Development of a Cooperative Food Distribution Model for Small Farms

Project Overview

FNC13-899
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2013: $22,500.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Alicia Bongue
Muddy Fork Farm LLC

Annual Reports

Information Products

Commodities

Not commodity specific

Practices

  • Farm Business Management: community-supported agriculture

    Summary:

    PROJECT BACKGROUND

    We are a multi-farm cooperative aggregating our farm produce at a central location, Local Roots Market and Cafe in Wooster, packaging the CSA (consumer supported agriculture) shares, and delivering to customers. We have customers who pick up their shares at Local Roots Market and Cafe and we also deliver to customers at the J. M. Smucker Corporation in Orville, Ohio. We are creating a cooperative market for small scale farmers in the rich agricultural region of Wayne, Ashland, and Holmes Counties, Ohio. Currently our cooperative has eight active producer members. The CSA model we use involves collecting payment at the beginning of the season and delivering the harvest on a weekly basis to individual customers. The cooperative manages the direct connection from the farmer to the consumer. The cooperative retains 20% of all produce sales for management and delivery of the harvest.

    We are trying to create a sustainable marketplace for the members of our cooperative, and provide fresh and healthy food that is sustainably grown to our customers. The farmers who are participating in this project use sustainable growing practices and did so before they participated in this grant project. A description of each of the farmer’s practices is as follows:

    • Monica Bongue is owner and operator of Muddy Fork Farm in Wooster Ohio, a certified organic farm for over 15 years, with two acres in produce production. Additionally the farm raises chickens, ducks, sheep, and goats. There are wildlife areas, fallow land and a woodlot set aside to provide habitat for wildlife, pollinators and some wild harvested crops. Muddy Fork Farm sells at Farmer’s markets in Cleveland and manages a small CSA from the farm.
    • Martha Gaffney of Martha’s Farm comes from Ecuador and uses ethnic traditional farming practices based upon natural organic and sustainable methods. Vegetables and fruits are grown on approximately one acre of land. Several acres are dedicated to turkeys, and chickens. Free range hens are fed exclusively on pasture and custom blended locally grown grains (no GMO). Cattle and pigs are also raised on pasture for pork and beef production.
    • Jennifer Grahovac with her husband Dan Grahovac operate Crooked Barn Farm in Wooster. They are Certified Naturally Grown and manage a small produce operation and raise chickens.They sell at Farmer’s market and operate a small CSA operation from their farm.
    • Marcus and Beth Ladrach of Autumn Harvest Farm have owned and managed a family farm since 1946. They are currently joined by their sons, the third generation of Ladrachs raising vegetables, oats, corn, hay, spelt, chickens, and beef. All 230 acres of the farm have been certified organic by the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association (OEFFA) since 1996.
    • Bill Boyer of Boii Gardens, operates a small market garden in Wooster, Ohio. Bill produces on one acre and sells at the Wooster Community Garden, Local Roots Market and Cafe and through the Farm Roots Connection Cooperative. His produce is grown following organic practices, though is not certified.
    • Mary Gnizac, owner of Adonai Acres strives to provide fresh, nutrient rich, flavorful food that is grown using compost and organically approved inputs though they are not certified organic. Adonai Acres offers fresh locally grown produce of all kinds grown in a sustainable way. Most of their seeds are heirlooms or open pollinated for seed saving. They grow some hybrids but do not use any GMO seed. Jams and jellies are made from their own produce.
    • Tara Herberger, owner and operator of Bluebird Blueberry farm, has a no-spray blueberry farm. Tara provided the blueberries for our customers’ shares. Bluebird Blueberry farm is located in the heartland of Ohio just south of Apple Creek.
    • Aaron and Anna Weaver of Weaver’s Produce Farm. The farm consists of small farms from the same large family in the Amish community of Wayne County . They follow traditional Amish farming practices including farming with horses, many organic and sustainable methods and also some conventional spray programs.

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION

    GOALS

    Our goal was to develop a cooperative food distribution system to connect small growers in rural areas to consumers in nearby urban areas as a model that can be replicated in many areas. In order to be successful in selling agricultural products we need to continue reinventing and promoting markets for small-scale growers who do not have the resources, know how, or desire to do the marketing.

    We felt that there is a need for better market opportunities for farmers and growers in rural areas. In our rural communities people who care about local food choices have their own gardens, go to farm stands or local farmer’s markets. Specialty produce growers can produce a lot more food than there is a market for in the community so it is important to reach to the urban markets. It is possible to do one or two city markets as independent farmers but a collaborative effort can help reach more of the urban market with less work and more efficiency of production.

    PROCESS

    The first part of this process was to secure funds to start the project. In addition to funds from SARE we also secured funds from the Ohio Cooperative Development center and used those funds to pay for attorney fee, computer software and additional mileage reimbursements. We also take a 20% commission from sales of participating farmers to secure a sustainable source of funding in the years to come.

    We were able to establish an initial trial CSA delivery site at Local Roots Market and Cafe. We approached the Ohio Agriculture Research and Development campus of The Ohio State University to give a presentation to offer our CSA shares. These were our first customers. Even though this was small and focused it helped us figure out the management challenges and issues. I believe it helped us operate more efficiently the second year. Due to the late start in 2013 our customer base was very small; five CSA shares. We included in the shares a weekly newsletter that contained recipes, nutritional information and community events. Other costs such as insurance, etc. were partially covered by CSA sales. This small customer base gave us a chance to practice and organize for a 2014 season launch.

    This same year we started courting potential customers in Northeast Ohio. Our target market for the multi-farm CSA was the Cleveland and Akron area. We started approaching the Wellness and Human Resource departments of the Cleveland Clinic and other big employers in the area. We were able to set up some meetings with the Cleveland Clinic and make a presentation in one of their wellness series of lectures. Unfortunately, organizations like the Cleveland Clinic have huge bureaucracies including legal and insurance departments that make it very difficult for small organizations like ours to operate and decision making is a long process. 

    We also started taking to the J. M. Smucker Corporation marketing and events planner in 2013. We started our sales of shares to their employees in 2014. We formed a very good relationship with their event and employee farmer’s market coordinator. I cannot stress enough how important this was for our success. We created a CSA program and brochures specifically for their company.  They were very generous with providing us a space to advertise the CSA, a space to drop off deliveries, publishing our brochures and sending email reminders to the CSA customers. We are continuing this relationship. It is through this company that we have actually been able to tap customers from the Akron /Cleveland areas since they have many employees that commute from the Northeast corridor of Ohio.

    Another successful avenue of sales was to sell shares as a gift to our local food bank. We were also able to establish a program where customers donate CSA shares to People to People Ministries, a local food bank. Customers can buy CSA shares but instead of receiving the product themselves it is donated to the food bank. We don’t deliver CSA baskets with an assorted vegetable content to the food bank, but rather larger quantities of the same product with the same dollar value.

    We operated our CSA in 2014 in three 8 week periods. We were hoping this would give more flexibility to customers. It did do that but it also became complicated to manage and involved trying to sell the shares three times during the year. In 2015 we are trying a different approach to selling the shares with a calendar that allows customers to pick dates ahead of time and a minimum of 12 out of 24 week delivery period. With a good spreadsheet program this will be easy to manage.

    For 2015 we are hoping to continue our relationship with the JM Smucker Corporation, sell shares to customers in the local community for pick-up at the Local Roots Market and Cafe, continue delivering to the food bank and approach some new companies in Wooster that would like to participate.

    The biggest challenge has been to establish a customer base and market opportunities. The CSA market is really beginning to be saturated and increasing customer base is going to be a slower process than expected. We will try to think of creative ways to get new customers. We have also increased our presence in social media and are looking into an on-line payment system that is not costly, so that we can build our customer base.

    The management of the CSA packing was done by one person, Monica Bongue. This position involves a lot of email and phone calls to growers to source the product and bring it to the central location. The packing of the product was efficiently organized and even on our busiest day only took two hours. To be successful it is important to always have back-up in case a grower does not show up or changes their mind, and to allow for some flexibility in changing the weekly share contents at the last minute.

    There were some issues with poor quality and this was somewhat challenging to address. The best approach is to determine what are a producer’s strength and source those products from them. Another problem that cropped up was that producers did not package their items properly and often this had to be redone at the CSA packing table. All of these problems have to be resolved with proper training but more importantly with constant communication.

    We paid producers once a month. It is crucial to keep very accurate records of product received and have acknowledgment from the farmer that this is what they dropped off so that payments are accurate. Often time there were missing or extra items because the number of customers changed weekly. Keeping track of all of this was very important!!!

    PEOPLE

    Local Roots Market and Cafe
    140 South Walnut St
    Wooster, Ohio 44691
    Provided a place to package and store product for delivery and a place for customer pick-up.

    Ohio Cooperative Development Center
    1864 Shyville Road
    Piketon, OH 45661
    Provided funding to pay for attorney fee, computer software and additional mileage reimbursements.

    Stephane Meckler, Attorney at law helped establish our legal formation at a reduced rate.

    Sandra Easterly of H &R Block in Wooster, Ohio prepared our annual tax report pro bono.

    J. M. Smucker Corporation provided us with a place to drop off shares and printed our brochures for their employees. Kate Fox, Events and Farmer’s Market manager for JM Smucker Corporation was instrumental in promoting us to the employees at the JM Smucker Corporation.

    FARM ROOTS CONNECTION COOPERATIVE

    Board of Directors Members

    Matthew Mariola (secretary, director)
    Visiting Assistant Professor, College of Wooster
    Environmental Studies Department
    Phone: 330-263-2642
    Office Address: 011 Kauke

    Ellen Pill (director)
    Ellen Pill, a member of the Farm Roots Connection Board of Directors, is the newsletter editor.

    Dr. Pill was involved with the broader community of local residents who supported the opening of Local Roots Market. For the first two years, Pill wrote a column in the Local Roots Market monthly newsletter and volunteered in a variety of capacities.

    Anne Wilson (treasurer, director) provided oversight for the finances of the cooperative.

    Monica Bongue (vice president and managing director) Manager of the cooperative’s marketing (website, brochures, outreach) , customer sales and support, producer recruitment, payments, and training, liaison with Local Roots market and other sales outlets.

    Martha Gaffney (president, director) Calls board meetings and sets the agenda.

    Jennifer Grahovac (director) was a founding member but is not currently active on the board of directors.

    Participating Member Farmers:

    Martha Gaffney, Jennifer and Dan Grahovac, Monica Bongue, Marcus and Beth Ladrach, Bill Boyer, Mary Gnizac, Tara Herberger, and Aaron and Anna Weaver.

    RESULTS

    As a group of farmers we have put together a multi-farm CSA that delivers produce on a weekly basis to customers. To accomplish this we:

    - Formed a legal not-for-profit cooperative registered in the state of Ohio as Farm Roots Connection Cooperative and assembled a board of directors who meet once a month to discuss progress and future direction of the cooperative.

    - Recruited producer members and developed producer documents that establish guidelines, membership rules, bid sheets, contracts and grower interest cards.

    - Prepared brochures, fliers and other marketing materials, established a website and internet presence.

    - Sold and delivered CSA shares in 2013, 2014, and 2015 and produced a newsletter.

    - Established a program where customers donate CSA shares to People to People Ministries, a local food bank. We have so far collected $2530 on donations to the food bank and delivered $860 of produce in 2013, $802 in 2014 and have a balance of $868 to deliver in 2015.

    DISCUSSION

    We have succeeded in bringing farmers together to develop our own distribution system, owning and managing the organization as a not-for profit cooperative. We are very pleased that we were able to incorporate a sharing component with the food bank.

    We have learned that we must have a much more aggressive marketing campaign to reach customers in the urban areas since the competition for CSA model of sales is very strong. We may need to reexamine this and perhaps come up with other cooperative sales models.

    Work with large business organizations like the Cleveland Clinic and Smucker's Wellness Programs requires a lot of planning and it needs to be done well in advance of your harvest season. Although there is interest in bringing produce to their employees, these large organizations are very concerned about legal and insurance implications and move very slowly through their bureaucracy. We have formed a successful relationship with the JM Smucker Corporation in Orville, Ohio. We approached them because of their large employee population (around 16,000) in the area.

    Managing product and producers can be very challenging and requires a person who is friendly, knows the producers and their quirks, and is able to make a lot of phone calls and email reminders. It also requires identifying producer strengths and best products.

    It is important to communicate with customers and remind them of pick-up dates. We also provide an educational newsletter with package contents and recipes. Most customers found this helpful.

    One of the biggest challenges is that farmers want to sell through the cooperative but not actually be involved in attending meetings or participating as active members. Active participation is important and this is hard for busy farmers, hence the need for a manager. This lack of participation can be frustrating for the manager and the board. Changing the membership requirement from a fee to volunteer hours might help address this issue.

    OUTREACH

    We presented a power point presentation at the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association in February of 2014 as part of the NCR-SARE Farmers Forum. I estimate between 20 and 30 people were present. This presentation has been recorded and is on available on-line.

    We also presented a talk on forming a Cooperative CSA to the Amish community at their annual “Small Farm Solutions” conference in Kidron, Ohio on February 22, 2014. There were 20 to 30 Amish present and they were less familiar with the concept of a CSA and were very interested in starting their own groups.

    We had press articles in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and in the Wooster Weekly news.

    We decided to postpone our 10 field days to 2015 when we will have more customers.

    http://www.woosterweeklynews.com/article/20131215/FEATURES/712159999/-1/wwn22

    http://cleveland.cbslocal.com/top-lists/best-farm-shares-in-cleveland/hotos.cleveland.com/plain-dealer/2014/03/tomatoes_from_farm_roots_conne.html

    http://www.cleveland.com/cooking/index.ssf/2014/03/ohio_csa_cooperative_feeds_cus.html

    We participated in the Scarlet, Gray and Green Fair in Wooster this April 22, 2014, and will
    sign up for 2015 at the OARDC campus (Ohio Agricultural Research and Development, Ohio State University).

    We have listed our CSA in Local Harvest website and in the Community Food Guide for 2014 published by the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Food Policy Coalition.

    We were featured in the Plain Dealer when they published their list of available CSAs in Northeast Ohio. We have updated our website so customers can download brochures to sign-up. We will need to purchase more marketing materials such as signage for markets and more paper brochures and fliers.

    http://localrootswooster.com/events/new-cooperative-multi-farm-csa-with-local-roots

    http://www.cvcountryside.org/fm-vendors/farm-roots-connection

    http://www.localharvest.org/farm-roots-connection-M59456

    We have created our own website and Facebook pages.

    https://www.facebook.com/pages/Farm-Roots-Connection/518857658160896

    http://www.farmrootsconnection.com

     

    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.