A New Kind of Co-op: GROWN Locally

Nearly a decade ago, an idea was born in a field outside of Decorah, Iowa. After a field day at Sunflower Fields Farm, several farmers wondered if they could band together, coordinate their marketing efforts, and sell their products to local institutions under a single name. They tried. Some things flew, others flopped. Nine years later, the cooperative endures. These Iowan farmers might not like us making too much of it, but the truth is, we think their model is the way of the future.

It's called GROWN Locally (GROWN = Goods Raised Only With Nature). This year they'll have about a dozen members producing vegetables, berries, apples, chickens, pork, eggs, flowers, honey, and baked goods. They sell to both institutions and households using an online ordering system backed with exceptionally good customer service. Their collective sales to individuals are unique in their breadth and flexibility (see www.grownlocally.com/Gl2006/purchase.html), but is their focus on the institutional market that we find so exciting. A region's best food should be served in its hospitals and schools, nursing homes and local restaurants, and yet it is so rare that in most areas it is considered impossible.

The barriers are the familiar confines of time and money. Individual farmers lack the time it takes to build up an institutional clientele, and food service directors rarely have time to buy a few cases of vegetables here and there. Moreover, institutional kitchens no longer staff enough people to dice potatoes and peel carrots. Fresh foods must come at least half-prepared. Food services nationwide have simply come to rely on the consistent timing, abundant quantities, administrative simplicity and rock-bottom prices offered by Sysco and other big distributors. Plus, food from the co-op costs more. For institutional buyers, "budget becomes the bottom line," says Karen Foster of Winneshiek Medical Center. "You want to do the right thing, but you have to be financially responsible." The way GROWN Locally's clients make it work is to put their local food dollars into products where the quality difference is most perceptible, and cut costs in other parts of their budgets.

Fortunately for its farmers, the co-op has two advantages over its competition: the capacity for customer/farmer relationships, and the ability to deliver products within 24 hours of harvest. These things are significant for its institutional customers, which include Luther College, several nursing homes, two hospitals, two restaurants, and the Isle of Capri Casino in Waterloo. Foster says, "The number one benefit for us is that I know the people who grow this food. That's huge. And it's good stuff. It hasn't lost its vitamins in transit." For the executive chef at the Isle, Tom Griffin, it's all about taste. "In terms of quality, there's no comparison because it is so fresh. It might not always be as pretty, but the taste is there," he says. He also values the experience of working with local people he knows. "Instead of looking at a computer screen and ordering 24 cases of this or that, I call Solveig. The farmers came this winter and we sat down to plan what they're going to grow for me this year. It's very, very cool."

These relationships offer many benefits to the farmers as well. The co-op farmers appreciate having the sales made before the food is even grown. As farmer Paul Young says, "Knowing ahead of time where the food will be sold is key." The farmers were also able to go to Griffin for advice about equipment and storage when first learning to navigate the food service world. And they're finding out some surprising things as they talk to their customers. For example, cosmetic consistency of products is less important for certain institutions than the farmers had thought. "We've had customers tell us, 'Oh don't worry about a few dings in the tomatoes – we're going to dice them up anyway," says GL founding member Michael Nash. "The more we are able to talk with our customers and make sure we understand them, the better we do."

Nash says that the GROWN Locally name is gaining more recognition in the five county area served by the co-op, and sales are definitely expanding. But the challenges for the group remain significant. "We have no models, no rules for this; even within other cooperatives, this is a unique venture." In other words, it's plain hard work to try and do something this new with a group of individualists. Beyond the group dynamics, farming is a hard road. "I wish we could have the stability in our lives that we see our customers have in theirs," Nash says in a tired way. And then a minute later he rubs his hands over his face and says with vigor, "But you know, I absolutely love what I do."

One of the mottos within GROWN Locally, and its goal, is "Growing up, staying small." They want more financial and organizational stability, and they also want to stick to their original geographic area, which was set to avoid long days trucking food around the state. One direction in which they hope to expand the business is food processing. They have applied for a grant to explore what products they could grow and process themselves, both fresh and frozen. This could open up their markets considerably. One local nursing home food service administrator told Nash that she buys so-so pre-made potato salad because – again – she doesn't have the staff or facilities to dice potatoes. "You get us diced potatoes," she said, "and we'll make our own potato salad, and guaranteed, our residents will like our recipe better."

Perhaps this is what success is going to look like in the new millennium – better potato salad at the local nursing home, made with spuds that were grown, and diced, down the road. We hope so.

Back to the March 2008 Newsletter