A Fresh Advantage: Co-Op Helps Small Farms Market Produce to High-End Restaurants

Article excerpt

While on a business trip for her off-farm job, Laurie Moore was reading an airline magazine when she came upon a restaurant review of an eating establishment back home. When she returned home to "Woodland, Ala., Moore stopped to see the chef and talk some business. The meeting was the start of a business relationship that allows Moore and her husband, Will, to sell fresh farm produce directly to high-end restaurants, where chefs are committed to "slow foods" cooked from scratch with the freshest, locally grown ingredients.

In fact, the Moores grew their business to the point where Laurie quit her off-farm job to work full-time on the sixth-generation, 65-acre farm ,and cattle operation that has three acres planted to produce. By 2003, their income had reached about $10,000 per acre for that portion of the farm planted to serve the specialty produce marketplace.

Production did not keep up with demand, however. That's when they decided to form a cooperative--Farmer's Fresh Food Network--to help small Alabama and Georgia farmers tap into this growing, niche-marketing trend.

Co-op spreads benefits

Proprietary businesses have their advantages: no board; no bylaws. A person can see a need and respond quickly. Owners can retain earnings. There are many other reasons the Moores could have kept the business for themselves.

"We've thought about the decision to form a cooperative many times while developing bylaws, electing a board and so on," she says. "There are times when another [business] option would have been personally easier for us. But I think the cooperative was the right way to go because it will benefit local farmers. What we've gone through so tar are just the initial steps of putting everything together, but once we're through that, we think it will prove to be a good move," she adds.

The Network is just one example of farmer cooperatives forming across America to meet the needs of small farmers who want to serve specific market niches. In fact, the Network itself grew out of several local initiatives specifically started to help the area's smaller farmers deliver their goods to unique marketplaces.

Marketing bolsters farmland preservation

In a region where agriculture is experiencing pressure from urban encroachment, higher property taxes and limited marketing opportunities, there is a trend of farmland loss, says Cindy Haygood, executive director of Rolling Hills Resource Conservation and Development Council, which operates under USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service. Farmers in the area, especially those with small operations, say they want to keep farming.

This trend resulted in the creation of a locally led farmland preservation effort. It has made great strides in preserving farms and educating people on the importance of farmland preservation.

"But once you preserve farmland, then what?" asks Haygood. "The group decided it also needed to create marketing opportunities for local producers."

That's when they created Cotton Mill Farmer's Market, in Carrollton, Ga., which today attracts hundreds of customers. With its success came more discussions and brainstorming ideas that led to the Moores cooperating with other producers to create the Network to serve their growing list of Atlanta-based chefs.

Through the Network, farmers pool products to market to restaurants, as well as educational and medical institutions. Farms eligible to participate in the cooperative are located in and around the Carroll County region, including some counties just over the state line in Alabama. …