Pooling product can enhance marketing, but start slowly

02/21/2012 04:05:00 PM
By Renee Stern, Contributing Editor

Growers can find strength—and profit—in numbers, banding together for marketing, distribution and other efforts.

From multi-farm community-supported agriculture, or CSA, outlets to cooperatives and pools under a common label, this joining of forces allows small- to medium-sized operations to reach new customers increasingly interested in local produce.

Some commonalities filter through the various formats.

Together, growers can offer enough volume or range of crops to attract retailers, foodservice outlets or institutions that might be out of reach for each individual farm.

They may also be able to gain volume discounts by pooling such purchases as packaging or fertilizer.

Growers also can tailor organizational structures to meet their needs. And whether they sell all or part of their crops through the group, that outlet provides a steady, reliable income.

Andy Ross, owner of Skagit Flats Farm in Mount Vernon, Wash., sells about 80 percent of his product through Farmers Own, a regional organic label owned by Seattle-based Charlie’s Produce that represents about 20 Northwest growers.

That gives Ross the leeway to work with smaller, more local customers who provide higher margins for the remainder.

Someone needs to lead

Some common pitfalls emerge as well.

Someone—ideally one of the producers—needs to take charge, but finding someone with the time, aptitude and inclination may mean hiring a manager, says Shermain Hardesty, a University of California Cooperative Extension economist at Davis.

Relationships among members or with the organization may fall apart, Ross says.

“You need a lot of trust in the relationship,” Ross says.

“It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement,” says Farmers Own manager Diane Dempster.

The company gains a marketing tool with the steady source of locally grown produce, and in return supplies packaging and handles sales, transportation and bookkeeping for participating growers.

Dempster works with growers to plan production quantities and schedules, to stretch the season as long as possible and avoid gluts and shortages that wreak havoc with prices.

Finding the right mix of people is important, says Jim Crawford, a founding member and president of the board of directors at Tuscarora Organic Growers, a 25-year-old cooperative centered in Hustontown, Penn.

“We have a good group of people, members who are willing to work together and are committed to the needs of the co-op,” Crawford says. “Part of that is luck.”

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