Category Archives: Wholesale Local Food Buys

Why Farmers Markets and CSAs Aren’t Enough

Farmers Markets are great, and so are CSAs. They are an easy entry for many into the local food scene – building connections and personal relationships between consumers and producers. They help farmers get seed money and smooth out income. They help consumers feel vested in local farms. They put faces and handshakes into grocery shopping.

But they aren’t enough to build local food resiliency. They aren’t helping make prices for local food affordable for more than just the upper class. And they don’t favor small farmers.

In fact, farmers markets favor large farms – the ones who can afford to take an entire day (or five) to pack up a truck and sit at the market for the day. Think about it – if a farmer is at the market for three or four days a week when is he farming? He’s either paying someone to farm for him, or paying someone to market for him. He can’t be doing both. He’s taking a huge risk harvesting produce for the market because if it doesn’t all sell it’s going to perish by day’s end. Farmer’s markets also favor those farmers with huge amounts of each item. If you have a truly small, biodiverse farm you may have just a small amount of many things ripe at once. So although you are more likely to be protecting your topsoil, you have less opportunity to market yourself. This is one of a bazillion reasons small farmers struggle so much.

Farmers markets also seem to cater mainly to the elite. This makes sense from a business standpoint and you can’t fault the market coordinators for needing to ensure that markets are profitable and those participating farmers are doing well. But farmers markets are predominantly located in wealthy neighborhoods and the only way to get them into “food deserts” is by legislation or non-profit organizations. Frequently this is a subsidized public policy that increases the tax base. And that’s not going to help keep long term costs down for anyone. Honestly, even though you can sometimes use WIC and food stamps at farmers markets how often are you going to buy eggs that cost $7 a dozen or bacon that is $10 a pound? If I had sticker shock going from PCC to farmers markets, I can only begin to imagine how disillusioned someone living below poverty level must feel.

So what do we do?

I believe we do what we did until the advent of the mega farm and it’s cousin, the super market. We get back to our roots. We don’t rely on brick and mortar stores or permanent farmers markets or public policy. We create ad hoc markets, connecting farmers and consumers directly. Do you have a question about how your food was grown (and you should!)? Then ask the farmer. You’ll be seeing her when you pick up your food, or when she delivers it to you. You’ll have an email address to direct queries to.

Want to know about farm inputs, or crop rotations, how frequently petroleum based machinery is used, what type of pest management strategy and how often things are applied (because not even organic sprays are no-impact and everything is related), how they are protecting native habitat, source of seeds and irrigation practices? How are they protecting their topsoil? Did you know that for every pound of vegetable farmed two to six pounds of topsoil are lost and that’s where your nutrition is coming from? You can only do this if you have direct contact with your farmer.

But one person shopping from a farmer isn’t enough to get the price down, nor is it enough to really give that farmer any degree of economic certainty. That’s where CSAs are nice for farmers but they usually require an employee or volunteers to manage the program. And personally they just don’t work for me. Right now I’m enrolled in a wonderful CSA because I didn’t get the garden in soon enough at this new house. Last week in my CSA box I got a dozen eggs (I have 20 some poultry laying eggs here already), leeks, potatoes, storing squash, apples, pears (remember that huge buy I just did a few weeks back? I have hundreds of pounds of those things here already) and no kale. Quite honestly right now the only thing I want is kale and cabbage. This is an extreme circumstance but in the past I’ve gotten things like weeks of radishes, or one lone artichoke to split between my entire family. So you can see they don’t work for me. Maybe they work for you and if you have asked your farmer all the hard questions, like their answers and the quantities and selection in your CSA box work for you then consider yourself lucky!

So how do farmers find consumers and consumers find farmers?

There are some great websites that can help:

In addition farmers can create their own website and have it optimized for search phrases pertinent to their location and offerings. And consumers can email their local agricultural school’s extension program.

Bulk buys are essentially ad hoc farmers markets. Find farmers you want to buy from. Find other consumers so you can band together and make it worth the farmer’s time to do a huge harvest for you. You’ll both reap the financial benefits.

You can set the buy up swap meet-style in a parking lot somewhere, or you can coordinate drops around town. Having consumers commit to amounts and varieties of produce and prepay ahead of time using paypal or check minimizes risk for the farmer. There are several other posts on this blog about bulk food buys if you use the categories or the search bar.

Bulk food buys don’t reduce farmers market or CSA sales – they reduce purchases of conventional or big box organic foods and that’s a good thing.

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.

What is a bulk buy?

Thanks to Annette’s influence, I’m well on my way to becoming the neighborhood eccentric around my part of Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. This year, people came or will come to my home to buy apricots, tomatoes, grains and winter storage vegetables. They drove up in their sedans full of kids, loaded boxes into the back and paid me with a check. Some of my neighbors are in on this action. But others wonder: what in the heck is he doing? Why are there 2000 pounds of tomatoes in his driveway? Is he running some kind of store?

"What the heck is going on in your driveway?"

The short answer is: no,  I don’t run a store. What I and others are doing is more akin to community organizing. There’s no profit in it, but it connects us with our neighbors, our farmers, and helps build something we call “food community.”

Why the farmers markets aren’t satisfying all our needs

Many of our friends and neighbors are preserving food at home – canning, drying, fermenting and root cellaring. They’re part of a trend, the same trend that has led more people to plant gardens and keep chickens.

These friends and neighbors of mine – they need large quantities of food all at once. They can buy it at the farmers market – but sometimes the farmers don’t have enough, and it’s difficult to carry 5 cases of tomatoes to the car by foot. We love the farmers market for buying a little of this, a little of that. But for major canning projects, we need another system of distribution. We need flexible pickup times – not just during the hours of the farmers market. People would love to drive up to my house after work and load their tomatoes right into the back of a car full of kids.

$2.10 a pound heirlooms, $1.10 a pound seconds (not pictured)

Group buys: Another way to get food

My co-blogger Annette developed (or discovered? I’m not sure) a system called “group buys.” When she lived in NE Seattle, she would regularly host group buys at her home. Now that she’s moved to Carnation, my home has become the more convenient pickup point, at least for people living in North Seattle. In a “group buy,” we combine our separate orders into one large order. In addition to the added convenience, this has some interesting side benefits. Because our orders are so large,  we wield some influence. We can direct our purchases to farmers who grow their crops responsibly – without polluting the environment, without using dangerous chemicals.

We tend to get much better prices by purchasing in this way. In fact, many of the activities we do – canning, pickling, drying – wouldn’t be affordable if we paid the prices you see advertised at the farmers market or at the grocery store. We are a wholesale operation, and we pass the wholesale price directly to the end consumer without any sort of markup.

Annette started by posting her group buys to a small, closed group called a “buying club.” But since then, she and I have begun posting buys to a larger audience: participants in the Seattle Farm Co-op’s yahoo group, and more recently, to the yahoo group serving my son’s elementary school just down the street.

From there, we direct people to a google spreadsheet online. There, participants just fill in their contact information and the number of 20 pound cases they want.

A typical Google spreadsheet for a "bulk buy" or "group buy"

A day or two before the delivery, we phone or email the farmer to give them the total quantity we need. We also give the farmer access to the spreadsheet so he can anticipate demand.

Driver Ted tallies our tomatoes

Why our farmers like us

We develop long-term relationships with our farmers, many of whom are not interested in staffing a stall at the farmers market. Art Heinneman, one of the three farmers who grows our tomatoes, prefers the wholesale market to farmers markets. He finds the markets to be a hassle – you never know how much of your produce you’re going to sell, and then you end up taking half of it home at the end of the day. In contrast, selling to a place like Whole Foods lets him sell produce in one lump, writing one invoice and being paid quickly. Our bulk buys fill a valuable niche for him – we help him fill up his trailer, so he’s always carrying a full load over the mountains when he comes to deliver to stores. And more importantly, we purchase lots and lots of “seconds,” blemished tomatoes for a much lower price. Whole Foods has no interest in seconds – they require visual perfection in their tomatoes – but as canners, we’re happy to take them.

Could group buys hurt the farmers market?

Some people have wondered if we’re undermining the farmers market system. I brought this up to Joel Wachs over coffee. He’s the past president of the Washington State Farmers Market Association, and he still works for them. If anyone would feel threatened by what we’re doing, I suspected it would be him.

“The way I see it,” I told him, “a resilient food system will have many different ways for people to connect directly with farmers.” Joel nodded in agreement. He mentioned CSAs, another form of food distribution that sometimes competes with the farmers markets. It’s all good, he told me. It all supports local farmers.

Do you make a profit?

Our License

No, we don’t mark up prices our food in any way.  At the beginning of the year, we levy a small fee to pay for our annual license as a produce buyer – usually 10 cents a pound. Once the license is paid for, we retire this fee.

Because we don’t have  a profit margin, finances can get kind of tight. If one person fails to pick up their case of produce, that means we’re on the hook, as we’ve already paid the farmer for the goods. If someone backs out, we have to scramble to find buyers at the last minute, or purchase the extra ourselves. Also, there’s a short period of financial tension between the time we pay the farmer, and the time when our friends pick up the produce and pay for it at our house. Some day, I hope to apply for a grant for a revolving fund that would eliminate this cash flow problem.

So it’s all legal, right?

Yes, it’s all legal, thanks to our state license. Because the license doesn’t allow us to purchase grains, we use a different legal structure for purchasing grains – each person writes an individual check directly to the farmer. While this would be burdensome for a tomato farmer, it’s part of the reality our grain farmer deals with every time he delivers to us.

There are limits on how much we can buy at one time, and limits on how we’re allowed to pay the farmer. But these limits don’t pose a major problem for us. By staying within these limits, we don’t have to report our finances to the government, nor do we trigger the requirement for federal oversight.

So what do people do with all that food?

In my family, we tend to open up a jar of spaghetti sauce once a week. Okay, so we’re not as creative with our meals as my co-blogger Annette. You work with what you have. When I buy a jar of pasta sauce at the grocery store, I feel a sense of disappointment. I don’t trust the ingredients, I don’t trust the manufacturer, no matter what percentage of their proceeds they give to charity. But when I open a jar of home-made sauce, I feel like I’m giving my family something special. So this fall, over one exhausting week, we canned tomato sauce every night after the kids went to bed. 52 pint jars. Enough for us to open a can of home made sauce once a week for a whole year.

canned tomatoes

Red sauce for pasta, stewed tomatoes for pot roasts

Then, we froze 26 pints of pesto – enough to open a jar every other week. We did the same with homemade berry syrups, which we use on pancakes we make 3 or 4 days a week from whole grains we also bought in bulk. Berries are one area where we’ve found bulk buys don’t make sense – there’s too much demand for organic berries for berry farmers to return our phone calls. Instead, I just visit the farmers market and look for that 3 gallon bucket of seconds under the table at Billy’s Gardens market stall.

In addition to canning for ourselves, we’re also bartering each fall with friends. Having bartered each fall for several years now, I’m confident that I may can things in bulk and trade away my surplus for something else I need, like honey from one of Seattle’s many urban beekeepers.

Digging out of My Ketsup Filled Hole

Would you believe I’m still canning? It’s true but I’m nearly done. I know I said I was trying not to can this year but in September when I open up the door to bags of ripe fruit and see the tomatoes making their last gasp in the garden I always panic.

I must have been a squirrel in a former life. You would think I starved as a child but food is my baseline – it reassures me and comforts me. It’s not the food for me so much as the thought of my family wanting for something that I could have provided them at one point but now it’s too late because that fruit is no longer in season.

So while I was a lot of talk about more fermenting and less canning this year I’m still canning enough food to feed a small army. A tomato army perhaps….

I’m finally up for air long enough to load image software on my new yet again computer following the laptop virus two weeks ago (followed by the dead car then followed by the full body blistering hives.) So I apologize that it’s taken me this long but then it’s been one dousie of a month in which one month felt like six.

photo by Joshua McNichols

This is a shot a few hours into the produce pickup. Imagine that two hours of tomatoes have already left this picture.

photo by Joshua McNichols

We recruited even small children to unload the trucks. I hope no one from CPS is reading this blog.

photo by Joshua McNichols

The lovely Jess carrying more than her fair share of tomatoes.

photo by Joshua McNichols

Tryouts for the strong man competition.

photo by Joshua McNichols

And the most adorable garlic-eating-baby competition.

photo by Katie Dodsley

Pictures of Katie’s tomato treats that warm the cockles of my heart.

Hopefully in the next few days I can get my canning tally and harvest tallies up here as well as post pictures of processing tomatoes with those of you who came and processed with me. I had a blast and feel so strongly convinced that supporting small farmers like this – and enticing as many of you as possible to participate in this buy rather than buying canned tomatoes at the store this winter – is the next wave of the real food movement. Thanks for being a part of it!