Food co-operative plays matchmaker by linking local farmers with locavores

| Agriculture, Business, Community |

Good things grow in Oklahoma, including an idea
that has inspired a co-op connecting Niagara’s farmers with the
region’s locavores.

The brainchild of Yvette O. Plentai, project manager for the
Niagara Agritourism Centre, and aptly named the Niagara Local Food
Co-operative, it’s a virtual market for anyone wanting to eat locally
produced food.

"The whole issue is that farmers and people who have small
business are so used to working 365 (days a year) that they don’t come
up for air and they can have problems with marketing," Plentai said.

To help, twice a month starting this fall, the co-op will
allow producers to post online what crops they have available.
Consumers have a week to place orders over the Internet, paying the
farmer via PayPal.

Growers will then bring their produce to a designated
distribution centre, where it will be sorted by volunteers before going
to customer pick-up sites throughout Niagara.

In the spirit of a co-op, farmers and consumers will pay a
membership fee. To cover operating costs, producers will also be
charged for selling through the co-op, while locavores will pay five
per cent for using the service.

The inspiration came to Plentai from an Oklahoma co-operative
run in a similar manner. What started off with a handful of growers has
morphed into a statewide operation projecting sales of more than $1
million by 2010.

Plentai, who visited Oklahoma in April to learn more, envisions
the Niagara Local Food Co-op capturing a large following of both
farmers and customers.

"The problem is going to be whether producers are producing enough for the co-op," she said.

As such, Plentai sees the co-op providing opportunity for more
than just farmers who are already established. It will also appeal to
anyone with a parcel of land – big or small – and an entrepreneurial

"It almost becomes like an economic propeller," said Plentai,
who is recruiting grower members now. "I’m hoping that people will go
back to farming and make a livelihood out of it."

Albert Witteveen, president of the Niagara North
Federation of Agriculture, said farmers are starting to realize the
business opportunity that is local food.

The Grassie, Ont., poultry and fruit farmer plans to shift his
own operation to include a garden market to sell his wares. "Farmers
are seeing that it’s not fluff and will make investments toward that," he said.

"It gives farmers an option – smaller to medium-sized agriculture producers – to service that smaller to medium-sized market."

Witteveen, who sits on Niagara Region’s agricultural task force,
said the groundswell of interest in local food has prompted the task
force to establish a subcommittee to co-ordinate the efforts of
locavore-oriented organizations, such as the Niagara Local Food Co-op
and the Niagara Culinary Trail.

Plans are also afoot to develop a food procurement policy that would see regional institutions buying local food.

"Instead of everyone going off in their own direction … we’re
working collectively," Witteveen said. "There’s many things going on,
and it’s good to see things co-ordinated."

For more information, contact Plentai at 905-714-0491.