Growing the Food-shed . . .

. . . or the best news in local since unsliced artisan bread 

(Published in Edible Santa Fe, Summer, 2008)

The Cooperative Distribution Center is not, perhaps, a name that inspires, but it should, for the CDC may well be the piece that will grow strong food economy based on New Mexico’s mid-sized food producers.  As a strategy of La Montanita’s Food-shed Project, which aims to buy 60% of its food from within a 300-mile radius of Albuquerque within next 20 years, which in turn would generate some $200 million of local food production, the CDC hopes to realize that vision by connecting producers to the market.

Barely a year old, the vision of the CDC came out of the co-op itself, Michelle Franklin, its manager, explains from her office in the Albuquerque warehouse.  It’s a hot afternoon but it’s cool and calm in the spacious warehouse, not unlike Michelle herself.

“We’ve always done annual surveys of our members, trying to find the piece that plugs a shopper into the co-op. It turns out to be local food. That La Montanita supports local growers is http://www.oakleyonorder.com/ inherent to who we are, so we’ve never thought to pull it out as something special. In fact, it wasn’t a buzz word for us because buying local is something that management has always been in agreement on.”

But local was a buzzword for its customers. Steve Warshawer, who was working on similar project with New Life Co-op in the late 1970s and is now at heart of the CDC’s activities, says, “The emergence of organics as mainstream has caused some co-ops to look back at their roots as member-owned organizations and ask people what matters to them. La Montanita has seen local food rise steadily to the top of member’s concerns.”

So in June of 2007, the co-op’s then general manager, CE Pugh, started talking with Steve about what they could do to support local farming better. Help with distribution, was the answer.  Help take the load off the small-scale food producer, so that he or she didn’t have to spend all their time making deliveries.  In this way, La Montanita has taken up the cause of economic development by connecting the dots and linking urban and rural centers through distribution. Getting food from here to there is one of the big obstacles that burns people out, whether they’re growing potatoes or boiling bagels.  They spend a lot of time driving to get food to market, which is expensive and takes time away from work.

In spite of the successes we see at farmers’ markets, there’s a side to small-scale food production that doesn’t get mentioned, and that is the failure to thrive over the long run. Michelle and CE both note that when tracking the checks they write to local producers, they notice not only the new cheap oakley ones, but also those who are no longer in business.  Steve, who is brutally realistic about the precarious state of small food businesses asks,  “If we’re buying everything a business gives us, and they fail, what’s wrong?   The truth is, farms and other small food businesses don’t last all that long. People change, they get divorced, they get tired, and they flash and burn.” 

 “So basically,” Michelle says, going back to the CDC, “we rented a truck and hired a driver and ran around by the seat of our pants with Steve connecting the truck with the product at the farming end of it and the retail at the other end.”

“Last summer I did five jobs – and my farm!” Steve says.  “I didn’t have a warehouse, but I had truckloads of food. So I ended up using part of the floor of Just the Best, one of the few independent food distributors in New Mexico.” By fall, the owner, Bill Morrison, who Steve regards as the guru of the produce business, said “Enough!”

“So I moved my pallets of potatoes and onions to the Los Poblanos warehouse in Albuquerque for six months, during which La Montanita found new headquarters. They moved into in January then built out the warehouse.” After that, the co-op officially took over the CDC business, with Michelle at the helm, coordinating its various parts.

What the CDC does is help producers on both the distribution and development side.  In terms of distribution, CDC helps move food around, picking it up and carrying it to it’s various end points, thus saving the producer valuable time. Michelle again, “We’re helping some people get their product to cheap oakley sunglasses their markets without taking possession of their product. They’re taking their own orders and for a small pass through fee, we deliver. This keeps the money in their hands and gets the product out there and helps to expand their market. But we also act like usual distributors, buying and reselling product, and we try to keep in the conversation about weather and crops so we all know what to expect.”

The CDC helps in other practical ways, like making freezer space available to Heidi’s Jam for frozen berries and buying organic sugar by the pallet, which Heidi can then buy as needed at a savings. Michelle looks for opportunities to create closed loop systems – take chicken feed, for example. She buys wheat from White Mountain Farm in the San Luis Valley and also goes to Embudo Valley Organics, where Johnny McMullen mixes organic feed for his turkeys.  Both of these items are then delivered and sold to the Beneficial egg producers.   

“When I go to La Loma, I bring feed to Earl Sullivan, who raises eggs.  He gets the egg cartons from CDC, too, with the Beneficial labels, and farmers get produce boxes and twist ties. They go through a ton of boxes. We reuse what boxes we can and recycle when we can’t.”

Among the producers CDC works with are Sweetwoods Creamy and South Mountain dairies for goat cheese, Ed Sullivan, Robert Iverson and Steve Warshawer for eggs, Soaring Eagle Ranch and Taos Mountain for beef, which the Co-op uses in its deli. There’s White Mountain Farm in Mosca, Colorado, for potatoes and quinoa, Aroma Fresca’s herbs, Livity Farm’s gorgeous spinach, and Rasband Dairy’s cream and milk. These suppliers range from all over the food shed’s 300 -mile area, and a truck is out five days a week picking up food and getting it into stores.

Steve has shifted his focus from finding producers to enterprise development, for if The Food-shed project is to succeed, a lot of capacity building is needed.  “I’m trying to make these small businesses sound enough to buy into the distribution center, helping businesses get oriented and situated so that they can be players.” 

Specifically, what Steve is looking for are medium-sized businesses, those that don’t rely soley on farmers’ markets for sales, but are large enough to be able to supply retail buyers. “Small farms are not going to feed the country,” Steve says.  “They don’t create access to anyone but the few who shop at farmers’ markets. Medium-size farms are the key of agricultural future,” and those are the businesses he is trying to foster.

The obstacles to being such a farm or food business are labor and access to capital. “The balance between access and cost are as much barriers as the market as distribution,” Steve says, “so I’m talking to producers about all of the barriers, not just the ones that are easy to address.” 

This is perhaps the most difficult challenge Steve and the CDC faces – to help grow farms, dairies, and ranches to a scale that is large enough to work with a distribution system. In fact, Steve would say that this is the biggest challenge of agriculture that the US faces – the development of the middle-sized business that occupies the place somewhere between micro- and commodity-scale production.

Quality is another area that the Co-operative Distribution Center addresses through the Beneficial Farm brand, which comes out of Steve’s farm and CSA, formerly called Beneficial Farm. Essentially an eco-label that sets a standard for excellence, it is given to smaller producers who aren’t certified organic for whatever reason (too small, too expensive, don’t want to be), but who do want to be certified as clean. Beneficial has become a moniker for regional and small-scale food producers who practice stewardship objectives and sustainable values in a semi-arid landscape, and to those who recognize and appreciate what it takes to build and sustain soils intergenerationally. Those using the brand practice what we lay people would say is organic, but what this really means that in addition to organic practices there’s a farm improvement plan that looks at water use, soil building and soil conservation. These are areas of concern that go beyond the realm of Big Organics.

A third part of CDC’s effort to build capacity is to reach beyond supplying only the La Montanita stores.  To this end it has the licensing capacity to market to larger retailers such as Whole Foods and Raley’s, large catering companies like Bon Appetit, which has its own local-foods program, and huge distributors such as Sysco.  For those farms, ranches, dairies and kitchens that have enough to sell, licensing and delivery taken on by CDC is another blessing, and it makes it easier for the CDC, as well. For those of us who are buyers, it means that we can buy Beneficial Eggs at Whole Foods and have them for breakfast at the Galisteo Inn – brought of the Sysco truck. 

To pay for such activities, which is essential to making the CDC succeed where other efforts have failed, Michelle makes sure that on the return trips form Las Cruces, Gallup and Southern Colorado, the truck isn’t empty.

“An empty truck with no payload is expensive to run,” she explains, “so I would certainly entertain backhauling non-organic onions to someone here who isn’t strictly organic, so as not to have an empty truck.” The money made on backhauling or on distributing products other than those represented by the program’s participants, is what pays for the generosity part of the picture, and one has to think about such practicalities to succeed at connecting all the dots. The plan is for the CDC to be out of the red within three years.

Another player in his project is Robin Seydel. In charge of membership and community development at La Montanita, which means education.  “Those members who still relate to the cheap food model need to be excited and inspired about the possibilities provided by eating locally!” Robin is clearly excited and inspired about local food – and knows why she pays more for it. “It’s the freshness, that I’m doing better by my neighbors and that I’m doing the right thing for the planet compared to the food miles involved in most foods – I don’t want to participate in those food miles – and that the food I eat comes from my region. I love to eat in season and I’m happy with my local foods. That’s what excites me.!”  And so, Robin spends a lot of her time writing and talking and exciting those others who are just discovering the advantages of eating locally.

Sarah Grant has long been involved in northern New Mexico’s agriculture and who was, for years, essentially a one-person distribution company, picking up and delivering foods from here to there from the back of her hatchback, says, “I’m really thrilled at what I see. Both Steve and Michelle are working very, very hard.  I think the CDC is something that can happen because now gas is going up, people do want to support their local farmers, and now is the time.” 

But Sarah also senses a certain skepticism – and conservatism – on the part of farmers that needs to be overcome.  “They’re wary of new systems and it takes time for people to change.”

Perhaps this reflects the difficulties of growing to that middle-level combined with the not so great experiences that farmers’ who’ve done that here in the past. “Things go along fine, then suddenly the price drops, or the orders drop, but the plants keep producing. They’re burned. You can’t blame them for holding back,” Sarah says. “It might take a while to get any wrinkles out. But I’m hoping that people don’t focus too much on the wrinkles and instead look at the larger picture. I want people to see how much potential there is.  Basically, it’s an all around win-win situation.” 

And I couldn’t agree more.

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