Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature offering you a glimpse between the pages of an Acres U.S.A. published title.

This week's Book of the Week feature is My Farmer, My Customerby Marty Travis.

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From Chapter 6: Cooperative Marketing--Play Well With Others: Competition vs. Cooperation

I want to introduce another concept and a reality. Not to burst your bubble or take the wind from your sail, but more than likely, you can’t do it all! Few of us can. Within just a few weeks of our beginning to grow and deliver product to our chef community, we realized we were in pretty deep. We knew we couldn’t produce all the things they were looking for or wanted. They were asking for proteins, grains, vegetables, fruits, and so much more. We also saw an incredible opportunity for our community and the young people in it. We felt that we were in a unique position to enable so many more folks to realize their dreams. And so we began thinking about how we could work together with more farmers. How could we create markets and opportunities for so many more? And in doing that, we also realized we weren’t really taking anything away from our farm; we were creating a system of working together for the good of all.

This all began in 2005. We saw, as many of you see, the young people in our rural communities moving away and not returning. Parents and grandparents telling the next generation that there just isn’t enough here for you, too. We heard this over and over in our  community. We began brainstorming and talking with our chefs, trying to figure out ways that we could create opportunities for those young people to stay on the farm and have an income if they wanted. Now, more than a decade later, we still see the need for more farmers, more opportunities, and more families working together and staying in the community. We helped to establish two cooperative marketing groups, Stewards of the Land and Legacy of the Land. Both are limited liability corporations with equal members. In the last couple of years, we have also created a separate marketing and delivery company called Down at the Farms, LLC.

This is not about who does the best or the most or needs their product sold first or offered to a specific venue. This is about a group of farmers who in most other circumstances would be competing with each other.

The Down at the Farms, LLC grew out of the need for a separate marketing and delivery service that could serve the needs of a wider group of farmers in our area. This LLC includes farms that are members of the Stewards and Legacy and also those who are not members  of the other two working groups. We have had a number of farmers come to us and say that their farmers’ markets were not as profitable as they had hoped, or that their Community Supported Agriculture groups (CSA) were not being sold as well. Some were beginning farmers and had no idea how to sell their products. At the same time, the demand for more products in our chef community was growing. We needed more expert growers. Upon doubling our represented farmers, we saw nearly 100 percent growth in our sales the next year. That demand has continued. Let me share a little deeper what is going on here.

First, I’ll reiterate a couple previous statements. For one, remember that what I am sharing is my truth and my personal experience. This is what has worked for us. Second, remember we only choose to work with nice people. We also have worked really hard to create equal opportunities for everyone. It is important to understand that it takes someone who sees the greater good that can come out of a community working together. This is not about who does the best or the most or needs their product sold first or offered to a specific venue. This is about a group of farmers who in most other circumstances would be competing with each other. We have turned that into a group of farmers who are now cooperating with, talking to, and supporting each other.

If we go back to the outcomes, methods, and resources model, we saw the need for more product and more farmers participating in the local food arena. Our desired outcome was to create a model that helped to manage efficiencies and communications for farmers and that also made ordering and receiving those products easier for our chefs. The method, or the “how”, was to create a system of communication between the chefs and the marketing person, and then between  the marketing person and the farmers. Yes, it is a middle person, but the chefs didn’t want or need to communicate with over sixty farmers each week, and the bookkeepers didn’t want to write over sixty checks each week to each individual farm. The chefs also didn’t wish to receive over sixty deliveries each week from all those individual farms. On the flip side, most of the farmers had no desire to go driving around the city or the countryside, spending a whole day or two being away from their farm. Many of the farmers are not comfortable “selling” to chefs or others.

We began by asking our chefs, “What are you still looking for?” We then had a list of products that we had need of. We could then seek out those particular farmers who were able and willing to produce those items. That is the resource piece—the “who can do that” section. So, to you the farmer, you the chef, or you the interested food systems person, this, in my mind, is a very viable model that can be replicated across the country and indeed the world. It requires working together, understanding the needs of the community being served, and doing it! It also requires a leader who has a clear understanding of building connections and has the time, talent, and mindset to do so. 

The Nuts & Bolts of the Partnership

Let me continue to give you more insight into how this works. Here is a basic rundown of an average week, which in our case starts on Fridays.

On Fridays, our farmers upload a list of products that they expect to have available for the coming week onto a Google sheet that is shared among the farmers. Everyone lists their farm name, product they wish to offer, and an approximate amount. Then, I consolidate that list into a Word document that I send as an attachment to a Friday evening email to hundreds of chefs, grocers, and individuals. 

Those recipients have until Monday at noon to respond via email with their orders—first come, first served.

As the orders come in over the weekend and into Monday, I can assign the orders to each of the farmers with amounts and to which restaurant. That way the farmers can see what is ordered early and can plan for their harvest and packing. 

I confirm the orders with all the farmers on Monday right after lunch. The farmers then harvest, wash, pack, and bring all of their product, labeled with their farm name and which restaurant it goes to, to our walk-in coolers at the farm. All product is placed in labeled restaurant crates. The farmers are also required to email a final invoice to us so we can make sure that they are not short on any product. If they see that they are going to be short, they can return to that Google sheet and see if there is someone else that has the same product who can fulfill their shortcomings.

On Tuesday evening, we create the restaurant invoices and email them to the chefs and bookkeepers.

On Wednesday, we exchange goods for payment.

On Thursday, we return to pay all the farmers and to do it all again on Friday!

The Human Technology Model

There are a couple of things I wish to elaborate on with this model. We understand that there are many other technology platforms out there. We like this model because it allows for the element of human interaction. For example, there might be three farmers offering similar products. I know each of those farmers. There may be an instance in which I know that a certain farmer REALLY really needs to sell some product to pay a farm loan or to move enough product. This also allows the human perspective on being fair, assigning equal amounts as best as we can. There are also instances when a specific chef has really liked a specific farm’s carrots (or something like that). I can make that assignment and keep everyone happy based on the ordering history. I also can help those farmers coordinate between themselves to fulfill larger orders together.

Our marketing meetings happen in person to allow us to take the human element into consideration.

Many of the farms also work together to consolidate all their orders so one farm can bring multiple farms’ orders to our coolers. Many of them will take turns making those runs so they don’t have so many folks leaving their farms. We are actually looking at the possibility of providing a pick-up service from farms each week if they can coordinate getting everything aggregated to centrally located farms. Our group encompasses about a seventy-five-mile radius from our farm.

In addition to the human aspect of our ordering system, our chefs have said they really enjoy and look forward to having a conversation each week when they order product. Questions are easily addressed, and substitutes are easy to work in if necessary. Additionally, we do the deliveries. Having the farmer be the face is one of the most important elements of our success. We can pre-sell so much product each week just by having a conversation on delivery days. Understanding what is working for the chef or for the farmer is paramount to making the relationship work. This is a relationship! We have to work at it, and I believe in-person is the best way to do that!

Annual Reporting

At the end of the season, our record keeping system allows us to provide a report to each farm with all the product they sold for the year, including a breakdown of each crop and to which restaurant it was delivered. Similarly, we can provide a report to each chef with all the product they purchased throughout the season. We can do a seasonality chart for each of the chefs so they can better plan menus the next year. It also gives us a means to talk about what else we can do as a group. What other products, how much, and whether or not we need to adjust anything. Again, the communication aspect is crucial.

Another great thing about our working together is the strength in numbers. We can provide a larger amount of continual product and we can provide a vast diversity of product. It is almost like a one-stop shop. Also, when we negotiate with larger grocery stores or other accounts, we have more sway than a single farm.

Problem Solving

So, where do I see potential issues for stress?

Everyone must be willing to play well together. We can’t have individual farmers going straight to clients and trying to offer a better deal just to sell more of their product. While this has happened only twice in the last twelve years, both times it was our chefs who called the farmers out on it and reported them to us. Our chefs realize that there is an incredible amount of trust and goodwill involved here and they won’t tolerate any end runs. We also have had a couple farmers who believed their product should have been sold before anyone else’s. That creates distrust among the group and leads to competition instead of cooperation. It is the role of the middle person to facilitate order and cooperation. Watching out for everyone’s best interest is important, and it’s not an easy job. Being fair and helping everyone understand that we are stronger when we are working together is extremely important. The middle person is the key to the success of the group. I believe that we are the advocate for the farmers to the chefs and also the advocate for the chefs to the farmers. We have to understand both worlds well in order for everyone to win. I also believe that we, as farmers, have the ability to make better chefs and that chefs have the ability to make us better farmers. We must be truly invested in each other’s success so that no one fails.

A meal to celebrate the bounty of our cooperative efforts.

What does that type of investment in each other’s success really mean? One specific instance happened recently. We had a number of chefs ask if we could do specific cuts of beef. We began asking each of them what pieces they were most interested in obtaining. Soon we had most of a whole animal spoken for each week. We then went back to our farmers and identified those that would be able to work together in a rotation to supply whole animals each week. One particular restaurant was taking a lot of the high-dollar primals and cutting their own steaks from that primal. They had been hand-cutting steaks for several months, so we decided that we, as the marketers, would purchase them a new band saw to use in breaking down their primals. 

That act of providing them with the tool they really needed did a couple of things. It told the chefs how committed we were to them—that we were investing in their future and ours too! It ensured that they would probably continue to buy beef from our farmers, keeping the farmers busy and happy. It also just felt like the right thing to do. We have been the recipient of that kind of generosity as well. So why not return the favor? Pay it forward!

In the end, playing well with others isn’t that hard. Obviously, we shouldn’t give our core away, but we also shouldn’t think of ourselves as so important that all else comes in second. People can see that: customers, fellow farmers, community members. Creating a vibrant farming community takes hard work, discipline, and fairness. We have the opportunity to restructure our food community. Everyone eats. Let’s work to make sure all who wish to be are well fed are not hungry.

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About the Author:

Marty Travis is the proud owner of Spence Farm, which he runs with his wife, Kris and son, Will. Their farm supplies organic vegetables and heritage meats to some of the top kitchens in the City of Chicago. In 2019, Spence Farm was highlighted in the documentary, SustainableMarty was also a speaker at the 2019 Eco-Ag Conference and Trade Show.

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