By Dani Lind, Rooted Spoon Culinary
“There’s no relationship more intimate than the one between eaters and the food they eat.” Beautiful, nutritious, and tasty food is fulfilling. Knowing that food came from a clean source, grown by good people who are making a living growing it satisfies something even more: our sense of place and belonging, of being a part of something larger than ourselves and contributing to our community. We are what we eat, indeed.
Three years ago I started a small catering company called Rooted Spoon Culinary in Viroqua, Wis., with a business partner who shares my philosophy of conscientious food sourcing and preparation. We buy most of the food we serve locally, either directly from dozens of produce, cheese, meat, and bread producers that we know, or from local producer co-ops and processors. Not only does it make us feel good to build relationships with the people who produce our ingredients, but these people produce amazing ingredients. Amazing ingredients make tasty and beautiful finished dishes, which in turn creates a successful catering business.
I was fortunate enough to meet most of the folks who provide our food during my 10-year stint as the produce buyer at the Viroqua Food Co-op. During part of that time, I also served on the Valley Stewardship Network’s Food and Farm Initiative, which works to help farmers sell to local institutions like schools and hospitals. Halfway through my career at the Co-op, I married one of my farmers who co-owns a vegetable farm and a small grass-fed beef operation. Being privy to the intricacies of both these types of businesses–the producer and the buyer/retailer–I’ve gained a lot of insight into the relationship they can have.
Some producers prefer to sell only direct to consumers at farmers markets or through a CSA program. Others would rather avoid direct marketing, prefer to spend more time in the field, or want to grow on a bigger scale. They may choose to be a part of a grower cooperative like CROPP or Westby Co-op Creamery. Or they will sell directly to wholesale markets like restaurants, grocery stores, institutions, or distributors. Many successful operations do some of both–direct marketing and wholesale.
One farm that chooses to sell to both markets is Driftless Organics, the farm in Soldiers Grove, Wis. that Noah and Josh Engel run with my husband, Mike. They direct-sell certified organic vegetables at the Dane County Farmers Market in Madison almost year round, and to 650 CSA members in Viroqua, Madison, and the Twin Cities. In addition to these direct markets, they pursue a wide variety of wholesale markets: restaurants and caterers in Viroqua and Madison; food co-ops in Wisconsin and the Twin Cities; wholesalers like Co-op Partners and Whole Foods, and non-profit food distributors like REAP and Emergency Food Shelf Network that supply food to farm-to-school programs and food pantries. A few years ago Driftless expanded its product set to include Mike’s beef and Josh’s sunflower oil, which they sell direct at the farmers market and through the CSA as well as wholesale to stores, restaurants, and caterers like me.
Maintaining all these different direct and wholesale outlets offers Driftless Organics and many farms like them a degree of security in an unpredictable market; but coordinating it all is no small task. A very wide variety of vegetables are needed at the market stand and for CSA customers. For these 100+ different varieties of vegetables, they need to source seeds, plant and transplant, cultivate, harvest, wash, and package for delivery, much of which requires specialized equipment. The coordination of the CSA program requires a lot of marketing, advertising, and custom-built member management software to administer.
For their wholesale markets, Driftless Organics grows much fewer varieties, but in larger quantities and as efficiently as possible to be able to sell at a lower cost. They have to meet with all of their wholesale markets’ buyers in the winter or spring to discuss what they’re (hopefully) going to buy, quantities and prices, order and delivery schedules, etc.
From those meetings, past experiences, and just plain guess work they have to decide what and how much to plant, where and when and how to plant it. Weekly or biweekly availabilities need to be sent out throughout the season to each buyer, sales calls and emails have to be made, the right produce harvested and washed, orders packed, invoices and deliveries made. All this amidst unpredictable and sometimes disastrous weather, equipment breakdowns, employee management, weeds, pests, certification requirements and paperwork. The list goes on and on.
Growing food for many different markets is extremely complicated, but so is buying from lots of different producers for a business. I may have made the idea of buying locally sound romantic in the beginning of this article, but it really can be a pain. It means keeping track of lots of different contacts and how best to reach them, who has what, order and delivery schedules, what and how much to buy, customers’ priorities, competitive pricing, what promises you’ve made to who.
If retailing certified organic product, keeping up to date organic certificates on file for each grower; if buying for an institution, making sure that GAP food safety licenses are up to date; if buying meat or processed food, making sure it was processed in a state or USDA licensed facility.
Businesses have to be very committed to the local food movement and providing top quality food to make the extra effort to buy directly from a bunch of local sources, because it’s just so quick and easy (and most times cheap) to buy from a single distributor. The easier you as growers can make it for buyers, and the more you can build a relationship with them over time, the more likely they’ll keep buying from you.
If you’re a new grower or are expanding into wholesale markets and want to build rapport with a buyer, you first need to be persistent and make personal contact. By all means, share your farm or business story with them, either in person or through your website, social media, or other literature. Next, be reliable in your communication–have regular availability lists (with product descriptions, case sizes, and prices), order days and delivery times. Be consistent with your quality, packaging, labeling, and invoicing. Be flexible and willing to try new things, but figure out what you enjoy growing and find buyers that fit your business.
Don’t take too much on too soon–it takes years to build a reputation and just a few out of stocks or missed deliveries to break it. Best to start with one or two buyers, build a strong connection and good systems, and expand from there with a good name for yourself and your product.
Local food has become quite the trendy movement the last few years, and there are as many businesses joining it as there are new growers. To keep these businesses as inspired and committed to this movement as you are will take a team effort. It takes time to build a good working relationship and standing with wholesale buyers, but when you do, then the food you so painstakingly produce can fulfill its highest destiny–to sustain your business and feed and nourish more and more of your community.
Dani Lind co-owns a catering business, Rooted Spoon Culinary, in Viroqua, Wis., specializing in local/seasonal menus. She lives on an 80-acre certified organic farm in Soldiers Grove, Wis. with her husband, Mike.