This blogpost was composed by Jenny Drake, Editor of the Beet Beat Newsletter.
Author pictured here (far left) with farmers Bree and Ben from Rootbound Farm and community Fresh Stop Market farmer liaisons.
If you have ever wondered how decisions are made regarding what items make it into our Fresh Stop Market shares, those roots are planted long before even the first seeds are.
This December, however, marked a slight change in approach for New Roots and our Fresh Stop Markets. Karyn Moskowitz, New Roots’ executive director, and Mary Montgomery, New Roots’ uber farmer liaison, met with our farming partners and farmer liaisons from each neighborhood to forecast the upcoming season with greater precision. Forecasting is the process of working with our farming partners to determine what produce the Markets would like to purchase, which helps them to decide what to grow.
It has always been part of the Fresh Stop Markets, but this year, with consensus from the Fresh Stop Market farmer liaisons, definite orders were placed with farmers who could then commit their resources with more confidence and accuracy, knowing there will be a buyer for their product.
Fresh Stop Markets are one of the only wholesale accounts in the region that forecasts and makes commitments ahead of time to small, organic farmers.
During the last seven years, Fresh Stop Market shareholders have become one of the largest purchasers of local, organic produce in the region, which may be surprising to some when you consider that nearly 75 percent of shareholders have limited resources. This shows the power of cooperative economics.
“The choice of what to order has to happen in the winter, so the farmers can purchase their seeds and do their starts” said Karyn. “Then, once the produce starts popping up in June, we can look back to that forecast and it can help guide us as we work to order exactly what we forecasted.”
The biggest forecasting meeting was in held in the New Roots office in Louisville, early December with Bree Pearsall and Ben Abell from Rootbound Farm – New Roots’ main farming partner – and included the farmer liaisons from many of the Fresh Stop Markets, to communicate what their shareholders like and don’t like. Rootbound is a USDA certified organic farm located in Oldham County, Kentucky.
Bree, who called Fresh Stop Markets their favorite customers, said the consistency of this approach will help their small farm – which also grows for restaurants, grocery stores and farmer markets – continue to grow.
“One of the big challenges for us is customers who order every week then maybe drop off for four or five weeks and then come back and want a big order and then the next week a small order,” she said. “We really appreciate that you all are going to get a big order of fresh vegetables every week, which means a lot to us.
Bree said Fresh Stop Market orders have increased enough over the years to enable them to work in greater volume. “Like in any business, it’s hard to make the margins with small quantities, but when we are able to get you hundreds of pounds of beets at the same time in a week, it allows us to focus on growing the best quality stuff that we can because we can actually grow in larger quantities,” she said.
Ben said one of the things they wanted to accomplish with the forecasting meeting was to talk with leaders and share information about how they farm and make decisions. “And those decisions for the next year start happening (in December)."
"We wanted to get you all involved in the process because we are growing for Fresh Stop Markets. We are partners, and if you all are succeeding, we are succeeding.”
Making decisions about loans, equipment and employees happens on the farm during the winter. “It’s not just what seeds to buy and what crops to grow, but also how much we’re growing, what’s the volume,” Ben said. “And that determines how many supplies we buy, how many workers we hire, how much money we need to get lined up through loans to make it happen. And that's kind of hard to get through to our customers, which is why we’re excited that Fresh Stop Market leaders kind of get that, understand that this is a whole process that starts now.”
With Fresh Stop Markets placing their forecasts by the end of December, Ben and Bree purchased their seeds in early January and started a number of them in their greenhouse the third week in January – particularly onions and herbs. In early February, they started cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, and greens. If all goes well, everything will get transplanted outside in April. Lexington Fresh Stop Markets—led by the Tweens Coalition—also forecasted their veggies this winter, with some of the same farmers.
In addition to communicating their shareholders’ preferences, farmer liaisons also received a crash course in growing timetables, what crops are possible when, why sometimes there seems to be a lot of the same vegetables week after week and why some things just can’t be grown here in Kentucky. And in turn, the farmers received a crash course in community ownership and leadership of our food system.
“I know one of the challenges is seasonality: we all want tomatoes all the time, and more sweet corn,” Ben said. “We’re going to try to do better with sweet corn. But tomatoes, we don’t have any options, they’re just not ready until July. There’s no way around it. Some crops we can grow successfully the whole summer, and those are the things everyone gets tired of. I’m talking about yellow squash and zucchini, cabbage, bell peppers.”
He also explained the purpose of what he called the “weird stuff.”
“Why the Bok choy, why the fennel? There’s some of this weird stuff that isn’t people’s favorites, but stepping back from that, people would get really bored with the regular stuff,” Ben said. “Injecting that weird stuff really does keep that other stuff from getting tiresome. There are only so many things we can grow, there are only so many things that can be ready at one time. We’re not putting stuff in there to be a novelty, but to keep things fresh.”
And for those who like zucchini and squash, but got a little tired of it last year, Bree and Ben said they are going to try to grow greater varieties to keep your shares more interesting.
Fresh Stop Markets kick off for most Markets the week of June 5th. Go to www.newroots.org for more information.