It’s no secret local is big. It’s not just a Willy Street Co-op thing, or unique to any specific area or product. It’s everywhere and everything. 

Local is a marketing tool. It’s the new “green.” Businesses big and small are figuring out ways to get it into their advertising and product descriptions and capitalizing on it.

Local is sophisticated. Familiar with terroir, the French term used to describe how an area’s geography, geology, and climate impart unique characteristics upon the products it produces? It wasn’t until a recent Wisconsin Public Radio program informed me. I now know that it means to “taste the barnyard” in my raw milk, grass-fed, local cheese.

Local is tough! Guerrilla urban chefs are hitting the concrete for edible weeds growing from cracks in the sidewalk. They’re drying wild mushrooms and local root vegetables, grinding them into a powder, and calling it “dirt.” It’s kind of ironic; eating a grass-fed filet mignon garnished with “dirt” and “pasture.”

It’s controversial. Did you hear about the New York Times’ article “Math Lessons for Locavores?” In the article, the author states, “Statistics brandished by local food advocates are always selective, usually misleading, and often bogus.” If you google it, not only will you find the article, but a wealth of responses denouncing the authors claims.

And, it has become big business. It’s interesting to see how industry giants respond to competition from an ever-growing number of small, local producers, and the strategies they’re using to recapture their marketshare. Take food safety as an example. In the fresh food sector, food safety is and has been a hot ticket item for the past few years, at the same time growth in the local fresh sector has climbed exponentially. Corporate lobbyists and industry consultants are hard at work on creating production systems and standards for legislation aimed to ensure our food is safe. Will small, local producers be able to afford the fees and costs to comply with these standards? All of the most recent food-borne illness outbreaks have been linked to large agribusiness products. Many of these products are factory “cut and packaged” for safety, manufactured by the same companies lobbying for legislation.

Your Values, Our Commitment
We know local, organic, and sustainable are important to you, the Owners. Your values determine the products we carry, and for years your commitment to these values has been a key component in the success of our Co-op and its ability to support local farmers and businesses. We also know that we need to do better job of providing you with more local produce options. Owners who participated in the Eat Local Food Challenge requested more local conventional options when a locally grown organic option is not available. A better selection of locally grown fruit is also a common customer request. And lastly, origin labeling that clearly indicates whether or not a product is locally grown. With a second store and planning for local season 2011, here are some of the challenges and projects we’re working on to fulfill our commitment of offering the products that reflect your values.

More Local, Please!
In 2010, Willy Street Co-op’s Produce department purchased directly from 27 local farms. Twenty-four provided USDA Organic Certification records, and their product was offered as organically grown. The remainder provided us with sustainable farm practice plans including organic practices, Integrated Pest Management and permaculture. Of the 27, three were fruit growers (two orchards, one berry grower), one of which was certified organic. Locally grown products were purchased from at least an additional dozen Wisconsin farms through regional distributors and cooperative farms. Additionally, our regional distributors were able to supply us with products from Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. Due to limited storage space, we require a minimum of two deliveries per week from local growers. We make exceptions for two farms and receive delivery of their products once per week, and several growers have agreed to an additional weekly delivery during peak growing season.

Looking at these numbers, it’s not surprising we are getting requests for more local fruit. The challenges we are currently facing are: organic status, supply, and storage. And, let’s face it, our climate limits the variety of fruits growers can produce.

Historically, Owners have placed a high value on organically grown items. The Produce department follows Good Organic Retail Practices to maintain the organic status of these items. Practices include proper receiving, storage, handling, prep, and display of items so as to not co-mingle certified organic items with conventionally grown items. In recent years, consumers have placed a higher value on locally grown status, regardless of organic certification. Through our Owner surveys and Customer Comments, we are finding a high percentage of Owners who either place higher value on local status, or would like a local, conventional option at times when organic local is not available. To meet both needs, maintaining organic integrity and providing a local conventional option, we will be looking at our merchandising and display strategies. Currently, at the East location, we have one small display case to incorporate conventional offerings; all other cases are dedicated exclusively for certified organic produce. We can display organic and conventional items side by side, in the same display case, and still meet Good Organic Retail Practice standards. The challenge will be educating Owners to the change, and creating clear, obvious signage allowing Owners and customers to easily identify the production status of the product.

Organic fruit production in Wisconsin is extremely difficult due to a climate that promotes disease in fruit trees. Cold, wet springs and hot, humid summers make for ideal conditions that breed disease in fruit trees. Berries are also difficult to produce organically on a scale that enables growers to produce enough volume to supply retailers. For many fruit items, producers are able to maintain production levels suited for farmers’ markets, restaurants requiring smaller volumes, and CSA shares. There just aren’t a lot of growers producing enough volume to provide a consistent supply to a retailer of our size and scale.

There are areas of the state where there are ‘micro-climates’ that produce conditions well suited for fruit production. Peaches and cherries in Door County, and blueberries from the Bayfield area along Lake Superior are commonly found at the farmers’ markets when in season. The challenge: growers are located far enough away that making multiple deliveries to the Madison area (twice to retailers, and one trip to the farmers’ market) is not economically feasible. Currently, we are looking into several different cold/dry storage options that would enable us to purchase and store a large volume of product. A Door County grower could make one trip, drop 2,000 pounds of peaches, and the peaches could be distributed to the two stores by our truck throughout the week. This would provide us with a supply that meets our sales needs and a delivery schedule that meets the growers’ needs. There are a number of benefits we see in this strategy that will ultimately extend our ability to support local growers and meet the values of Co-op Owners.

Is This Local?
I’ll start by saying product origin is a can of worms and a work in progress. By law, all retailers are required to meet Country Of Origin Labeling guidelines, otherwise known as COOL. For fresh, bulk produce, COOL requires retailers to clearly state the country of origin, spelled out fully or abbreviated, in a location reasonably near the associated product. Prior to its implementation and currently, Willy Street Co-op has exceeded this requirement. Whenever possible, we indicate the state of origin for domestically grown products, and for local products, we indicate local status and list the farm name(s) from whom we’ve purchased the product.
This year during the Eat Local Challenge, there were a number of products on the aisle listing multiple states for their origin, e.g. WI/MN/CA. As the Challenge was winding down in mid-September, so were some of the local products we were offering. Local availability was limited on products like cucumbers, zucchini, and bell peppers. Farmers were uncertain of supply, and regional distributors had several options listed in their product catalogs for us to source as a back-up to local. More often than not, we would indicate preference for one item, and end up receiving another. And, in general, it’s not uncommon to have a couple of origins in a single display: we’re not going to let a display completely run out before filling it with a product of separate origin. So, while we did meet the requirements of COOL, it was difficult for those participating in the Challenge to determine if the product met their needs.
We understand being as specific as possible when indicating origin is important as it enables you to identify products that correlate with your values. At the Co-op there are a number of groups and departments working on identifying our needs and a system that will meet those needs.

The Best of the Best
I’ve worked and shopped at Willy Street Co-op for almost 20 years. Here, local is not a trend. It’s not tough, sophisticated, or any of the aforementioned descriptors. It’s what we do because we value its contributions to a better way of life. I’ve been in Co-ops coast to coast, and can confidently say we are one of the best when it comes to our local offerings. We know that’s no reason to stop striving to do better, and we’ll continue this effort as long as it is a value to our Owners.

Thanks and best wishes in the New Year!

Monona Bootery & Family Shoes

Madison Computer Service

Summit Credit Union