The height of local season is nearly upon us! In a typical year, our Produce departments work with about 30 small local farms to bring as much locally grown fresh produce to market as possible. At the height of the season, it’s not uncommon for 80 percent or more of the fresh veggies we sell to be locally grown, with hundreds of unique local fruits and veggies gracing our shelves throughout the year.
These are statistics we’re very proud of. For many of us who work in produce at the Co-op, local is our passion, making this extremely rewarding work.
Fulfilling? Yes. Easy? No. There’s a good reason that no other grocery stores in our area have taken local produce to the level that we have. In short, purchasing from so many small growers is inherently inefficient. It takes a great deal more time and attention to buy from 30 small farmers than the typical industry practice of sourcing from one or two big distribution houses and maybe a handful of local farms.
As a full-service grocery store, we must always do our best to ensure that all the produce items our customers need are consistently in stock. However, as anyone who has visited a farmers’ market knows, that’s not how local farmers’ crops work. Local produce availability changes with the season and even with the weather. One hailstorm, one early frost, or a few really hot days can drastically change what a local farmer may have available for sale.
That means that our Produce teams are constantly putting together a puzzle with shifting pieces—ensuring that our shelves stay full, and figuring out on a daily basis which of our many local farms has which items at the quantities we need when we need them.
Behind the Scenes
So, how do we do it? Here’s a quick behind the scenes look at how local produce gets to our shelves.
The process starts months before the season begins. Every January, our produce managers and I meet with our farmers to plan out the coming season. We talk about the previous season—what went well, what didn’t, and how we can improve our partnership going forward. We also talk about pricing. Unlike the rest of the industry, which fluctuates pricing based on supply and demand, our philosophy is to pay what farmers need to make it economically sustainable for them to grow their crops. We walk away from the winter meetings with a list of items that we commit to purchasing from each farm in the coming year, in what quantities, and at what prices. The farms can then buy seeds and plant knowing that they’ll have a market for their crops.
Fast forward to the growing season. Though we make commitments to farms, and we always honor those commitments when possible, inevitablythings get messy when crops are actually in the ground. Despite the farmers’ best intentions, sometimes things grow more slowly (or more quickly) than anticipated. Too much rain, too little rain, or an unexpected visit from some hungry crows can dramatically impact a crop. Sometimes surprises happen on our end—we may sell more (or less) of an item than we anticipated, leading to an over- or under-supply for the farmer.
Since local produce can be so volatile, we have to have a way to track what each farm has available on a regular basis. Early each week, each farm sends us an availability lists, spelling out exactly what they think they’ll have for us and when they can deliver. We compile these availabilities into one master spreadsheet and put together the puzzle of who we intend to source what from at each of our stores. That weekly spreadsheet is what our buyers use to determine what they order and from who on any given day.
Despite our best efforts to map everything out on a weekly basis, even that is sometimes not enough. Farms’ estimated availability at the beginning of the week can change (and often do) and that often leaves our buyers scrambling each day to make sure we have what we need to fill our shelves.
So why is all the extra work worth it? The whole process of sourcing directly from local farmers means a commitment of more time, more attention to detail, and frankly more stress than purchasing everything we need from distributors who source mainly from large farms in California or Mexico, but the reward is so much greater!
Because our Produce buying team is willing to put in a little extra work, we are able to help family farms stay in business. By building long-term, trusting relationships with farmers, we are ensuring both their future success and also our Owners’ and customers’ future access to fresh local food at their neighborhood grocery stores. The actions we take directly affect the strength and resiliency of our local food system. What could be more worth it than that?