Way back in 2003 a group of vegetable growers approached NYFVI for funding. They were seeking support to develop value-added baked goods for institutional buyers. In 2007, Farm Viability provided additional funding to help the new coop with management, marketing and membership. In 2015, Upstate New York Growers & Packers’ sales reached the 1.5 million dollar mark.
This article was developed for the 2015 NYFVI annual report. More information about the group can be found here.
“Nothing is ever as easy as it seems” could be the motto for the Upstate New York Growers and Packers’ early years. The original idea, found in the 1998 Farmland Protection Plan for Oneida County seemed simple: Establish a food processing facility and producer coop.
In 2001, the CCE office, working with a producer group, obtained a USDA grant funds to determine the feasibility of establishing a production facility and coop, select a site and design the facility with value-added processing space.
In 2002, the producer group made an important strategic decision as they formed the coop. They chose to organize as a sub-chapter T, which meant that members didn’t have to commit all their crops to be marketed through the coop, significantly reducing their risk. The charter members were all established farmers with existing markets for 80 – 90% of their production. Their priority was to market the other 10-20% of their production through the new organization.
At the outset, the group explored the development of new value-added products and large northeastern buyers, after several lessons learned, they narrowed the value-added product focus to institutional markets. NYFVI provided 2003 funding for R&D and recipes for healthy butternut squash cookies, vegetable stir-frys, and tomato-based vegetable soup were created.
Unfortunately, as the newly formed co-op sought to execute the plan for a processing facility, the economy stalled, investors weren’t to be found, and banks were cautious, particularly of a new organization. So a new route to market needed to be found.
Support from Marty Broccoli, the Agricultural Economic Development Specialist for Oneida County, was critical. He worked tirelessly finding service providers that could take the place of the processing facility. Just to make the squash cookies, required identifying a processing facility for squash in Kingston, and a bakery resource in the Oneida County ARC. He personally delivered thousands of cookies—some fresh-baked, some fresh-baked and frozen, and some frozen cookie dough to the schools.
“There’s no doubt that building the marketing and distribution capability of Upstate NY Growers & Packers required a learning curve. However, like most things in agriculture, our patience and persistence are slowly being rewarded. The Coop has helped my farm access retail markets such as WalMart and BJs that would have been tough for Reeves Farm to reach alone. I am eager to see how our relationship with home meal companies and our vegetable soup for institutional markets evolves in the next year.”Brian Reeves, Reeves Farm
However, the group needed more marketing, management, and membership support. In 2007, at what was probably a make or break point, NYFVI provided “bridge” funding to help the organization hire staff. And lessons continued to be learned. In retrospect, the co-op board now realizes that a clearer job description and more oversight were necessary.
Yet they persevered; marketing corn to prisons, cookies to schools and tomatoes to chain stores. It took two years from the first sales call to get Upstate NY Growers & Packers produce into Walmart and BJs. Even now logistics continue to be challenging.
Slowly but steadily the farmers’ persistence has paid off and today, the future looks promising. Key staff is in place, coop membership is growing, and the organization is developing relationships with “home meals companies” the new breed of company that will send consumers farm-fresh ingredients and recipes for dinner. There are also indications that institutional buyers might be ready for the vegetable soup that was developed in 2003.
Plans for the processing facility are cautiously being revisited, as the group continues to wrestle with the question “How much extra are buyers willing to pay for New York State products from small family farms?”