Virtual Co-Op Links Farmers and Restaurants
by Francis P. Koster, Ed.D.
It is possible to create jobs, have healthier diets and improve the local economy by re-birthing local agriculture on small plots of land.
Each pound of lettuce or eggs or beef shipped from California, Latin America or Mexico raises our dependency on foreign oil. And buying food from far away costs us jobs locally. Some communities have figured out a new path forward that fixes all that.
North Carolina’s Rutherford County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, and yet some 6,000 families own between five and 20 acres of land. Meanwhile, chefs in nearby Charlotte are in need of fresh produce for their restaurants.
First, local leaders helped create the Farmers Fresh Market (http://www.farmersfreshmarket.org/) that lets Charlotte chefs and residents place orders for produce directly with Appalachian farmers. Next, to help raise incomes, the co-op educated the local farmers to grow more exotic items, like colorful kale and purple beans, that had a higher cash value.
Two years later, Farmers Fresh Market counts 90 local farmers among its members in what amounts to a “virtual” co-op.
Grower members of the co-op plant crops they know the restaurants and schools have expressed interest in. When harvest approaches, the food producers list their upcoming harvest on the website. Interested food retailers and restaurants contract online for delivery. A driver hired by the co-op makes the pick-up rounds of the farms, guided by a geo-routing map for efficiency, and delivers the crops to the customers, again by geo-mapping routes.
The farmers set their own prices, and the co-op takes a percentage off the top to pay for the driver and for operation of the co-op website. The website cost about $5,000 to set up, and the buyers pay a 10 percent transaction fee to help maintain it.
Think of the co-op as a sort of “eBay for Food” that connects local farmers and growers with local institutions, country clubs and restaurants so that local areas can regrow a healthy agricultural economy, while also cutting down on food transportation costs and improving local diets.
This project has the potential to be a significant contributor to the local rural economy, according to Timothy Will, a retired telecommunications analyst who set up the online market. “According to the N.C. Department of Agriculture, every dollar brought into a farm economy by a small farm producer has an 8-to-1 multiplier.” This means other local business get $8 worth of business as that dollar gets handed along in the community, until it finally leaves to pay for imported oil or other goods that are not locally available.
In addition to teaching farmers computing skills and converting a vacant plot into a demonstration garden, FarmersFresh has introduced sustainable agriculture courses for adults and high school students.
“It’s kind of a resurrection of our history,” says Lindy Abrams, a 25-year-old who, after losing her job and enrolling in Will’s adult-education class, now grows vegetables and salad greens on land her granddad once farmed. “People are really excited.”
The FarmersFresh concept is being expanded into new markets, with a current focus on the upstate S.C. region — specifically Greenville — and they hope to market/distribute the Farmers Fresh Market software/website nationally.
By pooling the transportation and marketing effort and costs, each food producer is freed from tasks they are not skilled at, and can now use their talents at food production, while reducing overhead. This allows the final food product to be priced more competitively than factory farmed food, while paying food producers a premium price for their product. This also increases our national security by keeping our food supply decentralized and less vulnerable to disruption either from accident or malice. We can be optimistic if other areas copy Rutherford.
If every community in America implemented projects like this, our country would be richer, have higher employment, cleaner air, healthier food, and lower taxes. What’s not to like?
Copyright 2011. All rights reserved.