Exploring Collaboration Strategies in North Central Iowa

2014 Annual Report for FNC13-915

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2013: $22,487.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:
Jan Libbey
One Step at a Time Gardens

Exploring Collaboration Strategies in North Central Iowa


A group of North Iowa local food producers is weaving lessons from established producer collaborative marketing networks into a hydrid model that’s responsive to North Iowa goals and dynamics.

Objectives/Performance Targets

In this first year, the project proposed to focus on organizational development and initial marketing. Our targets included:

  • Involvement of 5-7 producers
  • Involvement with 2 wholesale accounts
  • Development of operating protocols
  • Identification of an ordering system to meet our needs
  • Holding 2 Summer on-farm events
  • Generation of $4,400 gross sales through wholesale of $3,500 and a Holiday package of $900


During this first year we have accomplished the following:

  • Development of our Producer team, with clear objectives for each of their roles, including:

o   Broker, Producer quality standards, online ordering, marketing, packaging – we have an excellent set of skills among these producers.

o   This team structure is positioning producers in fresh community leadership roles, helping to shape North Iowa’s local food system development!

  • Focused collaboration on marketing the message as well as the product, including

o   Three Fresh on the Farm tour events held in September 2013. We involved 25 different producers, more than 350 visitors, four counties, and helped to strengthen partnerships with Iowa State Extension and local Chamber offices.

  • In 2014, we already have 2 events scheduled and both are expanding with additional programming and producer involvement. We are anticipating to add at least two other events in continued planning over the next two months.

o   An active website/facebook interconnection and promotion to help promote our Buy Fresh, Buy Local members

  • Outlining three key producer quality standard expectations, and developing associated support resource information.

o   The expectations include: annual water testing, food safety training, and product liability.

o   We have found it necessary to develop some support resources to help producers meet these expectations. We continue to emphasize that these standards are good business practices whether selling direct themselves or working together to sell to these new market opportunities.

o   While food safety training workshops have been offered over the past several years, few producers have  developed and implemented functional farm food safety plans. We will be addressing this specific point at a Food Safety Workshop on March 22, 2014 with follow up to participating producers who are not able to attend the workshop.

o   Annual water testing has also been a bit of an issue. We have tracked down resource information for producers in both Iowa and Minnesota – outlining what services are available and what is to be included in the test.

o   Product liability insurance has been the most significant issue. Without good information, this issue alone has the potential to scare producers away from the added expense of marketing together. This is also a challenging topic as so few insurance agencies are familiar enough with local food production to offer adequate support. We have found Farm Bureau to be the most adequately prepared to provide an insurance product. Fortunately, one of our producers is also working as a Farm Bureau agent and understands the issue and has been able to offer a quote that is a reasonable investment for producers.

  • Formation of a new business to serve as the vehicle for these new, collaborative sales. This project started with Healthy Harvest of North Iowa serving as the base support not-for-profit organization. As we continued the planning for new sales, we realized the need for a new organizational home for this profit-based activity. Six producers have formed North Iowa Fresh, LLC to manage the producer/buyer relationships and the finances. The group has developed a free structure through which non-member producers can participate and sell.
  • Systems to communicate expectations, pricing and product quality expectations with our food buyers. To date our two main accounts include – a grocer and a school district  – but we are in conversation with a number of others.

o   We now have a producer checklist - built off the experience of Iowa State University and Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development, Inc. (RC&D)

o   We have a spec sheet to use with school orders – built off the experience of the Iowa Valley RC&D

o   We have an outline of products, quantities, producer commitment and a beginning point for pricing discussions that has been in discussion with our main grocer account in Mason City, IA.

o   We will adopt the product standards developed by GROWN Locally’s Manual for Grower Coops to serve as a guide for our producers of our product protocols. We are still in the process of checking that list against the expectations of our food buyers before being formally developed into our manual and provided to our producers.

  • Held our first Farm to School sales pilot during a week in October 2013 with an elementary school in Clear Lake, Iowa.  Four producers contribute a product per day to the lunch menu. We provided daily interpretation with a member of our team at the school each day during lunch.
  • Held our first Meet & Greet Event. On February 17, 2014, we had a Speed Dating event that involved five food buyers and 10 producers. All reported enthusiastically to the new developments and the new relationship opportunities. Our broker team member is following up with those buyers.
  • Held our first collaborative package – direct to consumer package sale. Sweets for the Sweet, marketed for the Valentines’ Holiday - involved 7 producers and sold 7 packages. More details under Impacts/Outcomes section about this package model.
  • Gross sales

o   Farm to School - $330

o   Sweets for the Sweet - $280

o   Misc. Wholesale - $198.50

o   Total to date: $808.50

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

  • We've gained keen insight into the necessity of organizational preparation for collaborative marketing. Given the work to date, we feel the projects studied in anticipation of this grant did not adequately articulate the need for all the organization we have had to address. One of the outcomes from this project will be a clear outline of organizational best practice recommendations. The GROWN Locally manual we've studied serves as a good reference, but I believe there is additional interpretation needed to articulate all the preparation needed to position producers to sell together. Frankly, the platform for collaborative marketing has been undergoing rapid change – in light of emerging food hub developments and greater food safety concerns.
  • The time and attention we have felt to be necessary for this organizational development and some changes in team membership were key factors to the delay of some of our anticipated sales in our first year.
  • We are now much better positioned to head deep into our sales work in our 2nd year. While we did not meet our original gross sales targets to date, we have had a little experience to test the waters and highlight just what we do need to put into place. We have had regular communication with food buyers and they understand and appreciate just how seriously we are working to position our effort.
  • Marketing plans are in place to test the hybrid model that is trialing both wholesale and direct to consumer sales.

o   We have a series of direct-to-consumer packages planned for the year, including early Summer, July 4th, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas/December

  • These are marketed through an online system we trialed with our first - Valentine's Day Sweets for the Sweet package. We are also exploring use of this online ordering tool for producers to market their own products.

    • This package/online ordering trial is a first step toward a more robust online, “virtual” farmers market venue. Our project leader has begun converations with other groups in Iowa about the possibility of one software platform to serve several different distribution “hubs” across the state.

  • We are using three different locations to distribute our direct-to-consumer sales in this nine-county North Central Iowa region

    • Working through our distribution options has raised the issue of hub opportunity - one of our anticipated unique model elements.

o   One hub is closest to our largest retail community and a number of producers already market there so it’s relatively easy to aggregate product there. But the other two have a number of producers who are not currently transporting product into this retail area. We want to explore how our model can help grow market opportunity for these other producers – either by integrating transportation opportunity or leveraging additional wholesale opportunities closer to these “hub” locations.

o   We have a base plan for wholesale with a grocer in Mason City, focused on 10 products from 7 producers.

  • We will branch off of this plan once it is set in place and resume conversation with additional food buyers about other opportunities this season.

  • Strong producer interest - We have had very good involvement from 10 producers (more than expected) and we have been meeting and planning all winter so producers should be able to plant to meet these new opportunities. We also should be clear enough about all of our expectations that they can adequately anticipate both the cost and benefit of this new opportunity.
  • A Specialty Crop Block Grant was secured that is supporting continuing education on best production practices for some of the main crops we are marketing through our wholesale effort. We have included a food safety and record keeping workshop among this series that continues into 2015. Our record keeping workshop features an on-farm research project so farmers are encouraged to put this key practice to work on their farm to better understand pricing for profit. We have very intentionally integrated these workshops with the SARE project.
  • This project is contributing to the local food system work in North Central Iowa and the food hub conversation across Iowa. North Iowa's local food work has been led by Healthy Harvest of North Iowa's Coordinator, Jan Libbey, who is also the lead producer on this SARE grant. Producers' efforts through this project to stimulate new sales & marketing and form a new LLC have significantly raised the bar and brought a broader base of interest and enthusiasm from stakeholders and consumers to local food opportunities in this region. Healthy Harvest of North Iowa is one of 15 regional food system working groups in Iowa. The work in North Iowa does not exist in a vaccum and Libbey has become more involved in food hub discussions across Iowa and the need for more coordinated planning. In partnership with Iowa's Regional Food System Working Group, she wrote and was awarded a $10,000 grant, through one of our anchor North Central Iowa partners, to support a Strategic Planning for Iowa Food Hubs: Phase I project. She will be involved in the implementation of this project.