Farmers enter town’s economy through weekly market, cooperative venture and a supportive brewpub
Sustainability center gives grad students experience in ag production, marketing and economic networking that drives local economy.

By Kyle Holzhueter

Macoskey Center makes connections

Slippery Rock University’s Macoskey Center for Sustainable Systems Education and Research reconnects people with land through:

• Community gardens established in 1996 that provide students and community members the opportunity to rent garden plots and access to garden tools and finished compost.

• Workshops on organic vegetable gardening held for students and community members.

• Service learning opportunities for more than 400 SRU students each year, many of whom volunteer on the student farm.

• PA Farm Day each fall for third graders from Slippery Rock Area Elementary School. Area farmers meet students at the center and introduce their livestock.

• The annual Earth Day Festival held each April that draws more than 350 people for live music, food, children’s games and workshops ranging from bio-diesel and apple tree grafting to soap making and organic gardening.

--KH

Where do we go from here?

Although the collaborative is successful this season, it can take one of three paths in the future:

1. Continuing in the direction of formal organization, the collaborative could become a legal cooperative. A cooperative business is owned and operated by the members who use it. It is run democratically: “one member, one vote.” Becoming a legal cooperative would entail writing bylaws and articles of incorporation. This would allow the cooperative to become a registered business in Pennsylvania, receive an EIN (employer identification number), open a business bank account, obtain credit and purchase insurance. The cooperative business structure would provide several benefits to the farmers:

  • Enables increased sales and profits with greater supply and consistency to meet demands of larger establishments
  • Increases purchasing power and lowers production costs with possible savings on supplies like seed, fertilizer, packaging, etc
  • Provides tax benefits
  • Sharing equity requirements and sharing the risks inherent in business
  • Sharing in future profits via patronage refunds.

2. The collaborative could maintain its current structure. Since cooperative ventures require serious commitment and cooperation, the farmers may simply chose to continue volunteering to coordinate weekly sales to the brewery. However, this may limit long-term economic potential as the demand for fresh local food increases.

3. If the farmers are not willing to develop a cooperative or continue coordinating sales and deliveries, it's possible that the collaborative could disband. If the collaborative breaks down, individual growers may be able to continue to sell directly to the brewery. However, most restaurants cannot allocate the extra time and costs associated with purchasing from individual growers. For most restaurants, institutions and grocers, the process must be more efficient, which means purchasing from a single coordinator or sales representative.

Since production is “priority one” in farming, growers must be on the land. This creates a number of challenges: Lack of time for managing and marketing; lack of equity for capital investments or hiring service professionals such as a manager, sales rep or an accountant; and the lack of some aspect of business knowledge. When relationships work, all of these challenges can be overcome by working together in a cooperative business venture.

There are several organizations that can assist cooperatives and entrepreneurs. Here are two of them to get you started:

The Keystone Development Center (KDC), servicing the Mid-Atlantic region, provides assistance to prospective cooperatives. KDC has produced a cooperative resource guide that contains a variety of resources and the guidelines for, and benefits of, forming a cooperative business. Check the KDC website www.kdc.coop to obtain regional office contact information and the cooperative resource guide.

The Small Business Association’s Small Business Development Centers provide training and business development assistance to current and prospective small business owners. Visit www.sba.gov/
sbdc
for more information.

--KH

Posted October 12, 2006: What do local growers, an artisan brewery and an innovative facility at western Pennsylvania’s Slippery Rock University have in common? They’re changing the way people throughout the community think about food, where they shop for it and where they dine.

Helping to shape the area’s local food economy are initiatives coming out of the Macoskey Center for Sustainable Systems Education and Research. The center, a facility of Slippery Rock University (SRU), manages a farmers’ market it helped to found, hosts an organic student farm and is the collection point of a farmers’ collaborative supplying produce to a local restaurant and brewpub.

These diverse activities fit within the center’s mission to reconnect consumers and farmers, says Thomas Reynolds, its director.

The center’s market garden, which sells produce at the local farmers’ market and to area restaurants, puts students to work in ways that teach them about crop production as well as direct marketing. All work—from planning to harvesting—is done by students. The farm demonstrates basic plant and animal husbandry, professional cultivation methods, integrated pest management and research.

Most importantly, the student farm models three spheres of sustainability: economic, social and environmental. Although the garden is run by university students, it is managed as a commercial operation.

Sustainability that flows cash

“Sustainability isn’t just ecological. It also includes economic and social sustainability,” explains Reynolds.

The soil of the center’s market garden continues to improve, showing the net positive effect of their farming methods. Production is also becoming more efficient, with the farm expected to make a profit this year—its sixth season. Through its involvement with the farmers’ market and farmers’ marketing coop, the farm also helps develop local community and social sustainability.

The student garden program provides SRU students—mainly graduate students in the Sustainable Systems program—the opportunity to run their own farm operation. They develop the skills and responsibility needed to manage a small business. Many former farm managers have gone on to operate their own farm or are working for key agricultural organizations within Pennsylvania and nationally.

The SRU student farm faces a number of challenges common to student ag efforts. Students only stay for a while, meaning turnover due to graduation slows the development of organizational knowledge. Because learning takes time, and time is money during the growing/marketing season, “the biggest challenge is balancing economic success and educational success,” notes Reynolds.

The Macoskey Center was central to starting the Slippery Rock Farmers’ Market in the summer of 2002. The market continues to grow each year, with revenue and the number of vendors and customers increasing. Benefits include additional revenue for the center and for area farmers so they can expand their produce sales. The market enlivens the downtown, inspiring economic and cultural activity.

But what tastes best is this: It provides a place to shop for local and fresh produce.

Extending marketing options

The student organic farm, along with other members of the farmers’ market, is a part of the Slippery Rock Area Farmers’ Collaborative . The group’s goal is to cooperate to supply a single-delivery, local-produce option to North Country Brewing Company (www.northcountrybrewing.com).

“Buying local produce is part of the local economy paradigm we follow,” says Bob McCafferty, owner of the brewery. This involves local businesses working together toward common goals with mutual benefit. By spending money locally and keeping it close to home, dollars circulate locally more often before flowing out of town and out of state.

“Buying local produce is part of the local economy paradigm we follow.”

-- Bob McCafferty, owner North
Country Brewing Company

“It’s resource efficient, but more importantly, it builds the Slippery Rock community,” explains McCafferty. Local building materials, renewable energy, reusable takeout jugs, and local produce are just some of the ways the brewery embodies the local economy paradigm.

Before the business even opened, Bob and Jodi McCafferty began renovating the current structure with local hardwoods and recycled on-site materials. The brewery partnered with Green Mountain Energy to contract for 100-percent renewable energy. Spent grains left over from its fermenting of quality brews are fed to local cows.

North Country is the founding buyer for the local farmers’ collaborative. The group is coordinated by Tanya Turner of Keystone Development Center (www.kdc.coop), a non-profit organization funded by a USDA Rural Cooperative Development Grant. Turner, a graduate of Slippery Rock University’s Master of Science in Sustainable Systems program, is committed to developing businesses within a local food paradigm.

Turner has worked for three years with numerous local food projects in western Pennsylvania. She tries to bring self-empowerment to those she works with: “We don’t sit farmers down and say, ‘Let’s start a cooperative’. It has to come from them. We enable farmers to organize themselves.”

Restaurant staff and farmers talk in off-season

Turner knew of McCafferty and his dedication to the local economic paradigm. Beginning late last fall, she arranged monthly meetings between Slippery Rock area growers and the brewery’s kitchen staff. The brewery management outlined what produce they’d like and what quantities they expected to need. The growers then made tentative commitments to supply that produce. Both parties went into the collaborative with good intentions and had faith that prices would fall into place.

Each of the growers takes a turn conducting the orders and deliveries, using this well-outlined process.

  1. On Saturday, the grower in charge of the order talks to the other growers at the farmers’ market to record what produce will be available, what quantity and at what price.
  2. On the following Monday, the coordinator calls Nancy Lee Santella, the kitchen manager at the brewery. The coordinator relays the product and price information from Saturday’s market. Nancy decides what she’d like and states what prices the brewery can pay.
  3. The coordinator then calls all of the growers to relay the order.
  4. After checking with the other growers, the coordinator confirms the order with Nancy.
  5. The growers then harvest Tuesday and/or Wednesday morning before the 9 a.m. collection at the Macoskey Center.
  6. The coordinator records what’s collected and then delivers the order in its entirety to the brewery. A single delivery limits the hassle for a restaurant dealing with multiple growers.
  7. The kitchen staff at the brewery checks the order and pays the coordinator for the entire order.
  8. The following Saturday the coordinator pays each grower for their portion of the order. And a new coordinator takes charge the next week.

So far this season, both parties are happy with the arrangement —thanks in large part to Nancy at the brewery. “She’s such a pleasure to work with,” Turner says with a smile. “If it wasn’t for her, I don’t know if the collaborative would work. An arrangement like this is extra effort for the restaurant.” It’s much simpler and cheaper to work with a conventional food distributor. But the brewery is committed to local food, even if it does mean additional time, effort and a few extra dollars.

“The freshness and quality of the produce is worth it,” explains Nancy, “and I think our customers can taste the difference.”

Living with the challenges

That isn’t to say there haven’t been challenges. The delivery schedule must suit both the growers and restaurant. Growers can’t deliver to restaurants when they are at market or harvesting for market. The brewery has conveniently accommodated an early week order and midweek delivery. This allows growers to harvest and deliver early in the week, exactly between weekend markets.

Restaurants also need consistent supply and quality. Fortunately for the Slippery Rock Area Farmers Collaborative, the brewery is willing to work with slight variations due to fluctuations in weather and different production practices. The brewery purchases several varieties of lettuce from several growers in different quantities to enhance menu diversity.

Restaurants also have to be willing to pay a bit more for fresh, local produce. This is difficult for most restaurant owners or chefs accustomed to buying through a conventional food purveyor, particularly if unit cost is their main interest. Those who value fresh quality and the long-term financial benefits of building the local economy can “buy local” if they can successfully market these “values-added” benefits to their customers.

Another challenge is communication among growers. Only half the growers use email, and fewer than a quarter have cell phones. Turner notes this is characteristic of rural western Pennsylvania. “My colleagues in Harrisburg and Philadelphia don’t have the same problems with communication, and the people they’re working with are keen on e-commerce.”

“We’re taking baby steps,” explains Turner. “Farmers need realistic, tangible results. This year we’re collecting data for a feasibility study. We’re keeping detailed records of sales and the cost of production, including delivery and labor. Farmers aren’t used to taking into account their own labor.”

Farmers tracking benefits

Once the season’s over and the numbers are totaled, the farmers will be able to track their time and their sales to see how profitable the collaborative effort has been. “Maybe even next year we’ll take on another restaurant or two,” Turner says hopefully. The producers have much to consider in their next step. (See the “Where do we go from here?” sidebar.)

The human pieces of the local food movement around Slippery Rock are interconnected and interdependent.

  • The brewery supports local farmers by buying via the collaborative, consisting of Slippery Rock Farmers’ Market vendors. The market is, in turn, managed by the Macoskey Center.
  • The center’s student organic farm is a member of the collaborative supplying the brewery and sells at the farmers’ market. It supplies produce to other area restaurants, as well.
  • Most of the area growers savor the custom brews of North Country, showing in another way how members in a local economy both give and receive benefit to the others.

Result: Locally owned businesses thrive with a short supply chain for unique and seasonal food, local culture flourishes through connections and relationships, students experience and contribute to “real life,” their university creates positive connections with local small businesses, and the quality of life for the entire community is strengthened.

Trade needs to be fair and sometimes done at a distance, but there is much more than revenue to be gained for farmers and their communities when they can invest in each other.