Meeting to discuss local growers cooperative | 2 May 2018

This audio file is a recording of the meeting of local growers held 2 May 2018 to discuss the suggestion of forming a cooperative to improve outcomes for local market gardeners.

Use the notated timeline included below to skip to the part of the discussion about which you would like to hear more detail.

0:00 Fraser Bayley (Old Mill Road BioFarm and Flood & Drought) provides some background and context for establishing a growers cooperative, from his perspective.

7:09 Kate Raymond (LocalTable) shares her thoughts on the suitability of a growers cooperative to address many of the issues raised by Fraser and accommodate the different needs of farmers in the region.

10:50 Kate Raymond (LocalTable) explains the Farming Together program (currently unfunded as at May 2018) and runs through some very dry information about what a cooperative is as a business structure and how it might operate.

Click here to view the information presented about cooperatives.

19:30 General discussion commences, starting with the question of what the organisation’s primary purpose might be, what form it might take, what else is already out there in one form or another.

22:32 A perspective from fishing cooperatives is provided, suggesting that a cooperative should be commercially based (paid staff), rather than volunteer based (self-managed).

25:08 Kate Raymond (LocalTable) raises the need to conduct a feasibility study to determine if a cooperative would be viable. It would incorporate current growers’ estimates of input through cooperative and also projected input from potential new growers from SAGE’s Stepping Stone Farm project and anticipated demand from the Canberra region (and potentially Sydney).

29:20 The point is made that a cooperative can keep track of changes in market demand and serve as a hub for communication as much as coordinating sales and marketing.

29:51 Fraser Bayley (OMR) highlights that a cooperative should be very targeted in finding markets so that production can be tightly planned and avoid the cooperative being treated as a dumping ground for growers’ excess produce.

32:42 The scope of the discussion narrows again to consider a starting point at a smaller scale. Kate Raymond runs through her experience with her startup delivery service LocalTable. She begins by briefly speaking about a US multi-farm CSA operated as a cooperative (Local Harvest) and then provides some insight into her experience of sourcing produce for LocalTable as well as some of the financial statistics from the 22 weeks of operating to date.

Click here to view the information presented about Local Harvest and LocalTable.

43:14 The point is made that a private enterprise model is restricted in its ability to grow demand quickly, whereas a cooperative is able to seek support funding to enable quicker growth.

44:01 The importance of a prominent highway location as a base of operations is emphasised.

44:22 General discussion of possible marketing opportunities for a cooperative’s output, including taking produce to wholesale markets.

49:07 The question is asked if the need for a cooperative has arisen because the SAGE Farmers Market is saturated. Fraser Bayley explains that the kind of marketing a cooperative could offer is greater than the farmers market can provide, due to limited funds, or any grower individually, due to limited time. A cooperative can provide efficiencies to growers but importantly to customers, such as restaurants, who would like to use local produce, but lose interest due to the current complexities.

51:41 The point is raised that there is still an untapped local market to be explored before exporting to Sydney. Experiences of finding local customers is briefly discussed.

52:29 Supply would ideally ripple out from the local area, but there would also likely be some leap-frogging of finding markets.

53:25 The suggestion is made that at some point some kind of market gardening research centre will be needed to help determine the best crops to grow to keep innovating and expanding the market, perhaps with value adding crops such as oil, when saturation becomes apparent in the future. A cooperative might be the right organisation to fund and undertake this work as growers don’t have the time to conduct that kind of research themselves.

55:06 Kate Raymond raises the question “is it the right time” for a cooperative to form. The point is raised that the incentive to participate in a cooperative might only be there for larger growers, given there is a cost to join. She responds that the advantage of a cooperative model is the democratic nature of it and the cost to participate might vary according to size of the grower, but the level of control is the same for every member, regardless of share ownership. By starting with retailing in the form of something like a multi-farm box delivery service (or CSA), smaller growers can be scaffolded by the larger growers as they establish their market gardens and increase production.

57:47 A strong recommendation is made that having a shopfront open 5 days a week is very important. There is some discussion around this, suggesting that the customer base to support a shop is yet to be determined, also that the SAGE Farmers Market currently serves as a shopfront. It is pointed out that a cooperative could supply lots of different shops. This raises the question of what impact wholesaling to other retail outlets has on margins to growers and the cooperative, but in principle it’s another possible function of the cooperative.

59:13 The question is asked what the catchment of the cooperative would be. Kate Raymond responds that that’s the sort of question that the growers would answer if they decide to proceed with forming a cooperative and points out that this is an example of the need for active involvement on the part of growers.

1:00:08 Some further detail concerning the LocalTable financial statistics that were presented earlier was requested and Kate Raymond responds, stating that bulk of the produce was supplied by a small number of growers, but without the larger number of smaller growers, she would not have been able to source enough food each week.

1:01:08 On the issue of “is it the right time”, it is suggested to ascertain from current growers if there is a current backlog of food. Kate Raymond suggests there’s currently no backlog and that a multi-farm CSA run as a cooperative could be an ideal starting point as a way to scale up. Fraser Bayley is asked if he often has surplus and he responds only when everyone else is growing the same thing and he hasn’t had time to find a market for the product. He also acknowledged the effect of climate on the timing of harvests.

1:02:59 The Stepping Stone Farm project is raised and it is acknowledged that there needs to be consideration given to the projected creation of new growers and launching them into the free market without the means to find buyers.

1:03:54 The need to determine a rough idea of what could be produced in the next year is suggested, which raises the need to conduct a feasibility study. The question about what level of involvement growers are prepared to have during the start up process is asked. Kate Raymond reponds that a steering committee would be required to undertake the research and planning to get to launch stage.

1:05:20 Funding is discussed for the start up phase. Kate Raymond describes the (potential) involvement of Farming Together to help with this phase. She has had an initial phone call with Farming Together and will contact them again to explore options.

1:06:56 Some general discussion about conducting a feasibility study and finding funding to do that.

1:08:37 The matter of how many growers would be needed to participate in a study and how far a study would extend geographically is discussed. Fraser Bayley suggests potential customers stretch from Milton to Bega.

1:09:28 The logistics of how produce would be transported and the use of hubs (existing or otherwise) is discussed.

1:10:17 This leads to a discussion of food miles and to what extent this should be considered in establishing a cooperative. Other issues are raised concerning the advantages provided by localised food systems.

1:11:49 The point is made that more localised groups or co-ops might start up (for example, a Bega group), providing greater coordination of distributing produce and a level of security for growers being enabled to access another market.

1:12:32 A caution is given about avoiding dumping if accepting produce from growers too far beyond the catchment of a group of growers. Kate Raymond argued that a cooperative model, by its nature, leads to better coordination of supply and distribution, and more direct involvement of members, hopefully avoiding dumping.

1:13:19 The point is made of protecting the ethics and values of the local food movement within the operation of the cooperative.

1:13:49 There is further mention of how to think about incorporating food miles into determining catchment for a cooperative. Fraser Bayley mentions that the distance will be determined by economy.

1:14:50 Kate Raymond gauges willingness within the group to proceed and form a steering committee to undertake the work necessary before forming a cooperative.

1:15:55 The suggestion is made that if there is funding available for Kate Raymond to conduct a feasibility study, to which she replies if Farming Together is able to provide funding, it would provide for consultants to assist with this work. Some further general discussion about how to proceed with the process.

1:18:30 A suggestion is made to help determine feasibility through taking on one project to trial increasing production. Kate Raymond responds that LocalTable has already served as a trial at a small scale (20 boxes) and increasing the number of boxes could serve this purpose.

1:20:38 A preference for a trial for a shopfront is expressed, as it provides efficiencies. The cost of rent is raised and using Fraser’s highway block is suggested, however this would not avoid the overhead of rent. It is suggested that a box system is a way to build demand to the point of sustaining a shopfront and will produce less wasted produce.

1:22:05 Some discussion about how to better conduct the box delivery service to determine the demand and communicate that to growers in advance. The point is raised that a shopfront can potentially displace what is already available, such as the farmers market and the local fruit & veg shop, which is very supportive of locally grown produce.

1:23:48 The issue of margins for wholesaling to a retail outlet is discussed again, with one grower (who used to operate the local fruit & veg shop) explaining that it’s difficult for a retailer to make their business viable if they are purchasing a greater volume of local produce at higher prices, such as local growers are currently receiving. It is pointed out that the local fruit & veg shop already can’t get enough locally grown produce and Fraser Bayley provides some insight into the shop’s experience with customers and local produce.

1:26:21 Fraser Bayley and Kate Raymond propose to use the next season of LocalTable (due to start in October) as a private enterprise, but run more cooperatively with growers with a target of 50 boxes. There are some considerable logistics around how to distribute 50 boxes to fit in with growers’ harvesting days and not conflict with the farmers market.

1:28:14 Crowdfunding is suggested as a possible way to raise funds for Kate Raymond to conduct the feasibility study, however she emphasises that she has neither the expertise to conduct a feasibility study nor the time or desire to administer crowdfunding.

1:30:39 Kate Raymond again attempts to gauge willingness to join a steering committee. It is suggested to seek volunteers by email when there is further information following discussion with Farming Together.

1:31:48 A point is made that starting a cooperative, while a great marketing opportunity for growers of the south coast, seems like a lot of work to provide access to local food when there is already access through farmers markets. Kate Raymond responds that in her experience, farmers markets are limited in how far they can penetrate the market.

1:33:31 Kate Raymond mentions that Eurobodalla Shire Council is already in early planning to develop a local food brand, possibly incorporating neighbouring LGAs.

1:34:31 To summarise, Kate Raymond points out that there are a lot of different things around local food production happening within the area and surrounding regions at the moment and that by starting to coordinate now, we should be in a good position to make the most of future opportunities.