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March Producer of the Month

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From the GM: Committment to Community: The Power of Local Investment PDF Print E-mail

by Sabine Rhyne
May 2016

“…Cooperatives empower their members and strengthen communities. They promote food security and enhance opportunities for small agricultural producers. They are better tuned to local needs and better positioned to serve as engines of local growth...”
~United Nations Secretary General’s message for International Day of Cooperatives, July 2012

We have seen signs sprouting up outside of large supermarkets touting their New England-grown items inside. Even a fast food company’s TV commercial was touting its purchase of North American beef.  You may not recognize it as such, but “local” is hot. As the food industry adjusts to a changing consumer, more and more multinational corporations are spending money to let their shoppers know that they too have local sensibilities, and that they too are supporting local farms.

Well, maybe. I guarantee you that no supermarket can hold a candle to the options of local purchases that co-ops, and particularly our Co-op, offers its shoppers. Nearly a fifth of all the products that we sell are from Vermont or within 30 miles of its borders. And that’s not counting all the products that we ourselves make and sell, in our Deli department and our Meat and Seafood department. That represents a long commitment, over many decades, of working with local farmers and producers to bring their products to market. For years, we have presented you with local producers in all categories, often the first or nearly so to sell a product after the producer has sold it themselves at their local famers’ market or their own stand. This is a commitment. Buyers make lots of individual calls to these small companies to work out pricing issues and place orders, stockers receive goods in the back room after normal receiving hours, graphic artists patiently work out ads with non-visual manufacturers, bookkeepers work out particular payment rhythms. But we do this, and we do it willingly, recognizing our role in supporting these farmers and producers. We feature one every month, as you well know, and we warn them to be prepared for this attention! The article, the ads in the papers, and the demos in the store often serve to skyrocket sales as shoppers become aware of yet another worthy product to try. Admittedly, not everyone makes the cut. In the end, if customers don’t respond, or if we have reached our capacity in a particular subcategory, we may not be able to take on another vendor. But overall, we have a reasonably good track record in our support.

Our Produce department, for instance, invites the farmers in to a meeting in mid-winter to check in. What could we use more of next season? What do they have that we don’t know about? How can we support them better? How can our Deli department take advantage of some of their produce? John, our Produce manager, and Cheryl Ann, our Produce assistant manager, are all ears, as are Dawn, the Culinary manager, and Ron, the Commissary buyer. Jon, our Marketing and Community Relations manager, makes sure that we have access to all their farm logos, so we can upgrade the signage in the department as their local bounty starts to come in. As a result of our discussions, we have managed to extend our offerings of local produce well into and even through the winter season, as some of the local farms have grown and then held back product for us in the fall, rather than shipping it to major metropolitan areas.
In 2015, we increased our local vendors from Vermont by 27%, from 259 to 331. New Hampshire vendors increased 36%, from 47 to 64, while Massachusetts vendors slipped a bit, from 87 to 73. Our sales of local products increased 13.25% over last year, which itself saw an increase of 13.6% over the prior year. Over 32% of produce sales were local last year, and that is over 12 months, not all of which are within the Vermont growing season…

So, we are doing quite well.  But we want to do better. One of the over-arching goals for our plan next year is to deepen our local relationships. How can we support our local producers that much better? For that matter, how can they support us? Because we are in a symbiotic relationship, where mutual success truly benefits our community. And you, our shopper and member-owner, are an essential part of this discussion. Howard Prussack of High Meadows Farm has raised the issue of fair wages on farms. We have lots of farms, with a wide variety of priorities and needs. But in the end, what we can pay for their goods, and in turn, what you can pay for their goods, is the balancing point. So, again, we teeter on the cusp of “value” and “values.” As you make your decisions in the aisles, let us know your thoughts. We’ll keep working on being the best supporter of local farmers and producers seven days a week.

Thinking spring,
Sabine