Local Food System Development – Distribution
The Real Food Network connects farms and small-scale processors in Columbia County in upstate New York with local households and locally-owned stores and restaurants through a product list and preorder-based physical distribution system.
Under this SARE grant, our performance targets include expansion of the producer/product base and the consumer base, both of households (via pick-up sites) and commercial consumers (via delivery routes). The overall goal is to re-localize the food system, link farmers directly with local markets, and make small-scale farming more profitable and sustainable.
From the perspective of our stated milestones, we are about halfway through a process toward achieving them:
First: As intended, our personnel infrastructure andjob definition has become quite clear, though now some integration is needed, more meeting as a group, to maximize creativity and commitment.
Second: In our outreach to the community, we have successfully established four of the five intended community pick-up sites for household members. They are all located in the northern, more populated part of the county. We have yet to develop the numbers of members we hoped to in the first six months of our funding. A 50% increase in membership has largely been through word of mouth, as we have not yet done extensive outreach for participation. Our 75 household and 16 commercial members are becoming strongly committed, informed advocates for buying locally. Sales volume has increased substantially, mostly as a result of long-term members buying more of their food through the network.
Third: Sales volume has increased for commercial as well as household consumers. Though we have yet to make our big push into commercial markets, the purchasing patterns of the small stores we sell to thus far support our theory that, over time, the convenience of a single order and a single delivery will result in increasing sales for local products. As spring approaches, we will move out into the county, offering our product list and delivery system to more locally-owned stores and restaurants. To facilitate the transportation infrastructure for this, we are negotiating with two of our major producers for integrating their refrigerated trucks into our pick-up and delivery routes. We have also submitted a grant proposal to fund truck rental. Our current funding helps pay for drivers and mileage, but still depends on the use of personal vehicles and a system of dozens of coolers, which we are rapidly outgrowing.
Fourth: We are on target with our producer expansion. We projected an increase of ten for the entire funding period, and have thus far added six producers to our product list, bringing the total to thirty producers. Also, four of our producers diversified into additional product lines–wool, goat meat, pastured poultry, and pork. We’ve identified three more producers who will join us in the spring. As planned, we did begin to add some news and “classifieds” to our list, but there’s need for much more.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
It was necessary to accomplish more groundwork than we anticipated to prepare for a major expansion into the commercial marketplace. Our previously unincorporated association, Community Agriculture of Columbia County, of which the Real Food Network is a project, has incorporated as a non-profit under New York state law. We are still working on bylaws and board development. In preparation for an expansion, to accommodate more volume for the physical distribution, we have moved to a bigger facility. We have converted our product list into a database program with a designed list template to facilitate frequent updates. We have also moved into a computerized check writing system in a new accounting program.
A major new development in the planning stages in our county are two stores in our most populated areas, both of which would feature local and regional products. Our organization has been instrumental in the initiation of both plans, though they are being developed separately. It remains to be seen what local sales volume at the stores will be and how the stores will interface with each other, with a distribution system, with the producers, with our members, and with our community pick-up sites, etc. That they are being planned is a huge and important new milestone for our local food system work, and we feel that it is important to be flexible and open to the best possibilities rather than wedded to a single approach. The development of one of the stores is under the guidance of Real Food Network members, and it will serve as a strong outlet for local products, a center for testing and refining the merchandising materials we are developing under this grant, and a high visibility model for other small community-based stores in the county of the success potential of carrying a local line of products.
Five months remain in the originally defined funding period. We will almost certainly be requesting an extension, as we have been dispensing our funds conservatively, in proportion to our actual and projected growth during the period. We will probably request an additional four to six months to accomplish our goals and expend our funds, bringing us through the next growing season. We are in very dynamic and transitional times. We feel sure, though, that continued progress toward a comprehensive county-wide localized food system, with developed local markets for local producers, is dependent upon a coordinated physical distribution system and an effective local food branding campaign–both the backbone of our SARE proposal. It is also dependent upon people working together productively and with good will for the common good, a skill and an inner attitude which are crucial in these times if we are to move into a positive future.