Seeking Local Organic Producers
As worldwide availability of organic products hits new heights, there also is a strong consumer trend toward supporting local food systems. In some areas of the country organic farmers who sell directly to retailers are easy to find. In the Midwest, where I have farmed organically for some years, most organic growers produce crops not destined for the retail market without some sort of processing. We are approached often by retailers and other buyers who are looking for growers and aren’t sure where to find them. How does one begin the search?
Where to look
• The National Organic Program. It is easy to find contact information on the accredited certifiers. A list is available on the USDA NOP website at www.ams.usda.gov/nop
• A fee may be charged for such information, depending on the certifier’s policy. It is important to tell the certifier what information you need and why you need it.
• Certifiers are required, under the regulation, to make information about the following available to any member of the public upon request: certificates issued during the current and 3 preceding calendar years; a list of producers and handlers whose operations it has certified, including for each the name of the operation, type(s) of operation, products produced, and the effective date of the certification, during the current and 3 preceding calendar years.
• State Departments of Agriculture: thanks to the Organic Cost Share, most certified organic producers’ information is now on file at these offices. Many states also have marketing programs, lists, pamphlets and/or other information that will assist in the search for local producers.
• Local gardening clubs or organizations
• State Cooperative Extension Services offices
• Farmers markets
• Local produce and agricultural product auctions
• Word of mouth—as a grower I have met most of my CSA members and buyers by having one of the current customers tell a friend or acquaintance about our farm.
Don’t forget to look to your local Amish community where applicable. Many Amish communities already have established organic grower groups who are excellent sources; however, they do not take advantage of the cost share and may not be on state lists as a result.
Identify and communicate your requirements and the products you are looking for—this can effectively be done by setting up a meeting with one or more growers. Issues to discuss include:
• Certification: Do you want to work with growers who fit into the small farm exemption of the Organic Rule, or do you require certification? (The small farm exemption is for operations that produce organically, maintain documentation of their production methods, and who sell no more than $5,000 of organic product in one year.) If you accept the “small farmers,” what documentation do you require from them? If you are already a certified retailer, then you should ask your certifier what their requirements are regarding your sources of organic products.
• Volume: What is the minimum volume of organic food that you wish to order and/or buy from a producer? Some small growers may be able to take care of your needs for only one product, while others may have many.
• Type/variety: If you want a particular variety, then be sure to communicate this with the grower/s as soon as possible so they can plant accordingly.
• Contracts: If you use them, they should be discussed in detail.
• Insurance, if you require it.
• Order and delivery schedules, and protocols.
Any other requirements (packaging, labeling, quality issues) should also be discussed at this time. Get to know your growers. Visit the farm. Find out what resources they have that might fit into your needs.
Barriers to buying directly from local producers may include:
• Having to deal with many individual sources with one or two products rather than one source that has many products.
• Inconsistent variety, quality, packaging, volume and pricing.
• Difficultly getting verification of certification. Always contact the certifier for verification if there is any doubt. All certified producers will have some documentation of certification. If they do not provide this, buyer beware.
Organize the growers
If dealing with too many individual producers is not an option for your store, is there a way for them to sell to you as a marketing group? By pooling products, growers can offer a wider range of items and provide consistency in the quality, pricing, and packaging of a product. Some groups have staff or an appointed member that verifies the certified status of all products sold through the group.
Otherwise, it may be best to train or hire someone who will deal directly with your local producers, providing them with the information they need to meet your needs and taking care of orders and receiving. This person needs to be able to work well with growers and have an understanding of their products, abilities, and limitations. Strong grower and buyer relationships are crucial to success, and they help the store communicate to consumers looking for that farm to plate connection.
Consider starting an on-site farmers market. Many stores have added farmers markets to their sites during the local growing season. This brings people to the store who might otherwise go elsewhere to buy local foods, and it provides your store with the opportunity to buy directly from the growers on market days. Stores may add booths that offer their own bakery and/or snack products and create a festive atmosphere by bringing in music or other forms of entertainment. Bloomingfoods in Bloomington, Indiana (my neck of the woods) has done a great job of providing this opportunity to local growers. Their market has helped many local growers establish themselves, and in doing so helped to build the local organic farming community and economy.
Have an in-store event to highlight local organic growers. Invite the growers for an afternoon. Let them set up promotional tables and offer samples if available. Let your members and consumers see the face that goes with the product.
Establish prices that are fair to the growers and to you: Local growers deserve fair pay for their products, and stores need to make a profit. Often the local prices are going to be higher than prices on product ordered from your distributor. Why pay more for local? Consider these reasons:
• Maintain longer shelf life. Locally produced product, sold fresh from the farm to the store, will have a longer shelf life than product that has been shipped across the country (and maybe even the planet). “Cheap” food that does not hold up in storage is not really cheap, since much of it may be tossed out—not to mention the environmental and nutritional implications of long-term storage and long-distance shipping.
• Keep local farmers on the land. In this day and age we are losing America’s family farmers by leaps and bounds. Much farmland in the United States is being developed for non-agricultural uses. By supporting your local organic farmers you keep those local farmers in business, and you make sure that the methods of production being used are environmentally friendly.
• Create a direct relationship with your food supply. Today we face the serious issues of mad cow disease, avian influenza, and a host of other dangers associated with an inability to track our food from farm to farm and facility to facility. Food safety problems do not stop in the meat department—they cross over to all commodities. Certified organic production provides documentation of the source of the product and handling sites, from field and seed to final seller.
Working with local producers may be more work and certainly requires staff effort and documentation. It also provides assurance to your customers that your store shows concern for and dedication to the principles of community and cooperative development. When you support local organic producers, you support integrity in your own mission and vision and in your service to your cooperative’s members and consumers.