Sandhills Farm to Table: Matching Supply and Demand
With a bold goal of doubling its membership in its second year, the Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative (SF2T) is kicking off its membership drive with several innovations that will help move more products off local farms and into the hands of its members.
As with any food cooperative, one of the biggest challenges is matching the farmers’ supply with the consumers’ demand. This season, SF2T, known for its “Neighbors Feeding Neighbors” motto, plans to implement an online store in an effort to increase efficiency and sales.
The online store, which is being developed by a local-food-system advocate, is based upon software being used by a large food cooperative in Oklahoma.
“It’s gone through several iterations and is well-tested, so we’re starting in good hands,” says Fenton Wilkinson, co-founder of SF2T, a community-owned and Moore County-based business that began operations in 2010. “It will be the key to increased sales this season. It will allow us to expand product offerings for consumers while giving more farms and producers an avenue to sell their products to our members.”
Members will be offered either a standard box or a family box, delivered weekly or biweekly to their choice of a gathering site. In addition, the co-op is exploring how to provide other produce options, such as a fruit-only box, which could be ordered when berries, peaches or other fruit harvests are abundant.
SF2T is also expanding add-ons, such as free-range eggs, North Carolina seafood, grass-fed and grass-finished beef and bison, and pastured pork, as well as value-added products, like the popular Lulu’s Café soups and Sandhills Salsa made from local ingredients. These items would be delivered separately to the subscriber’s gathering site. Many of these items are only available in smaller quantities from farmers and producers, so there is not always sufficient quantity to fill all the members’ subscription boxes.
“Last year there were 560 weekly boxes, so you needed 560 of any one item to put in all the boxes, so this became very limiting as to what we could offer,” says Wilkinson. “This year, we’ll have the capability to include wonderful items that are offered by some of our smaller farms. For instance, a farm may be able to provide only a limited number of specialty melons, so perhaps they will be placed into the family or fruit-only boxes, since we will have fewer of those subscribers. Or we may elect to offer the limited-quantity item for selection by members from the online storefront inventory.”
Online Store Offers Options
Wilkinson says the co-op has spent time considering the needs of both the farmer and the consumer as it began planning for this season.
Last fall, the organization sent a survey to its membership and many said they wanted more choice of items for their box.
“We’ve really listened to them and tried to build in some options and control for the consumer this year,” says Wilkinson. “The online store gives us the ability to match the add-on product inventory with the consumer demand. The online store will show a current inventory of products. Once a product is sold out, it will be automatically removed from the storefront so no one will be able to order a product that is not available. The product the member ordered will be sent to the member’s gathering site for pickup with their regular box. The entire ordering experience will be a lot more pleasant.”
In addition to the online ordering system, the member sign-up and box subscription system has also been improved, giving more control to members, for instance allowing them to change their pick-up days. This year, the co-op’s website, www.sandhillsfarm2table.com, will offer member farmer profiles, recipes and news regarding special events. It will also continue to feature the highly-acclaimed and informative newsletter written by Jan Leitschuh, co-founder of the co-op.
Other preparations for this season include a larger packing facility. Once identified, it will be a welcome improvement for the volunteers who help pack the produce. Last year they donated more than 900 hours of service in the start-up phase and weekly packing operations.
“We worked in a small 16 foot by 16 foot room, packing and repacking — moving nearly four tons of produce, often five times a week by hand,” says Wilkinson. “That took an incredible amount of cooperation. So this year, a larger facility will make it more efficient.”
In addition to the packing operation, more than 1,600 hours of service were donated at the weekly gathering sites at churches and elementary schools.
“Though we have a larger packing facility and knowledgeable volunteers, I can assure the community that this will not be an assembly-line operation,” says Wilkinson. “They [the volunteers] will still be offering the handling care, inspection and customer service that goes into making this a high quality box. I personally believe that the energy that goes into putting those boxes together springs out into the community.”
The SF2T online store and larger packing facility are necessary to meet the ambitious membership and subscription goals for its new season. Last year membership rolls included 3.5 percent, or 1,250, of Moore County households. Of that group, there were 718 box subscribers for the spring-summer season.
“This year we have set a bold goal of reaching seven percent, or 2,460, households,” says Jan Leitschuh. “We feel this is a reasonable and achievable goal given the innovations.”
In 2010, the cooperative helped local farmers move toward long-term economic sustainability by selling more than $300,000 of local farm products, with 70 to 85 percent of the food dollars going to the farmer versus only 17 cents of each dollar spent in the grocery store. Member education provided though the co-op’s weekly online newsletter, and popular cooking and preserving classes, has fueled an increased interest in buying local food. It has also renewed the community’s connection with area farmers and increased awareness of their efforts to bring products to market.
Sharing The Bounty
In a co-op survey, 65 percent of SF2T subscribers said that they bought more produce directly from farmers, farm stands and the farmers markets.
“All along we’ve tried to encourage the membership to also shop at farmers markets and farm stands. It’s not an either/or situation,” says Wilkinson. “We are all in this together; we are all part of the system and we all share in the bounty.”
That bounty of fresh produce from local farms is being consumed by both non-co-op members and SF2T members and it appears it is having a positive result on their health. Nearly 87 percent of SF2T subscribers said they were eating more fruits and vegetables and 81 percent said they felt healthier.
“That impressed me,” says Wilkinson. “It’s a long-term effect and it shows that this is making a difference in our community on so many levels.”
But, he says, there are far too many who should have access to fresh produce, but cannot afford it. He is working to change that, too.
This season, SF2T hopes to be qualified to receive food stamps. In addition, Wilkinson is trying to bring together people in a number of communities to create a community fund that will help food stamp beneficiaries offset the cost of purchasing fresh produce.
“It’s an incentive for them to eat healthy,” Wilkinson says. “For instance, if they [food stamp beneficiaries] want to buy fresh produce from the co-op, farmers market or a large farm stand, they will pay half of the cost of the produce and the community fund will pay the other half. We are hopeful that this fund will be in place soon through the donations from individuals and churches in our communities.”
Wilkinson says he has learned much in the first year, but the most important lesson, is one of respecting the value of people.
“When everyone becomes a giver it is amazing what can be accomplished,” he says. “We got to where we are because there were so many organizations and people jumping in, doing what they do best, or connecting their program with ours. When you approach it from ‘we are all in this together’ and you mean it, and walk the talk, then the synergy, takes over. It’s the lesson — synergy — it’s when the output is much greater than the sum of the input. For that we are all so thankful.”
Contact freelance writer Claudia Watson email@example.com.
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