Friday, August 19, 2011

Locavores, unite

New partnerships bring local produce to the masses

Express Staff Writer

Roxy’s Market employee Tyler Stewart sorts through produce from Idaho’s Bounty in Ketchum on Wednesday. Roxy Lawler, the market’s owner, said customers are clamoring for more local products, which Idaho’s Bounty provides efficiently and reliably. Photo by David N. Seelig

Local produce in grocery stores like Atkinsons' Markets or Roxy's Market is not a particularly unusual sight for Wood River Valley shoppers.

Atkinsons' has made a practice of partnering with area farmers to give customers Idaho-grown produce, and Roxy's Market has emphasized the locavore movement since its origins in Aspen, Colo. But new partnerships with Idaho's Bounty could give customers even easier access to a wider variety of fresh local produce, meat and other products.

"All of us love a good melon or a good ear of corn, but we're probably not going to go out of our way to get it," said Lynea Newcomer, general manager of Idaho's Bounty. "This way, you can get this super-healthy, super-fresh and super-local food in front of more people."

Newcomer said the co-op underwent a radical shift in its business model earlier this year. Previously, valley shoppers wanting local products through the co-op had to join Idaho's Bounty via its website and pick up items at designated locations on specified days. This option is still available, but the co-op has also started selling products wholesale to Atkinsons,' Roxy's and NourishMe on Main Street in Ketchum.

"It's about convenience and getting those products to a larger audience," Newcomer said.

A larger audience means a steadier client base, which helps local farmers stay more sustainable, as food sales need to reach a certain volume in order for farmers to be able to rely on the market. Grocery stores also provide a year-round outlet for local products, reducing producer reliance on seasonal farmers' markets.

Norma Koefed, business manager for Vee Bee Honey in Buhl, said her sales have expanded exponentially since Idaho's Bounty began placing her honey in Atkinsons' last fall.

"We started with a couple of cases that lasted a couple of months, and now we go through three or four cases in a month," she said.

Local products are flying off the shelves, said Roxy Lawler, owner of Roxy's Market, and it's easier to partner with Idaho's Bounty than to reach out to smaller producers on her own.

"Some of these organizations are so small, it's hard for them to deliver [to the store]," she said. "In the summer, it's a little easier, but when the weather changes and it becomes more challenging, they can fall back on [Idaho's Bounty's] infrastructure."

One challenge the co-op has had to overcome when working with retail outlets is dispelling the notion that they act as an unnecessary middleman. Atkinsons' has long partnered with individual producers on its own, and Newcomer said Idaho's Bounty had to work on "trust-building" and convincing some stores that the co-op could help make their operations more efficient.

"Instead of having 50 farmer car trips a week, we step in and do just a couple," Newcomer said. Department managers can also glance at a compiled list of local products and order in one fell swoop.


Adding Idaho's Bounty into the mix does add an additional cost to local products, however. Idaho's Bounty allows farmers to set a price on their products but sells them with a 30 percent markup.

Nancy Rutherford, owner of Rolling in Dough bakery in Ketchum, said she prefers dealing with Atkinsons' Market directly rather than through Idaho's Bounty, in part because her products "move faster" that way.

Local products already tend to come at a premium, which Lawler said could be challenging for customers on a budget. Still, there is a market for fresh, local food, even at a higher cost.

"People who understand the benefits are usually willing to make that choice," she said. "And a lot of people will choose to buy in smaller quantities, but buy higher quality."

Even with markups, Newcomer said local food lasts longer, reducing the amount of waste and spoiled food and eventually costing the customer less. Some items, such as local organic eggs, are already cheaper than out-of-state organic eggs.

Julie Johnson, owner of NourishMe, said she can sell local eggs at prices that undercut most grocery stores. Springing for local eggs is a no-brainer, she said.

"If you knew what was in your food on an industrial level, you would not feed your children that," she said.

Valley shoppers seem to agree. Both Koefed and Lawler said demand for local products is expanding, and customers come in demanding local eggs and produce. But the co-op's business model depends on continued support from the community year-round, Newcomer said. As demand for the products grows, she said she hopes grocery stores will increase their orders from Idaho's Bounty as well.

"When you have a populous pushing for that, asking for it, the grocery stores will be more committed to buying those products first," she said.

The co-op will be working to push those local products with samples and promotions at both Ketchum markets early next month, in an attempt to promote year-round local eating with the farmers' market crowd.

Newcomer said that outreach throughout all seasons is crucial to keeping local agriculture alive.

"You can't just support them a the farmers' market," she said. "You have got to do all you can do. For those producers close to home, it matters what you decide to do with your food dollar every day."

Year-round harvest

For more on Idaho's Bounty and eating locally all year, search "Winter has bounty of its own" on our homepage.

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