the mindset “feed the family first and then sell the excess on the Farmers Market”. To be able to grow both the wholesale and retail market we will need to strengthen the vendors to produce beyond those levels.
In the fall of 2008 the market manager outlined the intended effort to increase the market potential in 2009 and listed the products that would be of interest for the wholesale market. Perhaps two of the vendors grew a bit more of those products but it was not a common response among the vendors.
Typically the Valley City Farmers market would start sales the first Monday or Thursday after July 4th. This year the Saturday market tested opening the market on the first Saturday in June. There were only three vendors in addition to the catered snacks/lunch and the musicians. Those who engaged felt it was a successful effort but we need to find more vendors to participate.
The added wholesale customers began purchasing from us in August and carried on through the 31st of October. These additional customers used up what the ten wholesale vendors had in excess of their supply to the Farmers Market. To expand this market more production will be required. The wholesale market was a better outlet for broccoli and cauliflower. The wholesale market generated $2300 of new income for the vendors in 2009.
The school market is limited by the fact that they are only purchasing salad bar items and at that for only two months. When October comes, the purchases are limited by the holidays and time off for teachers convention.
The sheltered workshop prepared snipped green beans, shredded cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower florets and peeled/cut red beets. They also prepared onions, tomatoes, and apples for dehydration. This was a very successful relationship. Another successful processing service was to offer pre-roasted squash. This winter we will need to determine the exact costs for providing these services.
The market facilitator surveyed the vendors each week to elicit the type, amount and price of available produce for the wholesale market. That survey was developed into a table that was either emailed or hand delivered to our customers by Friday morning. On Mondays the facilitator either received the orders by email or follow-up phone calls. The vendors were notified of their portion of the order which they packed for delivery to the facilitator at the Monday evening Farmers Market. None of the market vendors could be notified by email. Tuesdays the processing was done, orders packed and billing prepared for Wednesday delivery. Most customers paid the Farmers Market without statements. The vendors were paid monthly by the Farmers Market.
None of the wholesale customers bought large quantities on a weekly basis. We believe this was a manifestation of the small community of 7000. Surprisingly, the wholesale market customers did not complain about the prices which the vendors set at very near the prices they were using in the retail Farmers Market.
All of the vendors were offered samples of the mulch and row cover but only three took advantage of the offer. We bought a plastic mulch layer which should help increase interest in using plastic. The market intends to offer a service to help install the plastic and row cover.
WORK PLAN FOR 2010: We will continue to test the viability of a winter market by hosting one market a month for as long as we can get six vendors. We have been able to use a church basement that is very convenient for our event.
This winter we hope to develop the packing shed. The plans to use the Rasmussen’s out building have not worked out. I have another option of a building that used to be a honey extraction plant. Right now it is just used for storage. We just have to convince the owner to let us rent it. This building is located on the edge of Valley City so it would be convenient for the vendors to drop their produce there.
We will continue to be on the look out for new vendors and do some active promotion in the spring. We will hold a vendor’s meeting in the spring and attempt to move this loosely knit group toward a formal business organization. We will need to determine an income source to pay for the services that the market provides. To date the annual vendor’s fee has been $40. The market management has been paid by grant funds. We need to train others to assume the leadership for the market. Both market managers are over 70 years old.
We will implement what we learn from the Valley City State Local Food survey as much as possible.
We need to find the parts to build the barrel washer and get that ready for use next summer.
Three farms have used plastic mulch to conserve heat and moisture and control weeds. Three vendors also used the poly-fiber row covers to protect from insects and to extend the season.
The market site was signed from the beginning of the season to the end. Each Friday signs were placed on high traffic corners to call attention to the Saturday market. On the day of the market, flags were placed by these signs and at the market site. In cooperation with the Mercy Hospital Young People’s Healthy Heart program a billboard was placed by the west entrance to the city.
The wholesale market facilitator was interviewed for a state wide agriculture- news show regarding the operation of the wholesale market in Valley City. This facilitator also served on a steering committee to develop a Community Garden. The Community Garden’s first year was very successful with the rental of 20 20x20 foot plots for the season. Several of the community gardeners experimented with the row cover.
Valley City State University is conducting a community survey of ag suppliers, greenhouses, restaurants, institutions, and vendors (present and potential) to guide the further development of both the retail and wholesale market.
The local paper did a very nice story on the beginning of the market and then again when the Monday/Thursday planned a special 30th anniversary event. The local radio was good about providing public service announcements when the Saturday market had to change venue due to weather event.
In 2010 the market will continue its effort to recruit more vendors. We will also attempt to set up on-farm demonstrations. We will continue to promote the market in various ways through the press and by providing shopping incentives.