Mid-Missouri River Valley Organic Producers Co-op
based in Turin/Iowa
Three farmers in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska once explored joining to create a regional marketing cooperative for organic producers. They would have been collaborating with the Burr Oak Center [BOC] for Durable Culture to research, design and execute a comprehensive project of “perfect synergy”. The BOC offered the farmers competent help to conceptualize and put into place a viable structure, which would have advanced its focus on ecology and education. These four parties’ efforts would have a magnifying effect not only in their local communities, but the wider region and beyond, as this project would have evolved as a workable template for rural producers across the nation and abroad.
River Woods Farm, on the banks of the Missouri River near Sloan/Iowa, consists of 6 acres; Nekoda Farm (Prague/Nebraska) sits on 20 acres; Jordan Creek Farm (Soldier/Iowa) consists of 30 non-set-aside/70 prairie-restoration acres. The BOC’s school and demonstration gardens cover more than an acre of land in Turin/Iowa. While small livestock has been kept and will be again, at present all three farms focus on growing a diversity of organic fruit and vegetables: aronia, straw- and raspberries, asparagus and other crops well-suited to commercial production. The owners of River Woods Farm have been moving into organic truck farming for three years, having already ceased using chemicals for weed or pest control. The Czech-American family that is behind Nekoda Farm have farmed in Eastern Nebraska since the 1880s, but as late as 1990 used “agribusiness” methods; the current owner shifted to organic production 20 years ago. The family stewarding Jordan Creek Farm has worked its current property since 1992, but previously lived mostly in rural settings, where it also raised chemical-free crops and sold part of the family’s produce at farmers’ markets. All three families possess post-secondary degrees and have had careers in teaching, counseling, social work, health care, art, etc. Among them, the partners possess only part of the equipment needed for crop production; they must invest, moreover, in new seeds and plants on a yearly basis. A successful marketing cooperative will culminate in an “equipment library” where members can “check out” equipment for use and return, eliminating much capital input, as well as in the creation of an “intern pool” linking producers with committed, affordable laborers. To lower overhead costs, an eventual goal will include collectively buying seeds and planting stock.
Even if they could connect with ready markets, all three farmers have wrestled to develop ways to efficiently transfer their produce from the site of production to the consumer, and in the process attract the compensation they need to sustain their operations. They have networked with other would-be or existing organic producers in their region who suffer the same handicap facing small-scale producers: were there a feasible, effective marketing structure in place, they’d be able to spend fewer resources on the involved process of selling and more on growing or even expanding their production of crops. Producers would gain, but so would consumers—by having a more readily available and, ultimately, more affordable source of locally grown, organic or chemical-free food. Expanding markets depends upon educating the public on the benefits of eating local, whole food, and translating that understanding into enduring buying habits. Most dominant current habits are formed by the hollow momentum of tradition and norms; to succeed education efforts must make new options seem accessible, beneficial and “easy” for consumers. At the same time, groups such as the Omaha and Winnebago tribes in northeast Nebraska face additional hindrances to making better nutritional choices: cultural traditions, lack of awareness or the funds, etc. This project will reach the Winnebagoes through a growing partnership with the Whirling Thunder Wellness Program, which confronts obesity, diabetes and related ailments.
With rich river-bottom silt soil and immediately neighboring Loess Hills topography, the Mid-Missouri River Valley (home to just under 2 million people, residing from Nebraska City/NE to Yankton/SD) has rare potential for both small- and large-scale organic food production, as well as local marketing. Already, numerous small operations struggle, individually, to raise quality produce for bottom-up markets. An organized, cooperative marketing structure is missing, though, thus severely inhibiting the expansion of both the size and number of organic producers in the region. Without concerted efforts, this situation is unlikely to change very fast, very soon. An effective project will serve as an antidote to producers’ isolation and, by varied means including clear-focused education, connect them, their goods or services with consumers.
For these reasons and more, the three family farms are forming the Mid-Missouri River Valley Organic Producers Co-op (MORIVA). These primary partners—later to be joined by other producers—will work with the BOC (in the geographic center of the Mid-Missouri River Valley) to secure the paid or volunteer staff needed to adequately research a cooperative marketing structure that consists of diverse sales methods, then create it in physical form and oversee its initial operation, which will market local produce or services mainly through:
1.) a central, three-story collection/storage/distribution and retail facility for organic-/locally-grown produce or complementary wares at the Center’s sites in Turin and Castana/Iowa;
2.) a “buyers’ club” to provide both members and the larger public access to whole-grain, organic and related products that aren’t [currently] produced in the Mid-Missouri River Valley region, at prices under what “big-box” chains offer in their “natural” sections;3.) the innovative Fresh Express, a “whole-foods market on wheels” housed in a retrofitted, cooking-oil and solar-powered school bus, modeled after two existing, highly successful templates—two BUS-eums that have taken Midwest-/WWII-narrative-history exhibits to over 165,000 people in 18 states, and received numerous awards or citations (see BUS 1 or BUS 3)
4.) weekly E-bulletins from Labor Day to Memorial Day, and twice-weekly ones in June, July and August, listing for subscribers what crops or livestock are ready for harvest, at which member farms, where and at what price (contact info, maps and directions will be provided); and
5.) special events, programs or projects to increase the visibility and use of, and easy access to locally produced organic or chemical-free crops, such as: whole-food fairs; cooking classes using only local vegetables, fruit, dairy or meat; assisting school-lunch conversion to whole foods, etc.
In addition to marketing, many current or would-be producers cite difficulty in financing seeds or plants and equipment needed for production and harvesting, and the labor required to execute each stage of organic farming, as the main disincentives for undertaking or expanding organic production. While the project covered by this grant does not include them directly, subsequent aspects of cooperative organic production—along with marketing—that the BOC and its partners plan to support will consist of creating an “equipment library” where producers can “check out” and return equipment, as well as an “intern pool” to connect committed workers with producers. Collectively buying seeds and planting stock will remain an enduring goal, until fully realized.
In March 2010 the BOC will open a new school for organic gardening/farming, alternative-energy use and [rural] community [re-]building, with resident staff and interns, demonstration sites (a chemical-free garden, market space, etc.) and both on-/off-site educational programs. The challenge of marketing organic produce collectively will comprise a central focus of not only resident, but also off-site interns (those from nearby colleges/universities, or other backgrounds) who sojourn at the BOC for various lengths of time. The focus of research into marketing will consider at least three specific aspects: first, the uniqueness of hills/river-bottom landscapes and its impact on what can be grown, as well as marketed, within a two-hour drive of Turin. Second, how learning within the scope of the larger project takes place on at least three levels. Farmers learn to become more effective organic producers; interns learn how to become organic farmers or “support team” members; and the consumers the project reaches become more informed about the food they eat, its impact on them, from where their food comes and why that matters. Third, Mid-Missouri River Valley realities involving climate, social geography (metro [Omaha] and rural, Native and European or recent-immigrant backgrounds, etc.) and economics dictate what marketing options are viable—or not: stationary shops vs. a mobile market-on-wheels, farmers-market stalls, internet sales, U-pick, CSA subscriptions, on-farm or direct restaurant/institutional sales, community-kitchen use, value-added or “buy local” campaigns (“logos and promos”), etc.
We seek to not reinvent wheels: serviceable models exist nearby, and will be fully consulted. (We will review closely past SARE projects to “recycle” ideas and “test” our own proposals.) Already we have consulted with the Woodbury County [north of the BOC’s own Monona County] Department of Rural Economic Development, which has earned international, as well as national recognition for its efforts to facilitate both local organic production and marketing. Iowa State University’s Sustainable Agriculture/Leopold Center programs and Practical Farmers of Iowa (all in Ames) are only a couple close resources—but the list is long and diverse. We intend to work with—to cite a few—the Iowa and Nebraska Food Cooperatives, the Center for Rural Affairs, Local Harvest... The three primary-partner farmers, BOC staff, interns and others will locate and process a variety of resources and information about expanding organic-produce sales through various means, but ultimately through cooperative marketing. They will interview agricultural agents, existing producers and retailers, academics and others. The results of such extensive research will be continually distilled and translated into forms useful to both specialists and lay, and made accessible via TRACES’ website, publications, BOC programs, classes and workshops, and presentations given by the researchers. Education is the BOC’s central mission.
Outreach is a core component of this project and inherent to it. Retail spaces at the BOC and in the Fresh Express bus will include a café where patrons, producers and visitors can spend quiet time perusing related journals and books (either for reading or purchasing). Both the stationary and the mobile shops will include space for community bulletin boards, as well as didactic panels featuring, for example: the benefits of eating local organic produce; weatherizing one’s home, place of work or worship, school, etc.; energy conservation and alternative-energy use; ways to strengthen family and community bonds; social or cultural alternatives to television or computer games. (The Whirling Thunder Wellness Program’s administration already is keen to bring the Fresh Express and related programming to the Winnebago reservation.) Weekly E-bulletins and more substantial monthly or quarterly print or E-newsletters will contain similar information.
The Burr Oak School will offer related instruction in the form of either serial classes (not only for resident interns) or one-time special workshops or even conferences, open to the public. As the 501 (c)(3) educational organization that sponsors the BOC, TRACES’ website will broadcast information from this highly collaborative project not just to farmers interested in organic food production, but to the growing segment of the public concerned about what it eats, how it uses energy and how it lives. Tumultuous times beg for creative alternatives—and we can offer them!
Both the stationary and the mobile shops, as well as other aspects of this comprehensive project, will have a singular effect on the region’s rural life. Locally, the stationary shop will give new focus to community life in Turin and Monona County—which has the oldest population of any of Iowa’s 99 counties: 65% of its residents are over the age of 65! And, the Fresh Express will bring activity, new energy and options to residents of small towns from Yankton to Nebraska City. In so many ways, this project advances numerous future goals that TRACES, the BOC and our growing list of partners have long been pursuing. Collaboration between Mid-Missouri River Valley farmers and the BOC is a poster child for a “win-win relationship” and will beneficially impact the environment (e.g., energy saved by not importing produce from California or other faraway points, oil not used in pesticides or herbicides, the improved health of consumers, etc.).
In this project “assessment” and “evaluation” arise differently. The three collaborating farmers, in conjunction with BOC staff, interns and Board of Directors members, will assess the strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures of this cooperative marketing structure mainly through face-to-face consultations, intra-group and public discussions, record analysis, etc. The resultant assessment will encompass quantitative analysis. The public, on the other hand, will evaluate the same—but with a qualitative view—through surveys, professional reviews, on-line and real-time forums, and other means. For the sake of this project, non-residential interns and collaborating academic advisors/instructors will be asked to submit quantitative and qualitative evaluations.
Both “assessments” [with quantitative values assigned to documentable components] and “evaluations” [with qualitative sensibilities centrally present] will consider questions such as:
1.) What increases in volume of or revenues from organic-produce sales can be documented as resulting from cooperative marketing? What dollar values can be assigned those sales increases? In monetary terms, how has a cooperative marketing approach to selling organic produce facilitated or inhibited producers’ cash flow, capital savings or accumulation, or other financials?
2.) What relationship exists between the amount of fiscal capital and “social capital” (volunteer hours, in-kind donations, etc.) invested in this project, versus the dollar value of sales generated?
3.) In what ways has a cooperative-marketing structure enhanced—or compromised—the ability of organic producers to produce, or the ability of consumers to appreciate, locate and/or purchase organic produce? Are any new buying habits sustainable or only short-term “novelty purchases”?
4.) How much less energy have producers consumed, due to shared marketing practices? How much less energy have consumers of these producers’ goods or services used, due to centralized marketing facilities? How might energy usage by both groups be cut further, and to what degree?
5.) How have family, social or other non-material resources and bonds been enhanced—or diminished—by this project? How has it impacted: producers, consumers and participating interns/staff/others? In what ways might this project be successfully replicated by others?
Both assessment and evaluation efforts will be enhanced by the use of print or electronic documentation, photos or audio-video recordings, etc., as well as on-line/digital distribution.