It's Winter, So Think Summer!
Local produce programs have come a long way in the past few years. Nearly every department I work with these days has some sort of local grower program in place. We all know the reasons for supporting local growers. It keeps farmers on the land, provides fresher food to your customers, minimizes the environmental impacts and economic costs of food transportation, strengthens your local economy by keeping the money in your community, and provides a valuable connection to our food by putting a face or name with a product.
Now that it's winter, it's time to look at all the questions that arose during the summer and to start preparing for next season. Start by taking some time to sit down with your crew and ask what worked and what didn't.
For example, one might say, "T&D Willey farms grows the nicest eggplant I've ever seen. We could sell twice as much as last season if we could get it." Or, "Firefly Farms basil is incredible but our customers don't buy large bunches. Perhaps if they made smaller bunches we could sell more."
Then contact the growers you've been working with and those who approached you this summer but you couldn't work with due to prior commitments and set up appointments to discuss the next season. Believe me your grower's want this just as much as you do. It will make both of your lives easier next summer. Make sure you discuss issues such as price, quality, labeling, containers, receiving hours, invoices, and payment schedule. One of the most frequent questions I hear retailers ask is "What should I pay for the produce?" I would like to refer to a quote from Tom Fausone that I heard recently. "A good deal is a good deal for both parties." So ask yourself what can I sell this item for and once you know your retail price ask the grower what do they need to get for it. You may have to haggle a bit.
Consider all of your options and give them all the information, with a dialogue such as, "At the price you need I have to sell it for $1.99/lb. and could move about three boxes a week. But if I could sell it at $1.59/lb. I could probably sell nine to 10 boxes a week. Is it worth it for you to come down on the price a bit to sell more volume?" Be creative. I once gave a grower $1.00/lb. all season long for his early girl tomatoes, which was low in the spring and fall but high in the summer. But with creative pricing it worked out for both of us.
Another common question is, "What should I pay a grower who grows organically but isn't certified?" I say the above quote applies here also. If you can, set prices at your winter meeting so you both know what to expect, with of course the knowledge that prices can change due to weather and market conditions.
One area that many produce buyers have trouble with is telling a grower that their produce might not be up to snuff. Consider that when you are upfront and honest you are doing them a favor by helping them sell more with you as well as with other suppliers. It may not be received well at first, but it will build a relationship on trust and respect that will be sustainable for years. On your end, remember it is extremely important that you have consistent quality standards that both your whole staff and the farmer understand.
Labels should be clear and consistent, with the farm name, item name, weight or quantity, and proper organic requirements attached so that they stay on the box.
Containers or boxes should work for the store. Having to repack the product or, receiving white five-gallon buckets that you have to work around is unacceptable. It can cause more work for you and hurt the food. Show the grower how you store their products and how they are packed when received from a distributor. This way they can gain a better understanding of how their produce fits into your world.
Invoices should be made out in advance with exact items and amounts received with the agreed upon price. It is a waste of time to be discussing prices when you are busy trying to receive.
Another area that constantly surprises me in stores I work with: farmers are allowed to deliver when it's convenient for them. I say it has to work both ways. Receiving hours should be scheduled when you have the staff on duty to receive properly. And the exceptions should not be the rule.
The same goes for ordering. Set up at time that works for both of you. Lastly, don't forget to set up a payment schedule that is fair for both your needs.
Sowing these seeds this winter is sure to produce a bumper crop next summer.