by Margaret leRoux
Photographs by: Katie Noble
Opening day at most local farmers markets is still months away, but folks in Central Massachusetts are already enjoying farm-fresh produce and meat. in fact, they have been all winter, thanks to a new online food cooperative network that links them to small farms throughout the region.
Members of the Massachusetts local Food Cooperative (Mass local Food) can buy locally sourced vegetables, meat, chicken, artisan cheese and all-natural baked goods—to name just a few of the products—every month of the year. ey go to the website, check out what’s for sale and fill an online shopping cart. on the first Friday of each month, products are delivered to a distribution site in Westminster where volunteers sort and fill orders. Members of the co-op pick up their items at one of four additional locations in the neighboring towns of Berlin, Holden, Sterling and Worcester.
The online co-op, first in the state, has been growing steadily since it launched in June 2009 with 40 members, including a couple of small farmers, a baker and a coffee roaster. Mass local Food now has over 270 members with more than 24 local farms selling products through the co-op.
“I like knowing where my food comes from,” says Colleen Coughlan, a co-op member from Fitchburg. The mother of a teenager and a 4-year-old buys “a lot of roasts and hamburger for chili. if i can get healthy food into my family, i feel much better about their health,” she says.
Colleen also likes the one-stop shopping aspect of the online food co-op. “There is such a variety of products. i buy everything from produce to handcrafted soaps and even all-natural treats for our dog,” she says. Another plus: the ability to check out the source of her purchases. The co-op links customers to farmers’ websites and the order form allows them to send a message if they have a special request.
For farmers like Andy and Kerrie Hertel, who raise cows, pigs and chickens on their 49-acre Maple Heights Farm in Westminster, the coop provides an important source of customers. Finding people who are willing to pay $5—and a lot more—per pound for grass-fed beef and pastured pork is a challenge for small farmers who rarely have enough time for marketing efforts.
Connecting the two groups—farmers and customers—was the goal when Kelley O’Connor got the idea for Mass local Food in 2006. The software engineer and single mom was frustrated in her attempts to find local sources of produce and meat for her family. “I was driving all over the place,” Kelley says. “it wasn’t very sustainable.”
At work, assigned to the personal computer help desk, “waiting for the phone to ring, I had plenty of time to do online research,” she says. Kelley discovered an online food co-op in Oklahoma whose founder offered to make the software available to anyone wanting to start a similar organization. She signed up and went to a conference in Oklahoma City to learn more. “I was the only one there from east of the Mississippi,” Kelley says, “and I was the only individual; everyone else was sponsored by a group or organization.”
Back in Massachusetts, Kelley crisscrossed the state talking about her vision of an online market connecting local farmers with local customers. She set up information tables at town fairs, spoke at churches and community organizations—any group she could persuade to invite her. She collected email addresses and in two years built a list of more than 500 individuals.
“People were interested, but no one stepped forward to help organize. i had no steering committee,” Kelley says. Discouraged, she was ready to give up when she met two dynamic women who helped get the online co-op up and running. Kerrie Hertel had been searching for ways to market the meat she and her husband were raising. When she read an article in a local newspaper about Kelley’s plans for a food co-op, it dovetailed perfectly with her own marketing efforts. Sheryl Vaillette, a community activist from Westminster, was trying to get people to join a “buy local” campaign.
The two women shared their resources with Kelley and contacted farmers and artisans throughout the area, encouraging them to join the online co-op. Mass local Food started as a pilot project in May 2009, based at the Westminster Farmers Market where Kerrie is the manager. Along the way, several others provided assistance. Students developed a project plan and created a survey targeting farmers who could sell through the co-op. A lawyer provided pro bono assistance with articles of incorporation and bylaws.
At summer’s end and the closing of the farmers market, Sheryl helped Mass local Food secure a sorting spot at a historic building in Westminster: aptly, the Finnish Farmers Co-op building. by the end of 2010, the co-op had outgrown that space and was offered bigger quarters at Johnson & Sons poultry farm in Westminster.
On the first Friday of the month, the three women are at the hub of a wheel of volunteers who sort orders as they are delivered. Early in the day, Kerrie supervises the setup, Sheryl and her husband, Dick, are in charge of meat. Kelley checks in the rest of the producers. As sellers arrive with their cases of frozen meat and chickens or boxes of produce and baked goods, invoices are checked to make sure customers get what they ordered. Everything is kept chilled or frozen as needed in coolers.
As orders are dropped off early in the afternoon, sellers are paid on the spot. Mass local Food’s one-time membership fee of $50 enables the co-op to pay producers in such a timely fashion. later in the day, when customers get their items at pickup sites, they pay by check. There is no cash involved.
As the co-op has grown, there have been relatively few mishaps. When a farmer’s truck broke down and Kelley couldn’t get to Westminster in time to deliver his orders, “we scrambled to re-do invoices while checking in other farmers and paying them,” she says. “Our biggest challenge is time,” adds Kerrie, who is the co-op’s contact person for producers. She’s the one they call or email with questions or problems. “i spend between half an hour to three hours a day on co-op issues,” she says. Kelley points out: “it can be overwhelming sometimes. There are so many issues to resolve and ideas for ways to expand that our to do lists are never ending. This could be a fulltime job.” The rewards are connections they’ve made between local farmers and people who want to buy their products. “I’m amazed at what we’ve accomplished,” says Kelley. “We had $7,000 in sales last November and 90% of that went to local farmers.”
Sheryl points out the growing number of people who are buying local. “I’m proud that I had a hand in bringing healthy, sustainable food to people and I’m proud of the relationships we’re building,” she says.
For members like Colleen Coughlan, buying local means she breezes through the supermarket without stopping at the meat counter. “i have to admit, i feel a little superior when i do it,” she says. to learn more or join Mass local Food, visit www.masslocalfood.org.
Margaret LeRoux writes about people, places, ideas and food from Central Massachusetts, where she also cooks with fresh ingredients from Mass Local Food. You can read her articles at www.margaretleroux.com.