Part one of Food Hubs and Co-ops: How local family farms can feed our communities, Establishing an Online Food Cooperative, was held April 6 in Hiawatha. The workshop provided a look at food co-ops and local food in general.

Darryl Birkenfeld, with Ogallala Commons, explained how his community in the Texas panhandle created enthusiasm about local food. They created and posted weekly to a blog and Facebook page, called Local Llano. The Facebook page and email lists were used to promote the site.

Birkenfeld said the blog is about local food: what can be grown in the area, gardening tips, recipes, stories about local growers, and canning/preserving.

“Our society is changing how we look at food,” Birkenfeld said. “People have forgotten how to make food, and they want to learn how.”

Birkenfeld noted that to have a flourishing Foodshed, you have to engage youth. Local Llano hosts education events for high school students about how they can come home. Ogallala Commons offers Community Internships for college students in their hometowns, and several have been centered around local food, Birkenfeld said.

Dr. Vincent Amanor-Boadu, an ag economics professor at K-State, referenced some research projects he has been a part of about consumers purchasing local food.

“Consumers like local food, because it’s fresher, tastes better, and they’d rather support small farmers, but when it gets time to purchase the product they are not willing to pay extra,” Amanor-Boadu said.

Local food consumption is growing, Amanor-Boadu said, by an average of 5.3 percent per year per household. He contributed it to an increasing consumer knowledge about food and their health.

Amanor-Boadu suggested to create a value proposition when starting a local food business. Ask yourself “who is the customer?”, “what do they want?” and “how do I make it so compelling they can’t ignore me?”

“Make it so clear that you switch them,” Amanor-Boadu said. “Their needs have to line up with your needs.”

“As long as you achieve success, then it’s a good thing,” Amanor-Boadu said. “Success can be a profit or an applause.”

Representatives from two food co-ops in the region shared their experiences: Kim Barker, with the Oklahoma Food Co-op, and Chris Schmidt and Chris Sramek, with the High Plains Food Co-op. The two cooperatives have very similar operating procedures.

The two co-ops ordering and delivery system is the same. Consumers submit online orders, the producers have set points to drop off the orders, the products are then taken to consumer pick up points.

Oklahoma has 40 collection sites and delivers to the Tulsa and Oklahoma City areas. High Plains has two collection sites in Kansas and a few more in Colorado, and delivers to Denver, Colo area.

Both co-ops allow members to receive ‘co-op credit’ after volunteering on delivery day. Barker said some volunteers need the money, others just want to help.

Barker shared some advice for anyone thinking about starting a co-op. He suggested recruiting board members that know something about the products. If they don’t be sure to educate them. Also to “demand integrity from producers and board members, don’t tolerate anything else,” Barker said.

He said to demand good financial reports from the beginning. “You need to know what’s going on every month,” Barker said.

To keep the co-op out of trouble and help producer members, “someone needs to know all the rules and regulations for food sales,” Barker said.

Last, Barker stressed paying attention to your customers, and to make sure you’re speaking the same language.

Schmidt said one of High Plains’ advantages has been modeling after Oklahoma. “We learned what not to do from their mistakes,” he said.

Sramek said High Plains has recently applied for grants from Know Your Farmer (USDA) and a Specialty Crop grant to help expand the Co-op. Before it expands, they’re conducting a feasibility study of marketing, distribution, organizational development and capacity.

High Plains has turned an otherwise boring annual meeting into a marketing opportunity, by having the producers provide product samples for attendees. This gives producer members an opportunity to market their products directly to the consumer.

Schmidt said High Plains has a strict producer member application process. A review committee makes sure that the applicant shares their values, that they are transparent and then conducts a farm visit.

Jeff Downing, Midwest Agency manager, discussed insurance, including product liability, for farmers selling direct to consumers. “If you are not properly covered, it could result in the loss of your farm,” he said. “Be sure to talk with your agent, and make sure you have coverage for everything.”

Downing said the insurance company will evaluate your risk, including food prep and handling. He brought up that you “lose control” of your product when you have a retailer sell it or a restaurant purchases your product and then prepares it improperly.

During the wrap up, Dan Nagengast, owner of Seeds from Italy, said “it’s remarkable how much local food has grown over the last 20 years. There is a lot of progress to make these kinds of things happen, and I see it continuing.”

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