Organic Broadcaster

Farmers find strength marketing together in rural Northern Wisconsin

By Kelli Boylen

Greak Oak Farm grows most of the carrots for the Bayfield Foods CSA. Storage is split between the farm's root cellar and the Bayfield Foods shared cooler. Photo by Chris Duke

Greak Oak Farm grows most of the carrots for the Bayfield Foods CSA. Storage is split between the farm’s root cellar and the Bayfield Foods shared cooler.
Photo by Chris Duke

Bayfield Foods is proof that there often is great strength in collective marketing. The cooperative started when some local meat producers wanted to cross-market each other’s products, and five years later things continue to bloom.

“We realized that the customers buying grass-fed beef were likely the same people that were looking for pastured pork or lamb,” explained Chris Duke, a charter member. “The next step was having mixed meat boxes that customers could get with a variety of different meats in them. People really liked the convenience of getting it all in one stop,” Duke added. “So we got to thinking about all the other great products that farms were raising in the area—like fruit, cheese, bakery, other value added goods, and vegetables—and how the CSA concept would allow us to get the product from different area producers into a single box, working with a system where logistics were streamlined.”

Bayfield Foods was created in 2010 with 20 original members. In just five short years, the cooperative has clearly demonstrated its worth. “Why wouldn’t you want to be part of a diversified local cooperative that has a proven multi-year track record with significant yearly sales growth that helps support over 20 producer-members?” asked charter member David Nortunen.

Founding members are excited to have been able to increase sales enough to bring in additional producers. Sales have increased 20 percent just in the last year.

Bayfield Foods currently has 24 producer-members and is putting out 145 CSA shares a week in the warmer months as well as shares once a month in the winter. The Bayfield Regional Food Producers Cooperative (BRFPC), which is the group’s formal name, started primarily as a marketing-focused cooperative, but the organization’s mission is growing. It now manages a successful CSA, and is looking at ways to improve its distribution network.

Bayfield Foods operates the Lake Superior CSA, South Shore Meats wholesale program and the Bayfield Shores Harvest Trail. Producer-members choose to participate in any or all of the programs on a fee-for-service basis. In addition, Bayfield Foods works to find financial and other resources to support individual producer-members.

Stefanie Jaeger, Lake Superior CSA Manager, said the cooperative’s efforts give all producers an equal shot at getting their products to the public.

Most of the CSA shares are “whole diet” shares which include fruits, vegetables and meats. Others are bakery or coffee-only shares. CSA members can also get a “plus” share and get value-added products such as fermented goods, goat and sheep cheese, spritzers, maple syrup, honey, jams and jellies, coffees and baked goods.

Shares of veggies and meats go out weekly from May to October, twice in November, then once a month until the last delivery in March. That way producers can take a month off of delivery in April. New shares start back up in May. Winter shares typically do not include fruit.

The cooperative also supplies local foods to Northland College, a private college in Ashland. The college purchased more than $50,000 worth of goods in 2014.

“There is definitely an increase in the number of folks wanting local, sustainable food,” Jaeger said. She noted that a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) is in the process of locating in Northern Wisconsin, which has made more local residents think about where their food comes from.

Bayfield Foods has been working hard to have a strong online presence including a Facebook recipe page and a website (bayfieldfoods.org). The group holds events where people can taste local foods and meet the farmers who produce it. The cooperative also markets by setting up a booth at local wellness fairs and events such as Big Top Chautauqua. Word of mouth from satisfied buyers also helps sell CSA shares.

“Some of the marketing is simply teaching people that they do have an alternative to going to the grocery store,” Jaeger added. “We couldn’t do all this without our great drop off locations. They take the time to help out because they believe in what we are doing.” Some host drop offs in exchange for a share; others simply do it to help.

Bayfield Foods is operated by a board of directors and has several committees directly pertaining to the creation and operation of each of the Bayfield Foods programs. New producers can be added only by invitation from an existing producer-member, and must be approved by both the board and the general membership.

Jaeger said much of the decision-making and communication is done via email. The CSA season is well planned out in advance. “Organization is key!” she said. There are bylaws and procedures for everything, and communication is very important to making it all work. And, of course, there are the members who are willing to put in unpaid time to do what needs to be done.

Nortunen is the primary beef producer for the co-op and the current president of Bayfield Foods. This is his second year serving in the lead role and third year of serving on the board. “I joined because I was looking for a way to diversify my farm income and not be reliant on commodity pricing,” he said.

He enjoys the opportunity to be part of a collaboration that provides multiple sales opportunities, including both local and regional sales via a CSA, wholesale (stores and restaurants), special orders, and even shipping directly to consumers’ homes.

“We currently market more than 100 distinct products and almost all of Bayfield Foods sales dollars go directly to our local producers,” Nortunen said. “Working with over 20 different producers has allowed us to collaborate and network together. The CSA has been very instrumental in keeping my business profitable as I am able to sell all parts of the animal including less popular cuts like roasts as opposed to only selling wholesale where all they want is ground beef, and I get stuck with a significant amount of other cuts that do not sell nearly as well as ground beef.”

Nortunen is a fourth-generation owner of Hidden-Vue Farm, which has been in his family for more than 100 years. They primarily raise and sell Red Devon beef cattle as well as some St. Croix lamb. They farm around 600 acres, and usually have between 200 and 300 animals on the farm.

Duke, who owns and operates Great Oak Farm, said he was interested in the cooperative to reach more markets.

“Our primary markets prior to becoming involved in the Lake Superior CSA were the local farmers’ market, and a little wholesale to the local food cooperative,” he explained. “I realized that, in order to make a living from farming, I would need to sell a higher volume of produce. Ashland is our closest ‘city.’ With a population of only 8,000 people, sales are limited. Working with the other growers in the cooperative helped to pool our resources and afford a delivery van to get our products further out into and better serve our community.”

“Also, selling directly to consumers at market is great, but you are really limited by the weather—rainy days usually mean very few sales,” he added. “Since becoming one of the primary veggie growers in our cooperative–Lake Superior CSA–I definitely sleep better knowing that all the produce is essentially presold to our CSA members, regardless of rainy Saturdays!”

Duke said the cooperative’s CSA structure makes it easier for him to plan, budget, and purchase equipment. He also has found the shift from the Saturday farmers’ market to a CSA gives him the option to take a Saturday off in the summer. “This has really gone a long way to improving quality of life in our household!”

Being a master of the many crops that typically go out in a CSA box is a difficult and sometimes overwhelming task for many growers, especially newer growers. Duke said that perhaps the biggest positive of working with other growers to form a cooperative CSA is that instead of each farm growing a little bit of a lot of different crops, and needing the infrastructure/tools/systems to efficiently handle all kinds of production, each grower can now specialize a little. “This really reduces the amount of different tasks each grower needs to do, and has helped each of the four veggie growers in the CSA to streamline production to be more efficient,” he said.

In addition, he appreciates having access to the cooperatively owned walk-in cooler and freezers. “It saves on each farm having to individually invest in that infrastructure and allows the farms to focus on other areas of infrastructure development,” he explained.

Duke’s Great Oak Farm started in 2006, mostly growing food for the family and selling the rest. In 2009, they started shifting to growing primarily for sale and eating the leftovers. The farm has been certified organic since 2011.

Currently, Great Oak Farm (60 acres total) has about 5 acres of cover crop/fallow ground worked up, and about 5 acres of veggies in production, including about 1.5 acres of cabbage and green beans for wholesale. The main vegetable crops include carrots, onions, winter squash, green beans, cabbage, cherry tomatoes, beets, and cucumbers, with many other crops in smaller amounts. They keep honeybees, raise about 950 pastured broiler chickens, and have a small flock of about 35 ewes for production of grass-fed lamb.

Along with the many benefits he has found in the cooperative, Duke likes that the growers in the Bayfield Region can rely on each other instead of “nameless, faceless outsourcing from wherever,” he said. “We are being a community again.”

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer with a farming background. She lives with her family on a homestead in Iowa.

From the November | December 2015 Issue

Read more stories from current Broadcaster.

Comments are closed.