Real Food from Real Farms
The time for locally oriented food distribution systems has never been better. With dramatically rising food costs threatening to break old inflation records, deadly tomatoes and other contaminant-ridden produce filling the shelves of conventional mega-stores, and inhumane animal practices resulting in pollution, disease and consumer danger all garnering more and more mainstream media attention, the average person is finally waking up to the reality of our impoverished, impersonal, imbecilic and unsustainable food system.
More important, many are now searching for alternatives. Weston A. Price Foundation chapter leaders, members, supporters and friends, with their accurate knowledge regarding nutrition, farming and other issues, are in a perfect position to help build these alternatives in their communities. We just need to think about how.
In the following few pages, we will offer a brief summary of how our local foods buying club started, has grown and changed, and how we handle finding members, farmers and companies to work with, how we manage distribution, share the workload, cover the expenses and structure the leadership. This article is by no means exhaustive, but we hope it will be instructive and encouraging as to what can happen when average individuals band together to bring about community change on many levels.
Small Beginnings with a Large Animal
A little over two years ago, my wife and I, along with some friends, decided to purchase a locally raised, grass-fed cow. We had been reading about nutrition, pollution and economics for a number of months, and this was our first big foray into actual practice outside of our weekly trip to the farmers’ market. We also bulk-purchased six deep freezers from a local appliance store. The arrangement went so well that our friends and others began to ask whether it could be done with other products…and our group was born. Through our network of friends we spread the word about two meetings we had scheduled. We had a remarkably surprising turnout of around thirty families, far more than we had anticipated.
The first twelve to eighteen months was a real joy and challenge. We had our share of good ideas and bad ideas, good experiences and bad experiences. Some members came to us and shared how their health had drastically improved. Others emailed us saying that their muffins had turned out like small, speckled river rocks.
Priorities, People and Projects
People are the most important part of a local foods system. The individuals and families are what will make or break your group. They are your most valuable assets. They are the ones who will compliment or complain, support or sabotage, encourage or infuriate you on a weekto- week basis. As you learn and make modifications, mistakes and improvements (and our members can vouch that we have gone through lots of all three of these), they will either be patient and helpful or irritable and difficult.
Thus, we do a large amount of up front education with members to ensure they understand both the why and the how of what we are doing. Everyone who joins the group knows our WAPF-oriented nutritional philosophy, our goals, the general products we carry—and do not and will not carry. While it adds a great deal of time to individually meet with every prospective member, we have found it to be invaluable to the health and growth of the group.
Second, the farmers and products are central. Most people looking for such groups are seeking particular types of local farm and other products raised in particular ways. In our area, finding farms to work with has been relatively easy, but that may not be so in other places (see side bar for help on finding local farmers). We are fortunate to have over fifteen local farms of varying sizes, which supply our group with a wide array of wonderful local foods.
The most important (local, if possible) farm products a group should carry are real milk, fresh pastured eggs, raw milk cheeses from grass-fed cows, pastured beef, lamb and chickens, along with seasonal Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) opportunities and/or produce. By working with just a few select secondary companies (see side bar for recommendations), you can offer your members almost complete “one-stop” shopping, allowing families to get fresh milk, pastured eggs, and produce along with laundry detergent and toothbrushes all at a single pickup. That raises the question of when and how the items will get to the members.
Distribution and Infrastructure
Our group started out as a few families ordering some cheese and a few other products, but still individually picking up milk and other items from all over the city. Different orders were shipped to different people’s houses and people went to the appropriate place whenever an order arrived. For many reasons, we nixed the above model. Companies didn’t like having so many different people handling orders and many families didn’t like the approach of driving all over town to pick up their goods.
About six months later, we started meeting once per week for about three to four hours for pickup on the same day as one of our farmer’s CSA drops. This marked the first big surge in our growth, as our loose membership’s pickup logistics were vastly simplified and one family was chosen to handle a majority of the responsibilities. As we continued to grow, we added an additional day in the morning to better accommodate our various members’ schedules and to help some of our farmers spread out delivery of their products over multiple days, allowing them to provide fresher and thus better food while reducing waste and loss.
Optimal pickup locations include a garage, a common room at an apartment complex, or a room in a church or community center, among other options. Such places also have the added benefit of being free or very inexpensive. The type of place a group meets is not nearly as important as the location, accessibility and security (if you are storing anything on site) of the location. We are fortunate to have a good, central location for pickup that allows people from all over the city to participate. Depending on the location of your pickup, be very aware of the reactions of neighbors, neighboring businesses, possibility of break-ins and the like. Sadly, local farmers sometimes face harassment rather than honor in our day and age, as may those who support them.
Also, this is a good time to mention that anyone who is involved in leading such a group or helping distribute real foods should be an active member of the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, as should any farmers with whom you work, in order to provide protection for the group’s leaders, farmers and members.
Depending on the size of orders and the types of items your group is receiving, various sorts of infrastructure will be important at the storage and pickup location. You can often get shelving and other needed infrastructure for free or inexpensively by searching around (see side bar). Your group’s members are an invaluable resource for finding needed items both for the group and your farmers, and this is one of the many important roles the average member can fulfill.
Opportunities for Efficiency and Savings
One of the most important aspects of a local food distribution system is the opportunity to save time and money for farmers and members by making the whole system more efficient and less costly. Our current industrial food distribution system offers people only one type of cost advantage and efficiency—brute size leading to “low prices” and “convenience”—-while sacrificing almost everything else. A local food distribution system can capitalize on multiple advantages and efficiencies that also contribute to the well being of everything and everyone involved.
For instance, our CSA farmers used to provide their own waxed boxes that they individually filled for the CSA members. The boxes are fairly expensive and take a great deal of time to fill. We were able to get the boxes for around a quarter of the price our farmer had been paying by working out a deal with a local store (whose waxed boxes had enjoyed a single trip across the continent to our local store and then were being promptly recycled, along with a large amount of other reusable produce containers). We now have our members fill their own boxes each week at pickup. These two simple changes resulted in at least a one thousand dollars worth of savings and four hours per week less work for our farmers, savings they were able to pass on to our members, and an environmental gain for the whole planet. Egg cartons and flats can be reused, saving twenty to forty cents per dozen. Eggs can be delivered on flats rather than in cartons, saving the farmer time, and members can bring their own cartons to the pickup place to fill.
The group can bulk-purchase its own milk bottles at a substantial savings (for instance, the Ball wide-mouth half gallon mason jars can be purchased wholesale for under two dollars per jar, almost half the cost of the glass milk jugs so popular in many stores), and then members can be responsible for cleaning their own jugs (farmers should still sanitize the jars if possible, especially so if doing a bottle pool). Families can be educated and trained to collect egg shells and other compostable waste that can be brought to pickup and, from there, back to the farm where it provides free enrichment and remineralization of the soil rather than enlarging a landfill.
If your group is very large and working with many farmers, certain farm needs can be bulk-purchased on behalf of many farms at once. Various farms can team up for delivery to the pickup location, drastically decreasing time and transportation costs. Alternatively, members who live close to the farms can be a drop-off point for the farmers or pick up from them and then, since they are coming into town anyway, bring these items with them to the pickup place. When the group purchases beef, they can purchase the whole steer and keep all the organs, beef fat and bones, for making stock and soaps out of what otherwise would become waste for someone to deal with or profit for someone else. After the bones have been made into stock, they can be given to members’ dogs or ground up into bone meal for use as a first rate soil amendment for home or farm.
One of the most important ways a group can help their farmers is through providing research, learning opportunities, and fostering cooperation among like-minded farms. For instance, almost none of our farmers knew about the Modern Homestead website of Harvey and Ellen Ussery, which is overflowing with some of the best information on raising food anywhere. Many have implemented ideas they learned from the site to their financial and our food quality benefits. We also distributed a number of articles and links we had come across on pastured poultry pen designs to our farmers, and many of them have told us that the article was invaluable in saving them time and money when building pens this year. Making them aware of and helping them attend conferences and other such learning opportunities is a key way city dwellers can help their farmers and themselves, through better quality, higher nutrient-dense foods over time.
Moreover, these types of opportunities and efficiencies are not optional, but critical, both to the survival of local food distribution systems and the planet that they depend upon. One-way use and consumption of resources is not something our planet can endure from billions of her inhabitants for long (see www.thestoryofstuff. com) and such habits will guarantee the loss of nutrient-dense, traditional foods for our children and grandchildren, not to mention loss of many other priceless treasures of our world.
Products need to be used multiple times, then recycled or otherwise reused, rather than used once or twice and then pitched into our already egregiously overflowing landfills. For instance, a member of a local food group can make kombucha or yogurt for trade with other members in self-capping brewing bottles (such as those made by Grolsch or Fischer) or glass mason jars, which can then be washed and reused hundreds of times or more, creating financial and environmental savings for all (see sidebar for more benefits). These bottles may be procured for free from a local bar or group of people who drink such beers, from yard sales, etc. But if someone is purchasing kombucha or yogurt from three quarters of the way across the nation (or world), such a bottle return and reuse system is completely impractical as a way to reduce waste, conserve resources, or control costs and prices. One system leaves us at the mercy of impersonal, fossil fuel-driven global commodity markets and forces, impoverishing everything it touches. The other helps root us in local communities that depend on wisdom, care, and the renewable energy sources to flourish for generations to come, enriching everyone and everything that is involved.
These types of opportunities and efficiencies exist throughout the local food system but are almost completely impossible to realize on the industrially controlled, chemically dependent, national/global scale of our modern economy. The alternative can only happen on a local-regional scale, and in a sustainable community model. Thus, while food and other product prices will probably continue to skyrocket in cost, shrink in size, and decline in quality, with proper management and wise stewardship our families and communities can enjoy good pricing on superior products while helping our farmers to be more profitable and helping ensure that our children have a planet filled with nutrient-dense foods, healthy and happy animals, and clean air, water, and land—in short, a planet worth inheriting.
Opportunities for efficiencies and savings can be found almost everywhere in a local foods system, and if you come up with or have additional good ideas, please pass them along to others and to us, as we all have much to relearn and regain.
Covering Group Costs
One problem to avoid is allowing just a few people to bear the group’s expenses and workload while others freeload. We were very fortunate that some of our early members, seeing the time and resources we were pouring into the venture, encouraged us to ensure that all the members were sharing in the group’s expenses and compensating the head families for their additional labor. When we began to keep track of things better, we realized that there were many expenses that we were personally defraying: refrigeration and freezer space, electricity, cell phone minutes, mileage, postage, paper, computer use, website creation, not to mention the sheer expense of all that time.
Thus, some type of surcharge was needed on items to cover these expenses. In general, we have found that a surcharge of around 15-18 percent is sufficient to cover the group’s various expenses and to compensate our lead families. This fee is adjusted up as needed for items that require more time or create more expense and work (for instance, items that require refrigeration, freezer storage, or some other costly form of infrastructure, or items that we have to personally drive out to local farms to pick up for the group). Since many of the products are between 30-60 percent off of retail, our members’ final fees are usually substantially below the retail price even with the surcharge. Moreover, on items whose prices are comparable, our members enjoy knowing that their resources are being funneled into the local rather than the big box store economy.
An important issue regarding pricing is that there has to be some incentive for people to become a part of your group rather than going straight to the local farms or the businesses you are working with to get the products. If someone can get eggs from you for $3 per dozen but for only $2.50 from the farmer, things just won’t work for you, your members, or the farmers. By people pulling together, everyone benefits, but especially the farmers, who can go back to focusing on caring for their land, animals, and families, rather than spending endless hours traveling around their regions and states trying to sell in twenty or thirty hours of driving and delivery time what has already taken them forty or more hours to raise or grow.
Making It All Happen: Leadership
The last key area to discuss is how the group is organized and administered. First and foremost, especially since the group is dealing with people’s money, the leader or leaders need to be people of good, proven character. Next, and equally vital, it is important that someone involved with leading the group have good business, computer and communication skills. Depending on the size and complexity of the group, how the books are handled, which companies besides local farms and businesses you are working with, email lists, a website, Excel files, schedules of orders, volunteers— all these will need to be created, updated, posted and amended. These main tasks are, in our opinion, best done by a single person who oversees a head group and who is also actively training one or two additional people or families in case they move, go on vacation, fall ill, or are unable to do such tasks for a time or permanently.
For our group, we have one lead family who oversees the majority of the day-to-day nuts and bolts of running the buying club. We then have an advisory board that takes on specific responsibilities, gives counsel regarding larger decisions, and provides a measure of accountability for the head family. For example, one advisory family helps with finding new local farmers while another volunteers their truck and muscles for our multi-thousand pound beef pickups. Another is building a group directory by the area of town so that our new and old members can more easily find one another in order to foster community and cooperation among the group.
Our individual members prepay for their purchases, some for a few weeks at a time, some for most of the year, providing the group with the necessary capital to place orders and pay farmers while also ensuring that we don’t get lemon members who write bounced checks or place false orders and then disappear. Individual members also help with a variety of tasks—setting up and tearing down weekly pickups, researching different topics, speaking at group meetings, picking up for other members and from or for a local farm and so on. To help members know exactly what they are spending, we keep alphabetized Excel spreadsheets that are made available to the members for review and, if need be, correction.
Thus, especially if a few members are doing the majority of the work (which is our recommendation) while most other members are offering more occasional assistance with pickups and other facets of the group’s life, the lead members/families should receive some type of compensation. For small groups, this can easily be done through free or reduced-price products from the group, but, depending on the group’s size, monetary compensation may be appropriate as well. Also, some farmers, following Joel Salatin’s example, will offer a certain amount of free food for buying clubs or similar groups depending on the size of the orders, such as five free chickens for every fifty you order. Other farmers may offer a free CSA box for every eight your group signs up for. Some will offer both or some other arrangement. These also need to be integrated into the overall fee and compensation structure of the group.
This compensation should be seen as part of the cost of running the group, just like a website or some other expense, and built into the group’s surcharge structure. Especially if the group is large, how to do the above is beyond my expertise and the scope of this article, but at least may involve tapping the skills of your members, such as an accountant, business owner or lawyer, to get counsel regarding the options, costs and legal and tax implications.
The inner workings of a well-organized food buying group may seem a little overwhelming, which is why we close by pointing out that this description depicts what may happen over time as a group grows. It is not where we started, thankfully, or we wouldn’t be here now! We were just a dozen families or so ordering some cheese and eggs and milk each week and some other stuff every so often. As our group has grown, our leadership and members have all had the opportunity to grow with it, in our knowledge of cooking, nutrition, ecology, management, website design, teaching and many other skills. Thus, a local foods system grows its members while also growing their food and local communities.
A local foods system can help become the basis for a return to real community, real food, real farming and real living for a nation reeling from more than two generations of synthetic and disconnected everything. Weston A. Price’s research, which points the way to the most sustainable methods of farming possible—solar-based, soil-rich, grass-powered—not just for animals and land, but for the people who eat these foods, is a crucial piece of the puzzle to ensure that people have access to sustainable and affordable foods.
Seeing the End at the Beginning
When we used to meet with prospective members or chat with friends, I would often remark that one of our goals is to see a day when certain types of companies and farms (ones “that shall not be named”) will have to close their doors because the public will no longer eat their low quality, nutrient-deficient, synthetic, GMO- and chemical-laden concoctions, or support their vile practices. It is our hope that a large part of what will make this dream become reality will be the revitalization and growth of tens of thousands of small, local, sustainable farms supported by tens of thousands of WAPF-oriented, local buying clubs. Together we can grow toward this dream. The best is yet to come.
How To Find Interested Participants For Your Group
- Hold interest meetings and advertise them by word of mouth among your friends and family.
- Have members post info at their work and social message boards.
- Contact local WAPF chapter leaders, chapters and other similar groups.
- Create a listing for the group at Local Harvest, www.localharvest.org.
- Contact various local groups, such as home-schooling groups, churches, and civic grassroots organizations with similar goals and concerns.
Other Social Benefits Your Local Food Distribution System Might Engender
- Serving as a starting place for small cottage industries, such as a local fermented drinks business, a sourdough bakery, or a café that serves real food. Members can begin by trading various items with one another (stock for yogurt, kombucha for sourdough bread) and as interest and opportunity permits, expand into the broader local markets.
- Becoming a powerful tool for political action. A local food group with one hundred or even ten members can be quickly mobilized to make phone calls, show up at an important hearing, write letters and emails, pass information along to others, and otherwise assist with political/legislative efforts. As many have pointed out, the greatest weapon agribusiness has is its financial clout and local power base to apply to politicians and state agencies. One important tool against this is large, active, well organized, timely, broad-based citizen support from across social, ethnic, cultural and geographical lines. A local food buying club can actively foster this type of support. Many Americans are completely in the dark about what is happening on a number of fronts (NAIS, GMOs, etc.) and other matters until it is too late for them to act.
How To Find Local Farmers
In our experience, for every one farmer you find via the resources below there are one to four more farmers in the area. Moreover, many smaller farmers/hobby farmers (such as people who keep small flocks of chickens for eggs and thus often produce some of the best eggs but in small surpluses) are almost completely unknown to the average city dweller. Yet, if you find three or four small farms located close to one another, you have a surplus that can feed a dozen or more families and an affordable way to get the food to your group. Since you will be helping provide food for others, you want to make sure that you thoroughly research the prospective farmers’ practices before offering their products to your group. Also, depending on your area, don’t be too particular (or too lax). For instance, in Kentucky, finding grass-fed and grass-finished beef is easy, but finding non-GMO and soy-free eggs or chickens is almost impossible. If you refuse to work with your local farmers because of such things, both parties will lose in the long run. By next year, because our imperfect farmers have had support and help, we hope many will be able to move towards and offer non-GMO and soy-free feeds to their animals. To find local farmers in your area. . . .
- Visit local farmers’ markets and talk with everyone. Farmers usually know where other farmers are located, how they treat and raise their animals and land.
- Visit www.eatwild.com and use their state-by-state directory.
- Visit www.realmilk.com and use their state listings, as real milk farmers often also provide a plethora of other farm products along with milk.
- The farm and garden or general section of Craigslist.com may be a great place to find farmers as in some areas and cities they use this free service to reach a wide region of people. Also, don’t be shy about using the Craigslist a city or county over. For example, depending on where you live in Columbus, Ohio, you should also search the Cincinnati, Akron/Canton, and other nearby listings.
- When you or your friends/members are out driving, keep your eyes wide open! Also, before taking family or business trips, map out new routes for common jaunts through areas where farmers may be and encourage your members to do so as well. You and your family will get to see some new (less concrete-filled) scenery and perhaps find a new farmer or two. On our recent vacation, we found fresh local pastured eggs and produce less than a mile from where we were staying that we had missed previous years.
- Community gardens and community gardening groups are popping up all over many cities and towns. These groups may be looking to sell their extra produce to other locals.
- Almost every group of friends has someone into gardening/small scale backyard farming. Don’t neglect to support these people! They are an important part of meeting our individual (and national) food demands. More so, they are usually very close by and an easy place to channel compost or to set up a composting system, helping ensure that the food is fresh, nutrient-dense, and affordable.
More Ways For Families and Farmers To Save Money and Prevent Waste
- The group can organize orders on behalf of multiple farmers for items such as egg cartons to get a larger bulk discount and save on shipping. Farmers can work together to do the same for feed and other needs. Also, some of our farmers have begun to purchase grain, chicks, and other needed supplies directly from other local farmers, thus removing unneeded middlemen and transportation expenses.
- In our city, we have numerous yard sales and quarterly “trash pickup days,” where people throw away lots of things that certainly don’t look anything like trash. We have found good quality coolers, hundred-dollar NSF-certified steel racks and other types of shelving, an unending supply of mason jars and much more, as have our members.
- A buying club generates a great deal of packaging materials—cardboard boxes and dividers, biodegradable packing peanuts, and the like. These can be collected and then sold via Craigslist.com or other means to people who are moving, to recycling centers, or to local businesses, turning a waste stream into a revenue opportunity.
Suggested Companies To Partner With Your Buying Club
There is a wide array of companies to choose from to supplement whatever your group is able to find locally. Whenever possible, local sources are best for most items. The size, location and needs of your group will help shape which other companies’ products you seek to make available to your members.
- Cost: $10 one-time membership fee.
- Contact info: 1-800-699-3275 http://www.wholesale.frontiercoop.com/
- Fair trade and organic herbs, spices, essential oils and teas, along with well over 100,000 other products from other companies, covering everything from organic clothing to replaceable-head toothbrushes.
- Frontier is a great company for any group of almost any size to be a part of.
- Low minimum order of $250 qualifies for free shipping.
- Health Buyers Club (HBC) or Wholesale
- Cost: A HBC membership runs between $9.99-$99.99. Watch for specials if you want a whole year membership. Items on the HBC site often go on sale at prices that match the wholesale price. Wholesale membership is free for those who qualify.
- Contact info:
- HBC, www.tropicaltraditions.com and click on the Healthy Buyers Club link in the upper left corner.
- Tropical Traditions Customer Service: 1-866-311-262 or http://www.tropicaltraditions.com/customerservice.cfm
- Wholesale: http://www.tropicaltraditions.com/wholesale.cfm
- Phone: 1-888-593-9595 http://www.radiantlifecatalog.com/
- When our group was small, Radiant Life would provide moderate discounts for orders of a certain size, along with reduced shipping costs for our members pulling their orders together. This is a great strategy for small groups just starting out, since if you meet certain ordering requirements (certain case sizes, minimum dollar amount, etc.), most companies will extend some type of discount, even if it is only free or reduced shipping. For more possibilities check out the WAPF shopping guide or the advertisements in Wise Traditions.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2008.