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“Buy Fresh, Buy Local” Local food project increases direct marketing for farmers
From the Organic Broadcaster, vol. 12 no.4
by Carole Shelley Yates
xc2xa92004 Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service
The “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” project helps farmers directly market their products to local food buyers. The program, run by Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI), connects farmers to buyers who want to support local growers and keep money in the local economy.
Started in 1998, over 40 farmers sell directly to 21 restaurant and institutional buyers. Plus, more than 200 farmers are on the project mailing list and could get involved. Kamyar Enshayan, Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) associate staff member, started the project to create immediate markets for farmers. Enshayan is housed at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) Center for Energy and Environmental Education (CEEE) in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The CEEE is a project partner. Initial funding came from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.
In the1998 growing season, Enshayan connected Rudy’s Tacos, UNI Dining Services, and Allen Memorial Hospital with area fruit and vegetable farmers. One key element of the project is that these connections are not a one-time deal. Throughout the growing season, Enshayan and student interns make weekly phone calls to the food buyers and the farmers to ensure a match between products and buyers.
Enshayan notes his first buyer connection was Barry Eastman, manager of Rudy’s Tacos in Waterloo, Iowa. “After Barry started buying local produce for his restaurant, we also helped him promote the idea to his customers. We had table tents made for Rudy’s telling customers about the local farmers’ meat and produce used at the restaurant. We also had posters made specific to Rudy’s and then later for other buying organizations about the local farmer connection,” Enshayan says. “For the farmers, we help them with their whole marketing strategy to promote their produce to local buyers.”
The project evolved in 2003 into the Practical Farmers of Iowa Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign that includes farmers and buyers in a seven county area around Waterloo/Cedar Falls in Northeast Iowa. That year, Enshayan published a directory of local farmers. The colorful directory lists how to contact local farmers for fruit and vegetables, meat products, eggs and poultry, apples, strawberries, asparagus, flowers, plants and herbs, and farmers’ markets in the seven counties served.
Project goals, according to the PFI Buy Fresh, Buy Local web site (www.practicalfarmers .org/buyfresh.asp), are:
o to increase market access, sales volume, net income and long-term stability of direct marketing farmers;
o to raise awareness among Iowans of the state’s local treasures: farmers markets, family farms and orchards, local meat lockers, restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses that serve or sell locally grown farm products; and
o to stimulate the social and economic vitality of Iowa through strengthening the independent farmers and businesses.
Since 1998, area food dollars purchasing local produce have grown from $110,773 to $226,954. Rudy’s Tacos presents the biggest success story where Eastman buys 66% of his purchases from local farmers. In 2003 he spent $130,207 of his total $196,950 on purchases from local farmers. That includes buying 100% of his tomatoes, cheese, chicken, pork, beef, sour cream, and flowers from local farmers. Some tomatoes are grown in the field and some in greenhouses during the winter.
The Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign was not strictly an organic farming project in the beginning. Enshayan says he wanted to reach and involve a lot of farmers and draw in more people. “We decided local relationships were more important than general ‘organicness.’ We wanted to help the farmers’ economy and then thought they may decide to go organic. But we felt this program was a good first step.”
Enshayan says farmers are encouraged to consider farming organically. He sends farmers information on various workshops about organic farming and Buy Fresh, Buy Local pays half the cost when possible. Farmers also receive the Practical Farmers of Iowa newsletter with organic practices in it. The non-profit organization is devoted to researching and developing more profitable, ecological and community enhancing approaches to agriculture.
“I certainly believe in organic farming and want the farmers to try it,” Enshayan notes. “However, we found through a survey done by the nonprofit Food Route Network, where PFI is a member, that consumers prefer buying local to buying organic.”
Carolyn and Ken Adolphs of Adolph’s Produce and Bakery in Traer, Iowa, are farmers who have benefitted from their involvement with the PFI campaign. “We joined Practical Farmers after getting involved with the Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign in 2001,” Carolyn notes. “The organization reinforces our belief that we’re doing the right thing. I’m not an organic farmer but I farm sustainably and use a low amount of chemicals. I don’t use any on some produce like lettuce and radishes.”
The Adolphs say the Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign helps get the word out about the benefits of buying local produce and makes people aware of the importance of the project. They’ve sold to several area businesses including Rudy’s Tacos. “I called Barry Eastman at the end of last year and said I had a lot of onions left and Barry said he’d buy them all. That was great. I knew what kind of onions he wanted so it worked out for both of us,” Carolyn states.
The local food project helped the Adolphs connect with the local food buyers and even gave Carolyn the confidence to approach her local grocery store where she’d never sold before. The grocer agreed to buy from her and then the project student intern convinced the grocer to join the Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign. The Adolphs agree that if people spend a dollar locally, that dollar is turned over many times, but if a dollar goes out of the local community, it never returns.
PFI’s Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign covers the upper Midwest so Organic Broadcaster readers may have heard about it from other sources. If not, Enshayan is presenting information to start Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaigns in other parts of the Midwest. He’s learned several ways to overcome barriers for the food buyers and the farmers. “The food buyers at first wondered if they could even buy from a local farmer who was not under contract with their organization. ‘This has never been done before’ they told me and wondered if it was legal to buy from local producers,” Enshayan says. He also had to deal with logistical issues such as institutional food buyers being under a contract with a distributor or needing their food to be in certain packaging. Enshayan says he worked through all of those possible barriers with the food buyers and the farmers.
“Some people also think local buying is more costly than buying from distributors, but this isn’t true because the current food system is not paying the full price,” Enshayan explains. The current system does not include all of the transportation costs, nor do current prices account for the following factors:
olocal economic development
otraceability (knowing where the food comes from)
opositive public relations for an institution.
Enshayan says local farmers also had to figure out some issues. Some farmers had to consider how they could provide all of the produce supply that a buyer needed, such as tomatoes for UNI Dining Services. Some farmers also had to resolve issues of timely delivery and providing high quality products. The Buy Fresh, Buy Local project helps farmers solve these possible barriers to create strong relationships with local buyers and provide fresh food for local consumers.
Enshayan and PFI say the campaign is some of the best economic development a region or state can have. In a May 2004 editorial in the Cedar Falls Times newspaper, Enshayan wrote, “If even half of the residents of Black Hawk County committed to spend 10% of their annual grocery shopping on local sources of food, that would amount to nearly $13 million every year that would stay in our local economy and support local farms and business. That beats casinos, Iowa Values Fund, and a whole lot of other fake economic development schemes. [That] $13 million builds on our two most important assets in Iowa: our people and our land.”
He surveyed local farmers after the 2002-03 growing season to determine their percent increase in gross sales from participating in the Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign. Of the 45 farmers who responded, 12 said their sales increased 1-5%, 11 said they saw increases of 6-10%; another 8 reported sales increases of 11-20% and 7 farmers said their sales increased over 20%. Seven farmers said they showed no sales increase.
Enshayan says he’s learned the success of the Buy Local, Buy Fresh campaign hinges a great deal on institutional food buyers who are committed to the idea and to a different future. He says the broader picture of the future includes many thriving independent businesses, more farmers making at least a living wage, a diversity of fresh locally raised agriculture products, and a food buying system where consumers know the origin of their food.
One of the committed food buyers is Robin Gaines, Nutrition Services Team Leader, BA, CDM, CFPP, at Bartels Lutheran Retirement Community in Waverly. She buys 14% of Bartels’ food products from local farmers, including 100% of their beef and tomatoes and 25% of the milk for the 200 residents. Gaines eagerly relates that it all started with a tomato several years ago when residents wanted fresh tomatoes in June. “If I go to the Farmers Market, the produce is good, but I can’t buy for 200 people,” Gaines explains. “During that summer, I called others who bought locally and found farmers to buy from. Then, Kamyar asked if Bartels was interested in the Buy Fresh, Buy Local project. It was a godsend. The next growing season, he or a student intern called me weekly to tell me what produce was available from various farmers and to ask what we wanted to buy.”
After a year and a half of help from Buy Fresh, Buy Local, Gaines started buying directly from the farmers. She’s found farmers for all produce during the growing season. She also buys in the local Midwest including peaches from Missouri. Then she realized she could buy beef and hogs locally. “We got a new freezer in our remodeled kitchen and after the mad cow scare I started buying from a farmer north of Waverly who doesn’t use any growth hormones and raises his beef organically. The price is lower than the store because it cuts out the middleman and the money goes directly to the farmer. I know the farmer and he can supply the quantity we need at Bartels. Our residents all have some kind of farm connection so they love the local produce. And I have a farm background so I understand that farmers need to be paid for their labor and work. Plus it’s a way to put money here in Waverly or in Black Hawk and Bremer County.”
For more information on the PFI Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign, call Kamyar Enshayan, 319/273-7575 (UNI), e-mail him at email@example.com, or visit web sites for Practical Farms of Iowa (www.practicalfarmers.org) and Food Routes Network ( http://www.foodroutes.org).
Carole Shelley Yates is an independent writer/editor in Cedar Falls, Iowa, where she and her husband, Jack, are reconstructing native prairie and growing organic fruit trees. Her article on the Yates’ prairie garden/yard will appear in the summer issue of Iowa Gardening Magazine. Her writing interests primarily relate to environmental and education issues.