Farm Beginnings Profile: The Return of the Middleman

Farm Beginnings Grads Join Forces on the Marketing Front

By Brian DeVore

Even a brief conversation with Tom Cogger makes it clear what he enjoys doing: producing food. And that’s what he’s done on his Maple Hill Farm near Washburn in northwestern Wisconsin for almost two decades. In the early years, Cogger concentrated mostly on produce, but since his son Matthew joined the operation in 2009, pork has become a bigger part of their business. No matter what the Coggers have produced, they’ve found the demand for local, sustainably-produced food strong in the region. But whether it’s through a farmers’ market, over the telephone or via the Internet, marketing is marketing, and it requires time and resources that sometimes could be better spent back on the farm.

“I’ve never enjoyed marketing, to tell the truth,” says Cogger. “Very few farmers do, in reality.”

That’s why these days the Coggers are more than happy to utilize a cooperatively owned “middleman” to promote, aggregate and deliver their products to eaters. They and other farmers in the Lake Superior region of northwestern Wisconsin make up a unique initiative called the Bayfield Regional Food Producers Cooperative (FPC). Launched in 2009 with the help of local University of Wisconsin Extension educator Jason Fischbach and a grant from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture’s Buy Local Buy Wisconsin program, the cooperative has grown from a handful of area farmers to almost two-dozen producers located in the area. The cooperative services around 100 families in the region who have signed up for weekly deliveries of a wide selection of produce, meats and other items. It also does wholesale deliveries to as far away as Duluth, Minn., and sells to local food co-ops, restaurants and educational institutions like Northland College.

The cooperative uses a hybrid of the popular Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model to get food to consumers. One option for customers is a “full-diet share,” which provides a standard box full of a variety of food delivered once a week after being aggregated at a small warehouse on the grounds of the nonprofit Agriculture and Energy Resource Center west of Ashland. Customers are also offered an option of ordering food à la carte. And the choices are numerous—items available include everything from the Coggers’ pork to locally raised beef, poultry, lamb, cheese, fish, fruits, vegetables, baked goods, ciders, fermented vegetables, wines and cheeses.

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Farmers banding together to collectively get their product to market is nothing new. But in a few short years, FPC has become a model for striking that fine balance of taking advantage of efficiencies of scale while capitalizing on individual strengths, all the while avoiding the problems that pop up when farmers are competing for a limited market share.

“I feel that working together helps open up the markets in the area for everyone,” says Tom Cogger. “Marketing together adds value to everybody’s product.”

The success of FPC is particularly exciting for Cree Bradley, who coordinates the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings Program in the region. Around half of the members of the cooperative are closely associated—either as graduates or presenters—with Farm Beginnings, an intensive training initiative that was launched 17 years ago in southeastern Minnesota and which has been offered in the Lake Superior area in recent years. In fact, Jason Fischbach, the Extension educator who helped launch the cooperative, is also a Farm Beginnings graduate. Through classes, workshops and on-farm training opportunities, farmers and other agricultural professionals from the community teach students about innovative business planning, goal setting and marketing.

One of the major lessons passed on in Farm Beginnings classes is that finding consistent, profitable markets is just as important as knowing how to grow a field of greens or a herd of cattle.

“Growing things and knowing that they’re sold ahead of time, that’s pretty key for any business,” says farmer Chris Duke, a founding member of the cooperative who regularly does presentations on marketing for Farm Beginnings classes. “You can be the best farmer in the world, but if you don’t have a good market for it, it isn’t going to matter.”

That’s why FPC is a good model for beginning farmers who are looking for ways to get their product to market in an efficient and profitable manner but don’t have the resources (or inclination) to do the marketing and distribution on their own, says Bradley.

The cooperative members not only share warehouse space, but a walk-in cooler, a delivery van and a website (www.bayfieldfoodproducers.org) that provides information on what’s available as well as a handy way to place orders.

Different Farms, Different Needs

One of the cooperative’s goals is to serve the disparate needs of operators who are at various points in their farming careers—from full-time, established farmers to newer producers just getting started on a few acres. To accommodate this, membership is broken up into two groups: “producer members” and “supporting members.” The first group of farmers pays $200 to join the cooperative. Supporting members (defined as making less than $10,000 in annual gross farm sales) pay $50 to join and are generally farmers who are just getting started or who otherwise don’t have a large volume of product to move. All producers have to belong to a committee, but only producer members are allowed to vote on the adoption of new policies and other management matters.

The farmers “sell” their production to the cooperative and then the final price charged customers is marked-up a certain percentage to cover overhead costs: fuel and electricity to run the van and cooler, insurance, wages for part-time employees, etc.

Members of the co-op say they have to keep close tabs on quantity—making sure they don’t have too many producers bringing vegetables or meat to the warehouse, for example—and quality. That’s why they use the “supporting member” category as a way to not only ease new farmers in, but to make sure they are able to produce high quality food on a consistent basis. That’s particularly importance since FPC customers are paying a premium for food that’s raised using environmentally sound methods.

“It gives us a chance to check them out to see if they’re going to work or not, and they can check us out and see if they want to work with us or not,” says Tom Cogger of the supporting members.

Supporting member John Adams joined the cooperative in 2013. Adams, whose Yeoman Farm produces vegetables on a few acres of Agriculture and Energy Resource Center land, says being able to utilize FPC’s infrastructure has helped him concentrate on perfecting his production techniques as he searches for a permanent location to farm.

“There are definitely benefits to having a middleman for some of those relationships you need to have with consumers when you direct-market,” says Adams, who graduated from Farm Beginnings in 2011. “The co-op lets us relieve some of the sales pressure that direct farmers have.”

Many farmers get into direct-marketing as a way to weed out the middleman, capturing more of the profits between field and fork themselves. But FPC farmers see this collective arrangement as a way to reintroduce such a link in the food chain on their own terms.

Bradley says many Farm Beginnings graduates are drawn to niche marketing, but often find out they don’t have the skill set or personality to consistently deal directly with customers. FPC’s democratic structure allows members to find a middle ground between having full control of their product from field to fork, and allowing someone else to do the day-to-day chores of actually getting it to eaters.

“I do think that there’s room for a middleman in a way that’s still empowering the farmers,” says Bradley. “Through the co-op, the farmers are the ones making the decisions about that middleman or the organizational structure needed to facilitate that work. It’s not somebody else’s decision placing prices and ceilings and quantity demands on them.”

Chris Duke, who raises produce and livestock on Great Oak Farm near Mason, Wis., says the cooperative has been able to open up more markets in the region by taking advantage of efficiencies of scale.

“You can really branch out from, ‘Well, I really only grow enough to cover this little coffee house for their salad.’ But if there’s five of us growing lettuce, well by golly we can plan it out and we can grow a lot of lettuce and we can cover this coffee shop and 10 more,” he says. “And they’re all right here in our region.”

The Bottom Line

So far, the cooperative members say they have been able to avoid competing with each other for customers, thanks in part to the fact that demand for local food in the region remains strong. In fact, as the Coggers and Bradley talked about the state of the local foods market in an Ashland coffee shop on a recent afternoon, a space next door was being remodeled to accommodate a major expansion of the Chequamegon Food Co-op, a key customer for FPC. The farmers’ marketing initiative has been methodical about creating bylaws that address everything from how to grow FPC’s production to what happens when a producer wants to leave the group to how to make major decisions such as buying equipment or hiring consultants.

“When I was on the board we were constantly referring to the bylaws. It’s got to be set up as a sound business,” says Tom Cogger. “With friends, that can be even scarier because it can go bad quickly if it’s all about money. You just have to be careful.”

The Coggers know well the importance of balancing financial realities with the more emotional side of farming. Founding members of FPC, they took Farm Beginnings in 2010-2011 as they were seeking ways to transition Matthew into the operation in a way that was economically viable.

“I think the main thing I got out of the class is you have to make money doing it,” says Matthew. “There’s plenty of ideas out there, but when it comes to farming, you’ve got to pay your bills.”

Looking Forward

As the cooperative looks to the future, one goal is to rely less on the farmer-members to handle the day-to-day operations of keeping track of orders, coordinating deliveries and managing the finances. Currently, FPC pays for four part-time positions—an accountant, delivery driver, a CSA manager and a meat coordinator. The overall operation is primarily run by volunteer committees made up of the producers. The cooperative is getting to a size and complexity where a fulltime paid managerial position may become a necessity in the near future, but for now it’s playing a balancing act familiar to many young enterprises that are experiencing growth: too big to rely on voluntary help to run it, but not big enough yet to pay full-time salaries.

On a day in late May, Chris Duke takes a break from preparing some of his vegetable plots for planting to reflect on how many different ways he’s tried to market his products over the years. To him, the relatively fast growth of FPC shows that both farmers and eaters in the region were looking for a way to more efficiently get local food onto local plates. Whatever the future holds for the cooperative, Duke is confident that their decisions will be guided by an overall goal shared by all the members.

“We all are trying to meet the same end of feeding people good, local food,” he says. “To meet that goal, it makes a lot more sense to have one walk-in cooler and one van, rather than having eight people buying delivery vans, eight people buying walk-ins, and so forth. We’ve seemed to find a way we can still have some individual control while meeting a pretty big overall goal. That’s been the beauty of it—it’s been really cool to see it come together.”

A version of this story appeared in the No. 3, 2014, edition of the Land Stewardship Letter. For more information on Farm Beginnings, see www.farmbeginnings.org. For more on Farm Beginnings in other regions, click here.