A fresh approach to selling produce

May 06, 2002|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Howard County farmers are experimenting with a new way to take their produce a little closer to home - they're delivering.

In a new direct marketing approach, four farmers - and a local baker - have formed a growers' subscription service that they hope will be an answer for buyers who are short on time, but eager to have local farm products.

The Howard County Grower's Subscription Service is a variation of community-supported agriculture, also known as CSAs, in which consumers invest early in the growing process so they can share a portion of the crops at harvest time.

But the service also could become an important business technique for farmers in the county who are struggling to make their land more valuable producing fruit and vegetables than home subdivisions.

A subscription service will create a more stable income, a guaranteed market at guaranteed prices, a wider profit margin and a better ability to plan crops and harvesting times, said Ginger Myers, agricultural development specialist with the Howard County Economic Development Authority, which was a catalyst in the service's organization.

"It's plain and simple business planning," she said. "They get to grow what they're best at, and at the same time, they also get to bid the [produce] prices to each other. They can make more than they would on the open market" selling wholesale.

For the first year, the subscription service will limit the program to 50 employees of Howard County General Hospital, so that the farmers can maintain one delivery site.

If it is successful, the group likely will offer the service to more families at the hospital, or incorporate other businesses and delivery sites. One group in Kansas, the Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance, has grown in nine seasons from 50 families to about 300.

It is not alone.

CSAs have grown in popularity in the United States since the concept was introduced to the country in the mid-1980s, according to the Robyn Van En Center for CSA Resources.

According to the group's Web site, www.csacenter.org, more than 1,000 such cooperatives exist nationwide, 22 in Maryland.

Four of those are said to serve Howard County.

Rules for a CSA vary from group to group, with some supporters lending labor and money to a single farm. In others, the whole group shares in the risk should poor weather, bugs or other calamity eat into the crops.

But the Howard group has local backup suppliers available if its crops perform poorer than expected. It will be the first in the area to deliver, Myers said.

"There's no shopping involved," said Linda Brown, who owns Triadelphia Lake View Farm, and is one of the local growers. "This is designed for people who don't have time to shop."

For $416, which includes labor charges for packaging and delivery, subscribers are fed for 16 weeks with a bag of groceries designed to feed a family of four.

Each bag will include about $25 worth of a fresh fruit and vegetables - some organically grown - freshly baked bread, flowers and items such as potted herbs and recipes, as well as information about how to keep the produce fresh and tidbits about participating farms.

The farmers - each of them experienced market sellers - set prices by bidding against each other to supply particular crops. They charge about as much as they would at the county farmers' market, which opens at 2:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Mount Pisgah African Methodist Episcopal Church on Cedar Fern Court and Thursday at the east Columbia library on Cradle Rock Way.

The service resulted from a feasibility study conducted by the Economic Development Authority on consumer attitudes toward buying local produce. The study, funded with a Department of Agriculture grant, asked residents if they would be interested in buying local produce if it were available conveniently.

The favorable results persuaded a group of Howard farmers to get started. The farmers from Triadelphia Lake View in Glenelg, Shaw in Columbia, Sharps at Waterford in Brookeville, and Jasmine of Glenwood were experienced farmers' market vendors, so they had a sense of what shoppers wanted.

They brought in the Breadery in Ellicott City, which also sells at farmers' markets, and formed a partnership. Now the farmers are organizing the business.

But one Kansas farmer warns that running the partnership is more difficult than the farming behind it.

"There's a lot of logistics involved in this," said Paul Conway, a grower with Rolling Prairie. "You've got to find customers, organize deliveries, come up with a payment system. You have to grow what people want, which some don't want to do. You want to keep people involved in signing back up."

For some farmers, it will require a change in the way they view customers and other farmers, Conway said.

"You're getting a retail dollar, but you have to work the issues as a retailer," he cautioned. "It can work, but it takes a lot of cooperative effort. And many farmers are not ready to do that."

But for Brown, of Triadelphia farm, the work is worth the effort for the peace of mind the subscription service will provide.

"I know my crop is sold. I know it has a home, a market," she said. "I don't have to sit here and worry. Everyone turns a profit. The way we work it out, everyone makes some money."

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