Imagine that you are a small farmer, which means you probably also work a full time job somewhere else and spend your weekends and nights cultivating, spraying, harvesting — the work is endless. And on top of all of the tasks that must be done, you have to find somewhere to sell your crops.
Every sales scenario comes with a set of rules and regulations for your compliance. Selling to distributors or restaurants often requires GAP — or Good Agricultural Practices — certification. Schools and institutions want the produce washed and diced, and that requires having a certified facility. Some outlets only allow USDA-certified foods, which can be costly and complicated to produce.Even if you go the “easy” route and sell directly to the consumer through a farmers’ market or stand, there are business licenses, refrigeration and perishability issues and a lot of your time is invested at that market. There are a few other options for marketing that are becoming more available to producers in our area. You may have heard the saying that there is “strength in numbers,”; that can be the case when producers join together to share marketing, transportation and other costs.Cooperatives have been popular with farmers in the United States since the 19th century. Organizing as a cooperative can give the farmers more access to competitive markets and may strengthen their bargaining power and help manage risk. Two cooperatives have formed in the past five years that are selling Richmond County-grown produce through weekly box deliveries.Sandhills Farm to Table is based in Moore County and operates as a consumer grower employee cooperative (www.sandhillsfarm2table.com) with a Gathering Place at Discovery Place Kids in Rockingham. Farm Fresh Ventures is a growers’ cooperative in its third year of providing produce boxes to a six-county area, including Richmond County (www.farmfreshventures.com). They deliver to the Richmond County Cooperative Extension office on Tuesdays during the season.Both cooperatives offer a good selection of fresh produce in boxes to consumers, much of which was produced right here in Richmond County.
Plans are under way to develop a regional food hub in the county to help farmers get their products to market more efficiently and quickly. USDA defines a food hub as “a centrally located facility with a business management structure facilitating the aggregation, storage, processing, distribution and/or marketing of locally/regionally produced food products.”
Several food hubs are in business in North Carolina including ECO (Eastern Carolina Organics) and Firsthand Foods. The produce is delivered to the food hub from the farm for distribution under a common brand name. This allows smaller growers to combine their harvest into a larger order, and provides the buyers with more consistent produce delivery.
Susan A. Kelly is extension director for the N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Richmond County Center.