Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Producers and Buyers Cooperative (See pages 37-38 of Rural Cooperatives Magazine!)

Wisconsin co-op to link local farms and institutions The Producers & Buyers Co-op was launched June 12 with an event at the Eau Claire County Exposition Center in Wisconsin. The co-op, which links local farms with institutions, shared an information booth with its business partner, Sacred Heart Hospital. The co-op facilitates buying and selling for farmers in Eau Claire, Chippewa, Barron, Dunn, Pepin, Trempealeau, Buffalo, Clark, Jackson, Polk, Pierce and St. Croix counties.

Sacred Heart Hospital is a founding partner in the project and committed 10 percent of its $2-million food budget to purchasing local food products to help the organization get off the ground. “Having a stable market price allows me to do more long-range planning with my farm operation,” says Darrel Lorch of Lorcrest Farms Inc., in Blair, Wis. Lorch also serves as an ad hoc member of the co-op board. The co-op intends to bring new buyers on board as more products are sourced. It serves institutions such as: schools, universities and colleges, hospitals and businesses that provide cafeteria services.

The co-op is working to facilitate the production and purchase of locally produced: meats (beef, buffalo, pork, chicken and fish); fruits and vegetables; dairy and eggs; other locally produced food and dry goods.

“Co-op stocks are an opportunity to invest in the local community and to support sustainable products, local farms and jobs,” says co-op coordinator Mary C. Anderson, a value-added farmer with extensive direct sales experience. “Support of the co-op also helps rebuild the local processing infrastructure (for processing meats, dairy, etc.), and to expand local food production by providing a stable market.”

The idea for the co-op began in January 2008, when representatives from River Country RC&D and Sacred Heart Hospital met with area farmers at the Midwest Value Added Agricultural Conference and Wisconsin Local Food Summit. Barriers to purchasing local food (including seasonal production, quantity, transportation, processing, pricing and delivery) were discussed, and subsequent meetings focused on how to overcome these barriers.

In June 2008, Sacred Heart Hospital’s CEO Steve Ronstrom pledged to buy more local food for the hospital. A month later, Governor Jim Doyle visited Sacred Heart Hospital to announce the statewide “Buy Local, Buy Wisconsin” (BLBW) grant awards. Doyle chose Eau Claire to announce the grants due to the innovative local food partnership between the hospital and River Country RC&D Council. A BLBW grant was awarded to River Country RC&D to pioneer the best way to get local food to local institutions.

After many planning meetings with local farmers, articles of incorporation were filed last March, creating the Producers & Buyers Co-op. To date, the co-op facilitated the purchase over 26,000 pounds of locally grown product from over 14 local rural communities. “There have been profound changes over the past century for farm families and rural communities; in the 1990s alone, Wisconsin lost almost 40 percent of its dairy farms,” says Rick Beckler, co-op organizer and Sacred Heart Hospital’s director of hospitality services. “It’s our responsibility to buy local food to support our local agriculture industry. We have had an outpouring of warm compliments on our food from patients, our “Meals-on- Wheels” patrons and employees.” (See pages 37-38 of Rural Cooperatives Magazine!)

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