Ten Steps to Establish A Local Food Network[1]

John Ikerd[2]

There are no secrets to success in the local food movement but there are always opportunities to learn from the experiences of others. Communities that have been successful in developing viable local food systems have used similar strategies and have gone through similar steps in the development process. The following ten steps for developing local food networks are derived from such experiences.

1. Establish a vibrant local farmers’ market, if one doesn’t already exist in the community, with explicit support from the people of the community and the appropriate local municipality.

Many communities already have well-established local farmers markets, but others do not. The initiative to organize a farmers market can come from farmers, consumers, or local public officials – preferably all three. All three segments of the local community ultimately must become involved and committed to the success of the market if it is to fulfill its essential function as a key element of a local food network.

Farmers markets are not just places where farmers can sell their products but are also places where farmers can learn from their customers and from each other. Farmers can bring whatever they produce to the market, so they can continually try out new items and discover what works for them and what doesn’t. They can see the quality of products that other farmers are offering for sale, how others display and market their products, and can get new ideas about what might work for them. As they improve their production and marketing skills, their trips to the market become more economically and personally rewarding.

2. Form a “Friends of the Market” organization to promote the local farmers market among local farmers and potential customers.

Community members typically go to their local farmers market initially in search of the freshness and flavor that is missing from supermarket foods. Over time, however, they begin to notice that most of the products offered for sale are advertised by the farmers as being grown naturally, organically, without pesticides, GMOs, hormones, or antibiotics. They begin to ask farmers questions about why these things are important, if they don’t already know. As they learn more about their food, their commitment to the farmers market grows.

Most who attend farmers markets on a regular basis eventually find specific farmers who grow the things they like best. Over time they develop a sense of personal connectedness with “their farmers” and their commitment to the farmers market grows. “Friends of the Market” are organizations formed by local community members for the express purpose of promoting “their farmers and their market.” Such organizations can be very instrumental in securing political support for the market by testifying at public hearings related to market issues, writing letters to the editor in support of the market, or hosting public events at the market to broaden local interests. A Friends of the Market or similar community organization is frequently necessary to transform a farmers market into a “part of the community,” rather than simply a place for local farmers to sell their products, which is instrumental in gaining and retaining support from the municipality.

3. Identify all local producers who are willing to sell directly to local customers and publish a local foods directory.

A farmers market is a good place to start compiling a list of all local farmers who are interested in selling products directly to local customers. Other farmers may have their own roadside stands, have customers who come to their farm, or take orders over the phone or via the internet. Many can be found in national internet databases of farmers selling direct to consumers. Producers of meat, milk, and eggs, for example, may face restrictions that keep them from selling at farmers markets. Some local farmers may sell to local restaurants and retailers, but would be willing to sell directly to local customers, if they have a convenient means of promoting their products to local customers.

Local foods directories are typically developed by local organizations, such as Slow Foods or Friends of the Market. Financial and clerical support is often provided by the local municipality or some other public service organization. Directories typically categorize local producers by the types of products available and the months they are in season or are typically available for sale. Farmers may also be given an opportunity to provide a bit of information about their farms, in addition to appropriate contact information. Some directories include maps of local areas with farms identified. Directories may also include information concerning why it’s important for the community to support its local food network. Various civic organizations can be asked to help distribute directories and to help promote locally grown foods. This step begins the formalization of a local food network.

4. Encourage and support local community supported agriculture organizations (CSAs).

Once the network is initiated, the task becomes one of expanding the number of local farmers who sell directly to customers and the variety of products and local venues where local foods are available to local customers. The greater the variety of local products and local venues, the greater will be the number of people in the community who will be willing and able to buy more of their food locally. Farmers must understand that bringing new farmers into the network at this point will not create new competitors for the same customers but will result in more customers for everyone.

Community supported agriculture organizations (CSAs) are a logical next step for many farmers who want to expand their operation beyond the local farmers markets. CSAs vary widely with respect to the level and type of commitment and collaboration involved between the CSA farmer and CSA members. Their distinguishing characteristic is that the customer makes a commitment at the beginning of the growing season, with at least a partial payment up front, to buy a share of the farmer’s production during the upcoming season. The members support the farmer by providing enough money to at least plant and establish the crop by sharing the risk of an uncertain harvest.

Operating a CSA is difficult, physically and mentally, as CSA farmers must provide their members with a variety of products each week of the season, in spite of the inevitable failures and near failures of various individual crops. However, the upfront financing and risk sharing benefits of CSAs can be the keys to the expansion and professional development of local farming operations.

5. Encourage local restaurants, food stores, and public institutions to buy natural, organic, and other sustainably produced food products from local farmers.

The next step in development of product quality, beyond farmers markets and CSAs, is to produce for local retail markets. Customers at farmers markets may enjoy sorting through all sizes of cucumbers or colors of peppers, but retail customers tend to associate uniformity with quality. The appearance and uniformity of local products need not match the “sameness” of industrial foods, but the expectations of retail food markets are simply different from the expectations at farmers markets or CSAs.

Food stores require greater uniformity and dependability in quality, and well as dependability in delivery. Restaurants demand the ultimate in freshness and quality. Restaurant customers typically pay premium prices for relatively small quantities of food and they expect premium quality. Local grocers and chefs may be willing to vary their ads and menus to reflect locally available products and to work with individual farmers on plans to feature specific items. But they need to be able to depend on local farmers. The demands for uniformity and quality of local institutions – schools, hospitals, prisons – may not be as great as other retail markets, but the ability to conform to specified procedures and schedules may be even more demanding.

Fortunately, there is a growing number of local-farmer, local-retailer success stories from which other communities can learn. Local food organizations, such as Friends of the Market and Slow Food, can encourage their “locavore” friends to support those food stores and restaurants that support local farmers. It is also important to have people involved who understand that it is critical to maintain the integrity of relationships, as well as the quality of products, as local foods move into the higher-volume retail markets.

6. Encourage the development of multi-farm CSAs, local food buying clubs, food hubs and other means of forming continuing commitments between farmers and consumers who prefer face-to-face relationships.

Potential prototypes for the new twenty-first century food system are emerging from multi-farm CSAs and local food buying clubs. Multi-farm CSAs typically are formed by several farmers who decide to market and distribute their products cooperatively, through a single organization. Multi-farm CSAs are able to provide a wider variety of products than could any individual producer – including vegetables, fruits, meats, milk, eggs, breads, and all sorts of specialty products. Having multiple providers of individual items also reduces the risks for CSA members. Multi-farm CSAs can also provide a wide range of buying options for customers, including typical CSA shares, shares for specific items, standing orders, and individual weekly orders. Delivery options may include on-farm pickup, multiple delivery points, or home delivery, with delivery costs adjusted accordingly.

Food buying clubs and food cooperatives are similar to CSAs, except they are typically organized and coordinated by some entity other than the farmers who produce the products. Food buying clubs are typically open to any local farmer who agrees to meet the club’s standards for quality of products and integrity of production processes and professional relationships. As with multi-farm CSAs, food club or co-op members may be offered a variety of delivery options, ranging from purchasing individual items at a local food store to home delivery.

These local food options make a wide range of locally produced foods accessible by a variety of means, with a variety of associated costs, on a regular and continuing basis, in some cases, during all seasons of the year. Still, such organizations should not attempt to compete with the supermarkets in variety, cost, or convenience; their competitive advantage is food produced with ecological, social, and economic integrity.

7. Encourage local citizens to participate in ongoing collaborations – local food councils -- to find ways to make local foods more accessible and affordable for more local people.

The development of a local food network is like the development of a sustainable farm or sustainable community; it’s an ongoing process, not a specific task to be accomplished. The local foods movement may spawn yet another phase of the sustainable food movement, just as natural and organic foods have spawned local foods. The evolution to local foods was necessary to maintain ecological and social integrity, and for like reasons, it may become necessary at some point in the future to move beyond local to whatever comes next.

It is critically important to people who are committed to the ecological, social, and economic integrity of foods to be integrally involved in the evolution of the local food systems. Some state and local municipalities have created local food councils to formalize the involvement of all private, public, and nonprofit stakeholders in the process of developing state and local food policies. Regardless of the organizational structure some means must be devised to keep all interested and affected parties involved in ensuring the integrity of the food system. History has proven that leaving the food system to corporate executives and government bureaucrats is not sufficient.

Sustainable local food networks must make good, clean, and fair local foods accessible and affordable for all people in the community. Over time, with experience, and market expansion, local foods will become more affordable in the local market. However, markets will never ensure that all people are well fed, no matter how efficient the system of production and distribution, as is clearly evident in the world today. Food policy councils must develop and implement public policies that will commit the community to ensuring that all people, regardless of income, have access to good, clean, and fair local foods.

8. Encourage local food stores and restaurants, local food processors, and local farmers to form or participate in local food “values” chains, which link locavores with the land.

The industrial food system is frequently referred to as a food “value” chain; it adds economic value at each stage or link, from production to consumption. The goal of a value chain is to coordinate the various stages of food production and distribution so as to maximize the economic value created by the system as a whole. Profits are shared among participants in the system in relation to their economic power in the marketplace or in the bargaining process. Those with the most power get the most money.

A food “values” chain, on the other hand, defines a cooperative arrangement among all participants in a food system designed to ensure that shared values are established and maintained through all stages in the production and distribution process. The shared values are those deemed necessary by participants to ensure the ecological, social, and economic integrity of the system as a whole, rather than to maximize economic value. The economic benefits are shared among different levels of the system, including the consumer level, based on what is considered, by consensus, to be necessary, equitable, and fair in maintaining the economic integrity of the system. However, the primary objective of a food value system is to ensure that ecological, social, and economic integrity are not sacrificed to economic exploitation at any point in the food system.

9. Create a comprehensive local food network, with a coordinated offer-order, assembly, and distribution system, making food products from all sources available to all buyers on a community-wide basis.

Once the citizens and producers groups are in place, the stage is set for linking the individual multi-farm CSAs, buying clubs, and value chains together to create a comprehensive local foods network. Some existing organizations have already developed offer-order, assembly, and distribution systems that could be expanded into community-wide systems.

The internet serves as the backbone for these systems. Producers are able to go online at any time to list the products they will have available for upcoming pickup or procurement dates and what prices they need to receive for each product. Customers can go online to see what products will be available for delivery, by various options, on those dates, with prices adjusted to reflect the necessary operating costs of the network. Different sections of the network could be designed for individuals, food stores, restaurants, and institutions, giving farmers the opportunity to offer appropriate products to more than one segment of the local market.

The local food network should be designed to supplement and enhance, rather than replace face-to-face personal relationships at farmers markets, CSAs, food stores, restaurants, and other local foods venues. These face-to-face relationships will always be necessary to ensure the integrity of the network as a whole.

10. Link the local food network with other local food networks to provide access to and markets for foods that cannot be produced locally, with the assurance of local integrity.

The final step in development of local food networks is to link the local network with other local food networks to begin developing regional, national, and even global food networks. The goal of the local network is not self-sufficiency but food security – to ensure local access to “good, clean, fair food.” Communities in colder climates need not give up bananas and coffee, they just need to develop relationships with communities in warmer climates who share their commitment to integrity. Communities can send personal representatives to other communities, if necessary, to verify shared values and commitments, and establish intercommunity relationships of integrity. As long as the integrity within and among communities is ensured, the integrity of the regional or global network will be ensured.

This last step removes restrictions on access to foods that cannot be produced locally, while still showing a strong preference for foods made with locally grown ingredients and encouraging community members to take full advantage of seasonally available foodstuffs that can be bought and prepared without the need for extra preservatives. In a truly sustainable food system, a local/global food network, everyone is a locavore.

[1] Excerpted from paper presented at the Wisconsin Sustainable Business Conference, organized by the Alliance for Sustainability, Ashland, WI, April 24-26, 2008.

[2] John Ikerd is Professor Emeritus, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO – USA; Author of, Sustainable Capitalism, http://www.kpbooks.com , A Return to Common Sense, http://www.rtedwards.com/books/171/, Small Farms are Real Farms, Acres USA , http://www.acresusa.com/other/contact.htm,and Crisis and Opportunity: Sustainability in American Agriculture, University of Nebraska Press http://nebraskapress.unl.edu;

Email: JEIkerd@gmail.com; Website: https://johnikerd.com .