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Running a small farm that markets directly to customers is a big job. Juggling marketing, distribution, food safety, accounting, customer service and growing crops can be a challenge for one farmer. That’s why many are sharing the load by joining a cooperative.

“A cooperative provides farmers a way to pool their supply and work together to get their product into the marketplace,” says Sarah Lloyd, secretary of the board and director of development for the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative in Madison.

“Most farmers like to farm. They don’t want to do sales and marketing. A cooperative allows farmers to be out in the field doing what they want to do while the cooperative does the other work on their behalf.”

Photo courtesy of Jamey Ritter

Working With Retail and Restaurants

Most cooperative models allow farmers to get their products into retail stores and restaurants that are in search of a reliable source of locally grown products.

“We have a pretty good idea of what our customers want, so we contract with our farms to grow specific products,” says Jesse Selin, director of sales and logistics for the Hungry Turtle Farmers Cooperative in Amery. “Just as a restaurant or retail store would have an agreement with a farm directly, we have that agreement with the farmer and also with the restaurant. We handle all the marketing for our farmers and provide a guaranteed place for them to sell their product.”

Selin says the cooperative also helps farmers stay ahead of trends and customer preferences, and makes sure each farm has the certifications, food safety standards and other documentation needed to be successful in the retail market.

Lake Superior CSA. From left to right: Todd Rothe of River Road Farm, John Adams of Yoman Farm, and Chris Duke of Great Oak Farm. Photo courtesy of Jamey Ritter

Lake Superior CSA is A New Kind of CSA

Another innovative cooperative model allows farmers to sell their products through a cooperative community supported agriculture, or CSA. Single-farm CSAs have struggled in recent years because of competition from companies like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh, says Evan Flom, manager of Bayfield FoodsLake Superior CSA, a cooperative that serves Bayfield and Ashland counties.

“In modern agriculture, you see a lot of specialization – big farms that only do row crops, hogs or whatever, because you can get really good at doing that one thing, and it’s more efficient,” says Chris Duke of Great Oak Farm, a founding member of Lake Superior CSA. “In the traditional CSA model, it’s the opposite. You’re asking one farmer to be a salad greens producer and a potato producer, and those crops require totally different skills and infrastructure.”

A cooperative like Lake Superior CSA not only helps farmers with marketing and logistics, but it also allows them to specialize in what they are good at growing. The 20 producers who make up Lake Superior CSA work together to decide what each member will grow each season.

“By doing that, we’ve built in some resiliency and we have better boxes for our customers,” Duke says. “If I have a bad year with carrots, we’ll have less carrots, but we can put in more of John’s potatoes.”

Photo courtesy of Jamey Ritter

Getting Started With CSAs

Cooperatives often require grant funding to get started. “We’ve gotten a lot of help along the way,” Lloyd says. “It’s wonderful to see so many agencies all working to support new ventures for farmers.”

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection’s Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin grant program provided essential funding for the Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative, which was founded in 2012. Cooperatives also receive support from county-level government, the USDA, UW-Extension, UW Center for Integrated Agriculture Systems, UW Center for Cooperatives and the department to ensure food safety. The $50,000 grant helped Wisconsin Food Hub Cooperative market its early- and late-season crops. This year, the cooperative is projected to hit $3 million in sales.

“The purpose of Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin is to help local food producers and processors sell their products statewide and regionally,” says Kietra Olson, DATCP’s Wisconsin Foods Program manager. “Cooperatives are a natural fit for the grant, because it must be awarded to a cause that has a broad impact rather than funding a single entity. The grants fund projects that will reduce some sort of barrier or hurdle Wisconsin producers face in selling their products.”

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