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?
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.