Part of the vision of the Assabet Village Food Cooperative is to empower our members to support the local economy and our local food producers. We hope to educate the public about the producers in our area and connect our Owners (some of whom are farmers) to where our food comes from and the people who grow it for us.
Bolton resident Jan Johnson, who is the former owner and operator of Gypsy Meadows Farm in Plainville, NH, along with two local business owners, Ben Schlosser of Earnest Farms in Bolton and Elena Colman of Crooked Row Fields in Concord, discussed the value of a food cooperative from a business owner’s point of view.
Could you tell us a little bit about your business?
Jan Johnson: I operated Gypsy Meadows Farm in Plainville, NH for six years. We grew organic vegetables for The Food Co-op Stores in Hanover and Lebanon, NH, among other places. Some of our produce included zucchini, green beans, cucumbers, parsley, and kale.
Ben Schlosser: Earnest Farms is located in Bolton, MA and we have been there growing food sustainably since 2012. From June to October, we offer fresh salad and cooking greens as well as cherry tomatoes. Year round, we offer grass fed lamb, goat meat, pork, and chicken. These latter two animals are raised exclusively on soy-free, sprouted grain and housed exclusively in pasture (green grass). This system also produces eggs for us year round.
Elena Colman: My partner Karl and I began our vegetable farm business, Crooked Row Fields, in January 2013. We lease fields from Brigham Farm in Concord, where we had been working since 2005 and 2006, respectively. We grow and sell fresh vegetables beginning in mid-spring and ending in late-fall. We specialize in growing diverse greens and vegetable varieties that you won’t find at a large grocery store.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your work?
Schlosser: We have entered into the lifestyle of farming out of a commitment to clean, equitably produced food. For us, it is providing this service that stimulates the most overwhelming joy. Having a customer cold call me and relate a story about their children’s allergic reactions and restrictive dietary requirements is profoundly motivating to push the dream forward towards a future where everyone can access healthy foodstuffs without question.
Colman: We really enjoy growing exciting varieties that inspire customers to try more vegetables and cook more!
From the standpoint of a local business owner, what is appealing about working with a Food Co-op?
Johnson: From an individual business perspective, since all of your expenses are upfront in farming, you can have tremendous losses. Because of the co-op that we worked with, we weren’t being forced to sell crops at a loss and it gave us more predictable revenue streams.
To give you an idea of how this worked, each year the vegetable farmers would have a January meeting with co-op’s produce manager and we would look at a list of what they purchased, from whom, and how much they paid us for our vegetables over the previous year.
Then a price would be established for the upcoming year’s crop. The co-op might say, “This is what we paid you last year for green beans. Would you like to grow them again this year for this amount per pound?” As farmers, we would then have a ballpark figure in January about how much to grow and how much seed to buy.
From the community perspective, the co-op kept a lot of the economy local. It hired its own employees and was a customer for the local businesses. We hired our own employees to farm the land. The region really branched out into a vibrant, healthy community.
One of our farmers announced one day that she had bought a used car from someone in town. She mentioned how the flow of money passed through four local hands: the co-op paid us for our produce, we paid her for her work, and she paid the person who sold the car. She triumphantly pointed out that if the seller of the car now shops at the co-op, the loop would be closed!
Schlosser: Working with a local co-op is extremely attractive for us because it is a context into which consumers are already looking for foods that promote maximal health for people, planet, and local businesses, which is the nexus of sustainablility. A co-op also gives us the context to have some of the conversations about our products with a consumer who is expressly interested in supporting the three P’s of sustainability (people, planet, profit) without requiring the farmer’s presence for each connection.
Another very attractive part about a co-op is that it gives us the flexibility to be able to sell fresh meats as they are slaughtered since it can promote them weeks in advance and encourage consumers to reserve their product. This can eventually evolve into increased security for a small farm as consumers look forward a whole season or year and request meat volumes that allow the farm to scale its production to meet demand.
Colman: As a relatively new farmer in the area, it would be an incredible opportunity to sell produce to a food co-op that is less than 5 miles away! Food co-ops are generally small enough that they can work closely with small-scale farms like Crooked Row Fields, yet big enough to ensure a healthy market for larger, more regular deliveries than a local restaurant, or the weekly farmers’ market. Food co-ops open 5 to 7 days a week and are a great way to constantly provide the freshest vegetables possible to customers who aren’t able or can’t conveniently come to the farm itself. Also, co-ops are able to buy directly from the farmer instead of a distributor, ensuring a better price for the farmer, and allowing the farmer to make a livable wage. Local businesses supporting each other, making it easier for customers to buy fresh local products, short delivery distances: that’s what it’s all about!
-Interviews conducted by Joe Cioni (Owner #12)
Here are the addresses of the two farms from the article if you’d like to visit them, or you can visit our Local Producers page to find out more about them:
Crooked Row Fields is located at 82 Fitchburg Tpke, Concord, Massachusetts 01742
Earnest Farms is located at 401 Main St, Bolton, MA 01740