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Opinion by Scott Zimmerman

Local Foods – Local Opportunities

By Scott Zimmerman, Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union Co-op Specialist

One of the emerging opportunities for producers of all types of commodities is the local food market. More and more consumers want to know the source of their foods. In a survey conducted by IBM in 2009, less than 20 percent of consumers trust food companies to develop and sell food products that are safe and healthy. In the same study, 77 percent of consumers want more information about the food products they purchase and 76 percent would like more information about its origin. Almost half have changed shopping behavior to access fresher foods or better quality foods.

The USDA indentified over 7,800 farmers’ markets in operation thought out the United States in 2012, a whopping 9.6 percent increase from the previous year. Wyoming has 46 operating farmers’ markets throughout the state, with several communities having multiple markets. 

Farmers’ markets are by no means the only option for producers to market locally. Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), where consumers become members and share in the production risk in return for a equal share of the production, is emerging as another popular opportunity. CSAs often deliver their consumer shares to a farmers’ market for easy member pickup. 

The internet has become a great tool to market directly from producer to consumer. Many producers have their own web sites for this purpose. And if you are fortunate enough to be in an area where an online farmers’ market has been established, you have an additional option.

Online farmers’ markets are a web-based version of a traditional farmers’ market. The majority of online farmers’ markets have chosen to incorporate as a co-op with both producer and consumer members. The co-op acts as agent and marketer with pick-up and distribution sites. In addition, they have established order cycles, usually monthly. There are a wide variety of products offered by their producer members for purchase by participating consumers. In an emerging market opportunity, the USDA and State Education Department officials are working to streamline access for producers to provide foods and food products to augment local school lunch offerings.

Direct marketing isn’t for all producers, but for those looking to diversify or expand their marketing opportunities, it can prove financially rewarding. Recent advances in season extenders such as high tunnels and hoop houses have enabled produce production to occur in Wyoming’s climate-challenged areas.

In today’s economy, some consumers are willing to pay a little extra for branded or certified products, but they want to be assured that they’re paying for something different and of better quality. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack has worked to capture this in his Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative promoting local production and marketing.

Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union’s (RMFU) Cooperative Development Center is working hard to match producers with locally grown product for sale to available markets with consumers searching for such products. We have been instrumental in establishing three online farmers’ markets in Colorado and Wyoming. In Southeast Wyoming, Triple Crown Commodities Cooperative (TCCC) is currently serving Albany, Goshen, Laramie and Platte counties with a variety of products locally grown and made, ranging from meats and produce to soaps and hand cream. I’m happy to say TCCC is approaching its first anniversary of successful operations. 

Local grocery stores can also be an opportunity to market your products locally. Big Hollow Food Co-op of Laramie is a shining example of this in action. A cooperative, where members are the owners and share in its successes, is our favorite business structure but it doesn’t fit all situations. LLCs and other business structures have their place.

While the lack of a federally inspected meat processing plant in Wyoming is a hindrance, these efforts to market locally may lead to additional meat processing options for Wyoming producers, whether it is a federally inspected plant or a state inspected plant operating under a cooperative agreement with UDSA. At the direction of the legislature, the Wyoming Department of Agriculture is currently assessing potential interest of meat processors and producers in such cooperative agreements.

Several counties and communities have developed commercial kitchens to aid producers in making and marketing products where rules require a licensed and inspected facility. Some producers balk at having to become licensed and/or inspected, but one case of contaminated product can ruin the market for all producers. In our connected world of today, a negative post on social media can instantly ruin months of hard work to become established, and no one wants to be the subject of a lawsuit over tainted product just because they failed to follow the proper rules and recommendations for processing of your product. 

There are a lot of resources to assist you if you choose to explore local marketing of your products. Our organization RMFU Co-op Center, available at rmfu.org/coop, is one. Others include the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, Wyoming Business Council Agribusiness Division and UW College of Agriculture and Natural Resource Extension. 

As I stated earlier marketing products directly to local consumers isn’t for everybody, but in today’s ever changing agricultural arena, having some control of your market is key to a successful future!