Producers find a market at school

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SALEM, Ohio – For producer Don Kretshmann, joining a cooperative made sense.

He could sell his vegetables to more businesses and break into a new market.

So when several other producers also expressed interest, Kretshmann and the other farmers near Butler County, Pa., formed a co-op called Pennsylvania Local Organic Works.

Agreement. Slippery Rock University students think the co-op sounds good, too – good to their taste buds.

For the university’s local food liaison, Heather House, working with the co-op sounds like a win-win situation – the students and faculty get fresh produce and the farmers have another outlet for selling their product and hopefully sustaining their operations, which is House’s main goal.

Eating something that has been shipped 1,500 miles doesn’t make sense to her when she could eat the same thing grown by one of the farmers in her own community.

P.L.O.W. Kretshmann’s co-op, better known as P.L.O.W., worked with the university last summer and provided fresh vegetables for the faculty dining room.

The university and ARAMARK, the school’s food service supplier, were pleased with the positive feedback and decided to expand the program to include student dining areas, House said.

Although the university is reportedly still talking with P.L.O.W., House said the organization is cost prohibitive because it sells organic vegetables. The university is also talking with other producers about co-op possibilities.

As an alternative to a co-op, the university is also looking at supporting local farmers through New Wilmington auction house.

House said the auction meets the insurance requirements and has a large number of high-quality vegetables from local producers.

Joining sides. Kretshmann stresses that farmers need to work together.

Large farms have the advantage because they produce more and have more outlets than small farms. Therefore, small farms are disappearing.

Co-ops can have the same advantage as large farms if they work together, Kretshmann said. This, he hopes, will sustain smaller producers.

Requirements. To work with the university, cooperatives must have proper insurance coverage, a predictable ordering schedule, be subject to corporate inspections and approved as a vendor, House said.

Kretshmann said it’s also important for the co-op to be able to match the buyer’s requirements.

For example, when a co-op is selling to a grocery store, it must ticket the produce with the store’s labels and use packaging the store is familiar with.

The cooperative’s quality standards must also be consistent with industry, commercial standards.

Concerns. House admits that producers have concerns.

ARAMARK currently has frequent deliveries, predictable service and standardized packaging.

“I have no doubt that farmers in our area can match them,” House said, but the cooperative will need to be well organized.

Another question producers are asking is who sets the price.

Farmers set the price, House said, however, it is up to university whether it will pay that amount.

This concerns farmers who are worried about getting stuck with their product.

Because there aren’t contracts in advance, Kretshmann said the business is risky.

Producers also want to know whether the university has storage facilities for produce like potatoes and carrots, which last longer.

The answer is “no,” House said.

Farmers reason that if the university had more storage space, they would feel more comfortable knowing the university could buy more produce.

Reasonable supply? ARAMARK offers a large salad bar daily that local producers could help fill with their vegetables – if they can provide the volume needed.

“We’re talking thousands of pounds of lettuce each week,” House said. “A valid question is whether the supply is even there.”

Cost is also a concern, House said. “Cost is definitely an issue, but if quality is that much better, a little more money is worth it,” she said.

Prime growing. Another hurdle is that the prime vegetable growing season is August and September. Classes don’t start until September, so if producers want to provide more produce, they would have to extend their growing season.

For more information about Slippery Rock University’s program, call House at 724-738-2647.

For more information about P.L.O.W., contact Kretshmann at 724-452-7189.

(You can contact Kristy Hebert at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)

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