How to Start a Farm-to-Family Co-op for Regional Food Security

Reader Contribution by Rd Copeland and The Sunflower Farm
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“The store is completely out of bread, milk, and beef. There’s three packages of chicken wings on the shelf, a half-dozen sacks of potatoes, and a bag of lettuce that looks like it’s been cooked in the microwave. What should I do?”

“I don’t know, Honey. Just get some more canned goods and we’ll make it another week, hopefully.”

Is this the new normal? Will grocery store shelves remain half-empty? Will you be forced to eat unhealthy, packaged foods you’d normally bypass for fresh, organically grown produce, hearty beef cuts from the butcher counter, and bread baked that morning in the store bakery? And if so, for how long?

These are questions every American may be asking their families, and unfortunately, many of these questions will remain unanswered for a few months, perhaps years, possibly from now on. Food insecurity is weighing heavily on everyone’s mind during this unprecedented time in our lives. Families need to eat, and eating packaged foods from around the globe isn’t sustainable, healthy, or cost-effective. So, what can you do to change this nightmare scenario, and keep your family safe, well-fed, and healthy?

The author tends his cattle at The Sunflower Farm.

Food Security with Farm-to-Family Co-ops

If you have land, a big yard, or hundreds of large planters, you can grow your own vegetables — but most people don’t have this option in our society, and you can’t exactly raise beef cattle in downtown Dallas, Texas. But, my friends, all is not lost. The solution? Go out and find the farmers who are already raising vegetable crops, tending cattle and hogs, collecting eggs, and even making wine, and then buy these foods directly off the farm!

Farmers haven’t been above the fray, either, and for many years, they’ve been taken advantage of by the big, corporate-owned factory farms and our nation’s big-box grocers. Middlemen in Chicago and on Wall Street have wedged their way in between the consumer and their food sources, driving down prices paid to farmers, and up for families trying to feed their loved ones. And now, the flawed system has come crashing down on us all. But we can end this nonsense, and there’s never been a better time to do it than today.

Farmers and consumers can come together more easily than ever on their smartphones, and in person (just not too close for the time being). Consumers: Get online and find the farmers. Farmers: Reach out to your neighbors on social media. Coordinate a farm-to-family co-op in your area, and cut out the unnecessary price fixing, food handling and packaging, and harmful toxicity associated with factory farms. Here’s how.

Farms and Products to Include in a Farmer-Organized Co-op

Along with one of my customer, Anna — who lives in north Dallas and manages the Richardson Farm Co-op from her house, which serves as our pickup location — I started our co-op of farms in north Texas two years ago with farmers who I’d met at farmers markets around Dallas-Fort Worth. The original farms included my farm, The Sunflower Farms, to supply grass-fed beef; Xander Farms with its pastured chicken and pork; L’Cajn Farm for organic vegetables; and Little Foot Farm selling pastured chicken and duck eggs.

The co-op then added organic dairy products from Circle N Dairy; local honey from Country Hill Honey; elderberry syrup from God Given Health; fire cider made by Soul Vision Healing; sourdough bread baked by Paris Bakery; rice grown at Two Brooks Farm; coffee locally roasted by Good Book Coffee; and organic wine from grapes bio-intensively grown at Môreson Farms and Winery.

On our first order, we had about 60 members shopping our online store, which consisted of a Facebook group at the time. Membership now has reached nearly 700, with about 25 percent of them shopping each order cycle. That percentage has skyrocketed because of the pandemic.

The north Dallas co-op has been so successful that I decided to start up another one in Fort Worth and beyond, with additional farmers to supply it, and although we just got everything set up when the viral epidemic began, we’re poised to begin taking orders early this summer. To see how we’re setting up our operations, visit The Farm Co-Op, a website built by one of our providers, Carl Andrews of Moreson Farms and Winery in Wichita Falls, Texas. The great thing about the website is that we can separate it into regions, with local farmers supplying their area’s members, no matter the location.

People can order foods directly from local growers, farmers, and ranchers, while also accessing proteins, including beef, pork, and chicken, from my farm and other farmers who sell meats frozen for a longer shelf life.

Our Fort Worth customers get locally grown vegetables from nearby Azle (Shine’s Farmstand), and people further south near Austin get their fresh veggies from growers in central and south Texas, along with some from Shine’s. All three zones get their proteins from The Sunflower Farm and Sullifarm and Kitchen, eggs from Little Foot Farm, wine from Moreson, and fermented goods and canned veggies from The Fermentista’s Kitchen in San Marcos. We have a wonderful manager and pickup location set up in Wimberley, Texas, at a Bed-and-Breakfast named Creekhaven Inn.

Farm co-op manager Anna Parrish displays her goods.

Identify Farmers and List Your Products

You have a couple of choices on how to set up the ordering process. After you identify the farmers, ask them to provide an inventory of goods they have available, which will likely change from season to season, especially with vegetables and fruit. Each farm will be able to provide a list with prices and sizes of their goods.

For example, in early spring, growers will likely have lettuces, kale, greens, beets, and radishes ready for harvest. An individual 5-ounce container of mixed salad greens sells for $4.00 in our co-ops, and a five-item box of vegetables — including broccoli, carrots, green leaf lettuce, spring onions, and spinach — sells for $36. The grower has 40 to 50 of these vegetable boxes available currently.

During winter and early spring, The Sunflower Farm offers grass-fed beef roasts, short ribs, stew meat, and chili meat for slow cooking, along with the usual cuts of steaks, ground beef, and fajitas. In summer and fall, we carry pre-made burger patties and fewer roasts, so our customers can do their grilling outdoors without heating up the kitchen.

Start a Farmers Co-op Website

Here’s an example of how that list of goods appears on our shopping cart.

Members access each farm’s available goods on the site for that order cycle, shop for what they want, add it to their cart, and pay for all their items at the site checkout page. On pickup day, members head to their respective pickup location with bags, boxes, and coolers in which to carry their orders. They grab their goods and head home.

Farmers in near proximity can band together to supply local residents with their own online grocery store. You only need a website for them to go shopping. Options include Facebook groups, but moderating will quickly become an administrator’s full-time job, manually adding up totals and orders for each farm, giving members their total purchase costs, and accepting cash or payments using Venmo, Square, PayPal, and other forms of payment.

Farmers can build their own websites and share the cost of operation, provided one of them knows how to program a site on Shopify (or a similar site), or can pay a professional web designer to build and maintain it.

A third option: Use our site (The Farm Co-Op) that’s already up and running. We provide area farmers with their own pages for members to join, and our site does all the sorting and payments, including covering the credit and debit card fees. A member of your co-op will need to act as manager and provide the central location for delivery, storage, and pickup.

Payment Options and Transaction Fees

Payment will be completed online, the orders are filled by the co-op manager, and the farms deliver the exact amount needed to fill everyone’s orders two days prior to pickup. The co-op manager emails a list of orders to the farms so they can harvest and fill the exact amounts. Veggie growers only harvest what’s needed that cycle, so there’s no leftovers or waste.

We charge each member a one-time membership of $20 to cover the cost of extra refrigerators, freezers, and storage at the manager’s location, and to assist with fuel purchases for transporting the foods from farms to managers. Also, credit and debit card processing is covered by a 9 percent charge to the farms, which the managers keep to cover their costs of fuel, extra electricity usage at home, and as pay for their efforts.

When we were selling at farmers markets, the fees and percentages of sales we paid to the local cities and market managers were often 12 to 15 percent of our sales; plus, we were away from the farm all day. Now, we just deliver every other Wednesday or Thursday to the respective manager’s location.

During our most recent order cycle, Richardson Farm Co-op members bought about $1,500 of various grass-fed beef cuts, which we delivered on Thursday morning, and we were back on the farm by 10 a.m. at a total cost of $155, which included credit card fees, fuel, and co-op costs. At the farmers market we used to frequent, we would’ve paid a total of $160, including a sales percentage, a daily market fee, credit and debit card fees, annual city and county permits, a food handlers fee, fuel costs, and lunch (not to mention leaving the farm at 5 a.m. and returning after 6 p.m.

Staggered Pickup Appointments Maintain Health

With the recent social distancing rules, fear of spreading the virus, and in-store competition for foodstuffs, our method of ordering and pickup requires little to no close proximity for our members, our managers, or our farmers. Members text or call the manager on pickup day, ask for a time that works for them, and the manager puts them in the queue for dropping by. Upon arrival, they wait in their cars until receiving a text that it’s their turn to enter the garage, house, or outbuilding where the food is stored.

The Farm Co-op encourages nontoxic, organic, and pasture-raised food practices, and most small farmers already fall into this method of providing food to the markets. The input of synthetic chemicals, antibiotics, and growth hormones isn’t sustainable, and is extremely costly. None of our providers use these factory-farming techniques, and almost all of our members shun the corporate, profit-centered agriculture so prevalent in our food system.

Cattle, sheep, and other ruminants are designed to graze on grasses, not to be force-fed corn, soy, and other grains grown under a constant fog of harmful chemicals. Glyphosate is a known carcinogen harmful to human and animal health. We do not allow its use in our co-op of farms.

Healthy, nontoxic food equals healthy humans, healthy animals, and a healthy environment. The foods we raise comes off our farms and goes straight to your plates. I always tell my customers that the beef they get from me makes “one stop at the butcher shop” in between their family and my family farm. It does not go from the farm to a feedlot, then to a huge processing center, then on an airplane or ship, crossing oceans and national boundaries, back on another truck or rail car, then to packaging, then a distribution center, then another truck, then a big box store, and finally to your plates, a month later.

Buying directly from farmers who take great care and pride in their products helps everyone involved. Please consider forming your own cooperative of farmers and customers, and if we can assist you in getting started, we’ll be happy to make it happen.

Photos by The Sunflower Farm

RD Copeland raises pastured beef in north Texas on his organic  farm and weekend retreat, The Sunflower Farm, where visitors can check in to a cob-cabin getaway or take one of RD’s permaculture seminars. Read all of RD’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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