The group, with a full-time manager, has collectively “done better than I could do it myself,” he says.
Good communication is key
Good communication and transparent operations for everyone involved are the key, says Susan Futrell, marketing director for Red Tomato, a Boston-based nonprofit that handles sales and distribution for about 40 Northeast growers.
“When you’re working in a network like this, you need to be accessible and open about your needs,” Futrell says.
Red Tomato is more decentralized than some groups, coordinating rather than owning warehouses and trucks.
The network includes growers with storage and hauling capacity but also taps outside trucking companies to help move produce directly from farms to retailers.
That approach allows Red Tomato staff to concentrate on developing markets and servicing customers, Futrell says.
Maintaining quality standards across a group of growers is a critical requirement.
Whether the pool’s brand identifies individual farms on a package, such as with Red Tomato’s Eco Apple program, or aggregates everything under a single label such as Farmers Own, delivering inconsistent quality can sink collective efforts for everyone.
A strong reputation for consistent, highquality produce has helped the Tuscarora co-op grow from $30,000 in annual sales to $3 million today, Crawford says.
Tuscarora requires members to follow an 18-page set of quality standards covering not only individual crops but also on-farm packaging, says general manager Jeff Taylor.
A committee of staff and member growers establishes the guidelines.
Members also sign on to a “commitment chart,” a spreadsheet projecting a certain number of boxes per week for so many weeks of each item they offer the co-op.
“They commit to growing that, and we commit to selling it,” Taylor says.
Slow and steady wins the race
Another potential hazard lies in aiming too high too soon.
A slow, steady growth curve is more sustainable for the long run, Crawford says.
That’s a lesson taken to heart at Pilot Mountain Pride, a public-private partnership that opened in 2010 to encourage new crops in tobacco-growing Surry County, N.C., and seven neighboring counties along the Virginia border.
The other aims, says Surry County Extension director Bryan Cave, include meeting a demand for local food and infusing new blood into the ranks of farmers nearing retirement.