Bulk Buys – Lessons Learned (Or Pitfalls to Avoid)

Joshua recently wrote about just what bulk buys are and it was all true. They are a great way for you to support the farmers YOU want to support and provide that farmer a market that doesn’t require him giving up an entire day or more to sit at a market hoping to sell all his produce. They are a great way for you to let that farmer know you are so committed to him that you will help be his market. And they are a great way to keep local, organic produce affordable for those who might not otherwise be able to afford it. But it’s not always as simple and smooth as ordering and distributing produce.

Sometimes the buy goes off without a hitch – especially with a simple grain buy, where there are only a few unique items and everything is bagged. Other times, when there are multiple farmers involved (3), multiple drop sites (3) and a long list of items (25) not pre-packaged there are bound to be some things shorted, some things over, and some things that end up in the wrong place. When working with Google documents there is the opportunity for someone to alter someone else’s order, or add (or delete) something to or from the spreadsheet after the farmers have loaded the truck. And certainly there is the opportunity for the truck to be loaded incorrectly.

I’d like to tell you that I have all the answers and have you run off and replicate these successful bulk buys but the truth is, I’m still trying to make this process fool proof. I have, however, learned quite a few lessons along the way that might make this easier for you should you host a bulk buy of your own, and perhaps you’ll have some advice for ME.

Annette’s Tips for Successful Bulk Buys

1. Many small buys are easier than one huge one. Small buys help the farmer keep his harvest rolling and there is less opportunity for things to go wrong with a smaller buy. Sometimes, though, you just can’t help but have a huge buy if you have to hire a truck and driver since you’ll want to maximize that cost and effort.

2. Clear communication can prevent a lot of problems. Let customers know ahead of time when the buy will be, where they can pick it up, and what is for sale. Let the farmers know what the customers expect. Will people be disappointed if pears aren’t ready to eat and tomatoes aren’t fully ripe? Because the customers won’t have rite of refusal like they would at a market, you need to make sure what you are getting is acceptable to them.

3. Beg for flexibility and patience on the part of the customers. Let them know this isn’t like a store and that farmers may or may not be able to get everything loaded onto the truck. It’s possible too that when farmers go to harvest an item they may find that it’s been eaten by mice or there isn’t as much as they had originally thought. In the spirit of supporting local, diverse agriculture we need to be willing to accept substitutes or nothing at all sometimes.

4. Providing an invoice ahead of time gives the customers a chance to check the orders over before it’s too late. This can prevent them from ending up with “grower” poultry feed instead of “layer”, for example, or pears instead of carrots. Using Google doc spreadsheets is handy because it’s free and everyone can access it easily to enter their orders. However, it doesn’t allow you to isolate the information in a format that’s easy for the farmer to use (such as quantity of produce by variety and by drop location) and it is easy for the customer to make an order entry mistake and not catch it. There are websites and software out there that are designed for local food buys, such as Local Food Coop. Do you know of any others? If so I’d love to hear about them, especially if they are websites that don’t require the consumers and farmers to download software onto their computers in order to place orders.

5. If there are multiple drop sites, be sure the farmers label everything by location. This prevents things from ending up at the wrong drop, and you from scrambling to get it to the right place once the error is discovered.

6. Have the farmer pre-weigh everything and bag or box it appropriately. Asking customers to weigh their own produce slows things down and just invites mistakes.

7. Have the drop site coordinator compare what is delivered with what’s on the invoice at the time of delivery. This eliminates any guesswork later on in the event there is extra, or fewer of something than anticipated.

8. If the drop site coordinator is not manning the buy the whole time, have them create a sign out sheet so they can tell who has come to pick up product. This lets them know how many people have still to come pick up.

9. Clearly communicate how customers will pay. Will they pay the farmer directly or will you do that and they pay you? Requiring payment at time of pickup means you spend less time collecting later on.

10. Separate coordination and hosting duties. Coordinating the buy and resolving any discrepancies is the biggest part of the job – delegating the hosting of drops makes the entire thing much more manageable and fun.

5 Responses to Bulk Buys – Lessons Learned (Or Pitfalls to Avoid)

  1. Thanks for the huge squash purchase Annette. I really appreciate all you do to maximize the benefit for local farmers, and for us the beneficiaries.

    • Annette Cottrell

      Carolyn – thank you! I love reading all the lovely notes that come after the buy. I even got a children’s crayon drawing this summer which rocked!

  2. What might be helpful is to create a form in google docs that you can make public and keep the actual spreadsheet private. That way you don’t run into the co-editing issue and everyone’s personal info is not shared (and they are way easier to fill out than spreadsheets).:)

    • Annette Cottrell

      Kristi – that’s a good tip. I’d love to find something that stops selling when inventory is gone and sends you a list of what you ordered so it’s obvious if you’ve made an entry error. I had checked into http://www.localdirt.com once before but the farmers didn’t want to use the computer. It might just be worth my while to do the entry for them and save me time on the backend correcting errors though! Thanks for your suggestion.

  3. Joshua McNichols

    Here’s one possibility:

    It’s a little unclear but it appears if you’re a wholesale buyer membership is free. These sites are always set up for restaurants, so it could be a matter of elbowing your way in. But these sites want to expand, so why wouldn’t they want you?

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