Pop quiz: what’s the New Root’s process for acquiring all the amazing, local, organic produce that we’ve gotten all season long?
A: Spell Casting (all it takes is a little bit of magic)!
The answer, truth be told, is a little bit of both. While spell casting has been the easy and quick part (can you tell we’re ready for Halloween?), it’s the forecasting that is the complicated and long process, albeit satisfying.
Forecasting is the process of working with both the farmers and the individual Fresh Stop Market farmer liaisons. Each market, all 14 in Kentucky and Southern Indiana, has their very own farmer liaison, whose job is to decide what their community is going to get each market. The process starts in January, when farmers must purchase their seeds for the next growing season.
The go between for each farmer liaison and each farmer is Mary Montgomery, New Roots’ Uber Farmer Liaison, who breaks down the forecasting process. “First, we bring in all the farmer liaisons to discuss what produce they think their community (shareholders) love the most. Then we invite the farmers in to tell all of us what they like to grow, what grows well organically in Kentucky. Finally, we all come to a consensus on what to forecast, and we choose the very best farmers for each item. For example, we know Barr Farms loves to grow carrots and they are the best in the region, so we forecast carrots with them. And our farmer liaisons tell us everyone loves carrots, so we decide to take them three times (out of eleven pop ups). It’s really an incredible process of learning what organic farmers need, what the community loves to eat, and coming to an agreement that makes everyone happy. We even come to a consensus across all the markets so that every shareholder gets basically the same product, no matter where they pick up,” says Montgomery. “The farmer gives us their best prices, and I negotiate on behalf of each farmer liaison to set that price for the next season. I try to keep both the farmers well paid and stretch our shareholder dollars so that everyone is well fed. And it works.”
To keep all of this organized, Mary utilizes a massive spreadsheet, which tracks every item ordered and offered, and compares it to the forecast made in January to make sure New Roots is sticking to their promises made to the farmers.
This forecasting process became serious the winter of 2016, when Rootbound Farms approached New Roots with the idea of having them supply five core items for each market. Doing the math, that’s half of the Fresh Stop Market supply. It was a tall order, but both Rootbound Farms and New Roots went for it. “Knowing we could commit to one small family farm, and guarantee them a good living, made us happy. At the same time, they are great farmers and we knew that the food would be outstanding.”
How does New Roots know how many shareholders will be coming, besides looking into a crystal ball? “That’s where the magic comes in. The farmer liaisons look back at the previous year, or if they are new, they estimate how many shareholder families will be coming. Once we set the forecast, we (New Roots and our Fresh Stop Market leaders) all pull together to make sure we implement our community organizing strategy to get the word out and recruit the families. It’s a wild ride, but this year we came very close to our forecast, and for that we are proud.”
Some people don’t know that New Roots is one of the only wholesale purchasers in the region that forecast with farmers and guarantee them a market. “It’s the key to our success,” says Ms. Mary. “Without that guarantee, the risk of growing would be too high.”
Rootbound Farm’s Ben Abel says one thing they’ve focused on in the last couple of years is to tweak their growing patterns to grow crops that people really love. “We’re trying to give people what they want,” Ben says. “Too many weird greens? We’ve learned to lay off those and focus on standard items like kale and tomatoes. We’re learning as we go. Grape tomatoes or slicing tomatoes? People prefer the slicing. Overall, though, it’s been going really well.”
When asked about the variety and quality of the produce this 2017 season, shareholder and volunteer Yolanda Hudson “thought it was outstanding.” “There was a ton of variety, which I enjoyed, because it gave me the opportunity to try new things,” Yolanda says. When asked about some of these new dishes, she gave all the New Roots staff a hot tip: “leek soup is my new thing.”