Our Produce departments have, for years, defined and refined really excellent internal systems for getting local farmers’ produce into our stores and to your table. As a onetime outsider to their system, I was in awe of the amount of thought and time put into the practice of sourcing product, negotiating price with individual farmers, and keeping commitments to farmers throughout the entire Wisconsin growing season. My background was originally in restaurants and delis, so I was used to “just getting the ingredients in the door” and working with one or two local farmers, tops. The gargantuan effort our Produce departments expend each year begins in the winter with a marathon of face-to-face meetings with all prospective local farmers. An in-depth dialogue begins wherein growing needs are determined, pricing is agreed upon, and feedback is delivered to both sides of the table, strengthening the working relationship in a way that cannot be done through email or over the phone.
Incorporating more farms
I had my first foray into this world of coordinated mass purchasing of local produce two winters ago. As the Prepared Foods Category Manager, I had been charged with the task of incorporating more of these farmers’ produce into our Deli foods that we make daily at all four of our sites (Production Kitchen included!). We made strides that first year in achieving our goals. The Production Kitchen, especially, built some great sourcing relationships with Robert Shulz of New Traditions Farmstead and Wisconsin Growers. During the 2016 spring and summer, those two farms accounted for well over half of all produce we used at the Production Kitchen. In fact, despite the end to the growing season, we are still working through a stock of cubed butternut squash from Robert that was processed and frozen for us by Wisconsin Innovation Kitchen in Mineral Point. We also deepened our ties to Dan Bernard of Healthy Ridge Farm in Door County by sourcing apples and cherries for our holiday pies. Our Delis worked in local produce where they could, as well, relying heavily on players like Vitruvian Farms for salad greens and spinach, Tipi Produce for carrots, and Crossroads Community Farm for various other items.
Even though we had clearly taken ground when it came to getting local produce into our Deli and Bakery foods, the Prepared Foods department still paled in comparison to the commitment our Produce departments were achieving. This year, we hope to build on our momentum by continuing to make improvements. We have fully jumped on board, using the same internal purchasing systems and practices that our friends in Produce have been refining for years. It means more time behind a spreadsheet, on the phone, and talking to each other, but participation in this system heralds a new level of purchasing coordination for us. Even though it means more work for each of us along the way, it will bring exponential growth in the amount of local produce you see on your plate when you purchase food from our Delis. We have just rolled out this system last month, so we’re still getting our sea legs, but we’re really excited to see its impact on you, on our bottom-line, and especially on our partner-farmers.
Double the organic farms
Which brings me around to a wider point: organic farms in Wisconsin have nearly doubled in number from a decade ago, according to the UW Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems. Wisconsin is second in the nation in number of organic farms, yet fifth in amount of revenue from organic produce sales, which says to me that there are a lot of smaller-scale operations coming on board in our state. Retailers like your Co-op play a decisive and integral role in providing stable revenue to farms on this scale, and our expansion of our local produce purchasing to all of our Delisand Prepared Foods departments is in direct support of this. We do things like this because it makes good sense all around: we have influence on pricing and can determine fair rates for people we can see and talk to, it meets our Owners’ desire to see these products in their shopping carts, and it supports these local entrepreneurs in their risky venture of becoming organic farmers in a volatile growing climate. This culture that we, all of us involved, have emboldened is a large contributor to the rate of growth in this industry in our state, I have no doubt.
We may have to do more, however
The state is still lacking in processing and collection services for organic fruits and vegetables, meaning farmers have to rely upon themselves to sell product at farmers’ markets or through direct delivery to retailers and restaurants. The community that sees the value of these farmers and the food system they help promote needs to come to a clearer vision of our next step. We need to improve the local food infrastructure to support our current and future farmers so they can continue to do their work. When farmers can get their product to consumers faster, more safely and more easily, we all win. I look forward to the day when buying local produce isn’t more work, but simply the way it works.