by Tam Pirmann, Farming Alliance Member, River to River Farm
The 25th Southern SAWG annual conference was held in Lexington, Kentucky this January. I was lucky enough to attend with three other farmers from Southern Illinois. Even though Illinois is not considered one of the southern states, we here in Southern Illinois have similar growing conditions to much of the Southern SAWG areas. That’s what makes this conference worthwhile, being able to talk to other farmers with similar conditions and issues.
“If you go alone, you can go fast, but it’s better to go together and go far.”
One of the sessions I attended was called “Farmer Collaboration to Access Larger Markets”. The session presented three different models of farmers working together on production, aggregation, marketing, and distribution. Each had its pluses and minuses and each was completely different.
The first presenter was from the Kentucky Blueberry Growers Association. They created their association to aggregate their efforts in marketing fruit. One gentleman was the initiator and organized the marketing and distribution of blueberries their area of Kentucky. He worked on a very small scale for a number of years. However, with grant money, they were able to step up their game. They created the association and began to organize themselves as a group. They purchased an old IGA store and now use it as a warehouse. They were also able to purchase cleaning and packing equipment. All the growers are GAP trained, but not certified. They share liability insurance and have a marketing agreement. The cost to the farmers is 5% of sales which goes to the association and helps defray costs. This has worked well for them, but they have found that they need much more product to help pay for the new expenses associated with their growth. Right now they are operating at a loss because of the expense of maintaining the warehouse and equipment they now have. They are looking for ways to utilize what they have year round.
The second presenter was from the Nashville area. She and one other farmer have collaborated to provide a CSA to their customers. They use online farmers’ market software to organize their efforts. Customers subscribe via their website and place orders online. There are deadlines for the farmers to post their available products and deadlines for customers to place their orders. They occasionally contract other farmers to help fill in gaps and sometimes add meat, bakery items, eggs, or cheese. All items are aggregated at one farm and they pack the crates themselves. The coordination and communication is done by the two organizing farmers. They have an emailing list of around 2000, but take about 150 orders per week during the growing season. They still get to interact with their customers during the pick-up, for which they share responsibility. Both farmers also attend a farmers’ market on Saturdays. Their CSA pick-up is Tuesday. The website they use can be found here http://locallygrown.net/ There is a charge of 3% of gross sales. This seems to be working quite well for the two farmers in the Nashville area. It seems to be a great way for small farms to reach more customers.
The third model was the West Georgia Farmers Co-op. It has been in place since the 1960s and was initially started as a way to help share croppers out of poverty. It has waxed and waned throughout its existence but right now seems to be on the upswing. It is still for socially and economically disadvantaged farmers and customers. The profits generated are distributed 1/3 as dividends to members, 1/3 to run the business, and 1/3 for community outreach. They are an organized cooperative that shares liability insurance. Membership is $20/year/per member. There are 7 market growers, 4 small growers, and 2 urban community farms that contribute. These farms range in size from 1⁄4 acre to 500 acres. Their customers include schools, an institutional CSA, grocery stores, and a restaurant CSA. They have monthly meetings and pool resources, equipment, and work to meet the needs of their customers. Eric Simpson, the presenter, said they make decisions together, take risks together, and profit together. This model has longevity and seems to really work well to create a community.
The presentations were varied, yet all seem to work for both farmers and customers. The key point that I took away from this session was that aggregation works not only for bringing farmers to customers and customers to farmers, but mostly in creating community. It’s all about relationships and building a community that takes care of each other. One of the quotes that I stuck with me from the session was this; “If you go alone, you can go fast, but it’s better to go together and go far.”
About the author:
Tam Pirmann is the owner of River to River Farm in Tunnel Hill, Illinois. River to River specializes in growing tropical speciality crops ginger and turmeric.