Author: Lauren Gwin, Associate Director, OSU Center for Small Farms & Community Food Systems with Elise Higley and Wendy Siporen, THRIVE
Publish Date: Winter 2015
Southern Oregon has a vibrant local food scene, with a wide array of small-scale, organic, and sustainable farms selling direct to consumers via farm stands, farmers markets, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares. While some sell to local restaurants and through natural food co-ops, those opportunities are somewhat limited.
Some small farms are looking beyond direct markets, exploring new and expanded wholesale marketing and distribution as a way to reach new customers. The Rogue Initiative for a Vital Economy (THRIVE) has teamed up with OSU Small Farms in Southern Oregon to help these farmers figure out if and how wholesale could work for them.
After a year-long community food assessment, THRIVE launched the Rogue Valley Grown project to address market saturation at farmers markets and to satisfy the demand for local food where customers are already shopping: grocery stores.
This past summer, Thrive’s Elise Higley convinced several local retailers to feature produce from local farms. Elise coordinated with farmers – in some cases, delivering produce herself – and provided in-store displays, media coverage, and cooking demos.
As Elise explains, “For the stores, being part of the pilot project with Rogue Valley Grown means giving locally grown produce first priority when it’s available. They are all pretty committed to trying to make this work for both parties. The retailers feel good that they are making a difference in the local food movement.”
In early December with the support of a USDA Rural Business Enterprise Grant, the team brought 20 small farmers to the Willamette Valley for a tour of two farms that have been mainstays of the local food movement for decades: Denison Farm and Persephone Farm. Tom Denison, Elanor O’Brien, and Jeff
Phalen told their stories, showed the Southern Oregon farmers their operations, and answered questions about how to choose the right crops to sell wholesale, smart ways to scale up, cautionary tales about wholesale markets, and scale-appropriate processing equipment. The farms also spent an evening with OSU’s Tanya Murray learning about practical ways to track production and marketing costs, to make sure their decisions will lead to profitability.
The southern Oregon farmers were inspired and excited by the tour. “As an owner of a small farm,” said Chad Giffin Gates, of Middle Rogue Farm in Grants Pass, “I was inspired to focus on a couple of crops that I do really well for wholesale and then think outside the box on how to best market and distribute them.”
While the farmers had heard plenty on the tour about the challenges of wholesale, they were not deterred and spent the long drive home brainstorming how to collaboratively tackle the wholesale market in the Rogue Valley.
What’s next for the project? Elise is already working with local retailers for Rogue Valley Grown’s second season, aiming for higher sales volumes and improved efficiency. This season, Thrive will be using a new Local Food Marketplace crop planning module with three grocery stores to estimate purchasing volumes and timing of each crop, allowing farmers to better plan their season and improve consistency of availability.
Thrive is also preparing to launch a wholesale-only online ordering platform using the Local Food Marketplace software that will allow buyers to see all locally available products in one convenient location.
“Restaurants are really excited about the new ordering option,” says Thrive Director Wendy Siporen. “We’re looking forward to the software giving us better data about the quantity and timing of sales so we can strategize ways to fill in gaps in local availability.”