A look at Friends & Farmers Coop’s upcoming online market

Posted by Anna Lombardo on 10/31, 2014 at 08:00 AM

A look at Friends & Farmers Coop’s upcoming online market

Local food lovers in the Central Pennsylvania area have many options when purchasing their groceries. In addition to various local food vendors that occupy downtown locales, farmers markets like the Downtown Farmers’ Market and the North Atherton Farmers Market and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms take advantage of the (relatively) nice fall, spring, and summer weather to grow and sell an even wider selection of local foods.

Friends & Farmers Cooperative will soon add another option to the mix: an online farmers’ market offering locally produced vegetables, fruits, dairy products, eggs, meats, fish and baked goods for online pre-ordering and one-stop customer pickup. Organizers are aiming to open the market for the first group of participating vendors to update their available inventory on November 19, for customer ordering to begin November 21, with first pickup on Tuesday, November 25– just before Thanksgiving.

The launch team has been working hard since the interim board of directors approved the online market budget in early September: learning how to use Local Food Marketplace market management software, finding a first distribution location at Good Shepherd Roman Catholic Church in the Grays Woods neighborhood, obtaining operating licenses and insurance, and recruiting participating vendors and customers.

Friends & Farmers mission is “to open a member-owned, cooperative grocery store in State College, Pennsylvania that will specialize in local, sustainably produced products.” By gathering farmers’ products and putting them all into one convenient location, Friends & Farmers hope to make local food even more accessible, especially for those who – due to work and school schedules or other reasons, are unable to attend the various farmers markets held in the area or make good use of CSA shares

“We’re not primarily aiming at people who are already going to farmers’ markets or purchasing shares in CSA farms,” says Katherine Watt, interim board treasurer and member of the online market launch team.  “We’re looking at serving that next layer of people who can’t make visiting farmers markets or using CSA shares work for their households.”

While ultimately they hope to establish a physical grocery store—Watt comments that she “would like to see it within the next two years”—the online store poses a lower financial risk while offering an excellent small-scale business management learning opportunity for the co-op’s lead volunteers. Most of the co-op’s lead volunteers don’t have business experience but are passionate about local food.

“We’re not sure how much capital we’ll need for the brick and mortar store, how to put the financing together, how to plan renovations and manage a staff and a large inventory of perishable foods,” Watt says. “There are a lot of moving parts.”

They are, however, actively learning the ropes and engaging the help of volunteers who offer specific services. Watt tells me that, for example, volunteer architects have made sketches of what the grocery store might look like.

The co-op continues to enlist members; in fact, the number of member households recently passed 280, a figure that has been growing since the Friends & Farmers membership campaign kicked off in March 2014.

Friends & Farmers Co-op emerged from a November 2011 harvest potluck hosted by Spring Creek Homesteading Fund (founded earlier that year by Watt, along with Joshua Lambert and Dana Stuchul.)

The dinner was advertised as an opportunity for local food lovers to share their ideas for strengthening the local food system. The most popular idea proposed that night was to start a food cooperative in State College.

At a follow-up potluck in January of 2012, Sarah Potter and Daryl Sinn led the formation of a steering committee. The steering committee then connected with the Penn State Rural Economic DevelopmentClinic, launched that same month by Ross Pifer at the Penn State law school. In March 2013, the steering committee completed the incorporation process and became the interim board of directors, serving until the first Annual Meeting held last month to elect the first permanent board.

The online market’s launch phase vendors are mostly producers who sell at the Tuesday Boalsburg Farmers Market, which moves indoors for the winter season, to enable convenient product pickup by market organizers. The items will be transported to Good Shepherd for packing into customer orders, brief storage in the walk-in cooler and freezer, and then customer pickup Tuesday late afternoon and early evening. However, as the market manag ers gain experience and the customer base grows, more producers will be invited to sell through the online market.

Another part of the launch team’s work has been to define what “local” means.

“We’ve decided to focus on selling products produced at farms and processing facilities within a 100-mile radius of State College,” Watt says.

Products will be labeled with the name and location of the producers, so that customers can use a narrower definition of local as they wish. Products will also be labeled with production practices, such as certified organic, organic but not certified, and conventional, so customers can make informed choices in their shopping.

The online market will be open to anyone for shopping (after a brief trial phase with a limited customer pool). However, Friends & Farmers Cooperative members who have invested in the business by purchasing equity shares ($300 investment, payable at one time or through installment plans) will pay a lower price for online market goods than non-members.

Co-op members receive other benefits as well: voting rights at Annual Meetings where co-op governance decisions are made; discounts at 40 Local Loyalty partner businesses; and patronage dividends when the co-op makes a profit.

The convenience of being able to shop for a wide array of local foods right from your own home for one-stop pickup is a potentially transformative endeavor that will hopefully provide additional business for local farmers, who often get lost in the era of huge food distributors. May the co-op serve to remind us, as all local food producers do, that whenever possible, we should seek quality over quantity.

For more information about Friends & Farmers Online Market – or to get involved as a volunteer -  check out the FAQ page at http://www.friendsandfarmers.coop/2014/09/welcome-friends-farmers-online/ or email .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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{name} Author: Anna Lombardo

Bio: Suburban Philadelphian English major at Penn State Avid learner, runner, and eater

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