On an unseasonably mild morning this week, a group of tenacious Upper Valley farmers sat down for the Co-op Growers Meeting, a yearly planning session that brings together Co-op staff and regional farmers. To say the least, this is a very different model from the traditional competition-based method of doing business. Instead of farmers competing for a limited share of the market, our growers and the Co-op work together each year to outline a plan that benefits everyone.
The Co-op’s commitment to local and regional food producers goes back to the origins of the Co-op itself.
On January 6, 1936, about 30 members of the Upper Valley community gathered together to order staple goods difficult to come by during the depths of the Great Depression. The group voted to organize as a cooperative buying club, and 17 families signed on as charter members. The membership fee was one dollar.
The fledgling cooperative ordered bushel baskets of oranges and grapefruit directly from Florida farms. But it wasn’t long before they added local products to the mix. Butter and milk, canned fruits and vegetables, dried fruit, potatoes, and maple syrup all quickly established themselves as popular products in the buying group’s lineup. In the process, these plucky local cooperative retailers, producers, and distributors were establishing and developing a model we still use today.
The Growers Meeting
In 1997, Co-op General Manager Terry Appleby saw the need to organize the Co-op’s local farmers and suppliers into a unified, coordinated group.
In the winter of 1998, the Co-op pulled together the first meeting of local growers, and the Co-op’s annual Growers Meeting was born. Each February, the Co-op meets with a group of area growers to coordinate crop production, planning who will grow specific crops.
The Co-op makes a commitment to buy only from a designated grower while the crop is in season. The grower, in turn, counts on this commitment to plan farm production throughout the year. Through this collaborative system, local producers are paid a fair price for their products. The cooperative template with local growers has proven so successful, it’s been adopted by other co-ops and like-minded organizations nationwide.
“Chain stores, if they carry a local product at all, will tell the grower the price the company is willing to pay, with a message of take it or leave it,” said Bruce Follett, Co-op Director of Business Unit Operations. “At the Co-op, we ask our growers what they need to produce the product, and negotiate a fair price that benefits the grower, the Co-op, and the consumers who shop our stores.”
Thanks to all the farmers and food producers who joined us for another Growers Meeting this year! We look forward to the season ahead.
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