Once a month a delivery truck pulls up in front of Anna Weier’s Winnipeg home on Langside containing pre-ordered packages of meat, jars of honey, bags of grain and other farm-grown produce.
Over the next hour people pull up to Anna’s house, to collect and pay for their purchases. They chat with each other and the delivery driver. Their transactions complete, the truck moves on to other locations in the city.
Weier’s residence is one of six sites across the City of Winnipeg where south-central Manitoba farmers with the Harvest Moon Local Food Initiative direct market some of their production through buying clubs.
The six clubs, ranging in size from 40 to 100 people, purchase in total about $5,000 worth of goods a month. Many know each other through church groups or other social associations and they are all linked together online.
It’s all quite informal right now, and $5,000 a month isn’t too much to get excited about, says Colin Anderson, a University of Manitoba geography student the HMLFI has contracted to facilitate the initiative. But they’re just getting rolling.
“We’ve just getting started building these networks,” he said. “It’s been very successful elsewhere.”
“Elsewhere” is the State of Oklahoma, a radius of about 160 miles surrounding Tulsa and Oklahoma City, to be precise. There, a similarly modest network of families organized 45 pickup sites, where farmers of the now formally organized Oklahoma Food Co-op sell tens of thousands of dollars of farm production a month.
“The way I describe this is we’re a food co-op that offers an online method of buying food coupled with a volunteer method of delivery system,” says one of the founding members Bob Waldrop in an interview from Oklahoma City.
About 3,800 members are now purchasing from 160 farmers.
“Last year we sold $850,000 worth of product. We’re hoping to do a million this year.”
Waldrop got the whole thing started through his own attempts to buy more directly from farmers, then starting a website and talking about his new farm connections in his church community.
The idea of forming a buying club sprang out of people’s interest in supporting a flagging agricultural scene across the state, he said. “I have cousins in rural Oklahoma, every time I’d go to visit them there was less and less economic activity going on out in the countryside. It just seemed we needed something to reweave the connections between rural and urban areas.”
An Internet discussion group on the matter quickly signed on 100 people who said they wanted to buy from farmers. They talked it over but cast out the first idea of setting up a store.
“We didn’t have enough food, money or people to do it and where would we put it? We had people interested right across the state,” says Waldrop.
They also weren’t interested in forming another buying club to purchase from a wholesaler. They wanted to work direct with farmers, and now have about 160 involved.
The farmers set their own prices for what they sell through the co-op.
“We have some producers who are very small that sell $100 a month and we have other producers that are selling $7,000 to $8,000 a month,” he said.
What emerged was a unique buying club model that’s now been emulated in over a dozen locations across the U.S. as well as in the Ottawa Valley and Niagara Peninsula in Canada.
It’s what they hope to create too, says Anderson, who will travel with farmers associated with the HMLFI to Oklahoma later this month to hear that project’s entire story.
These clubs are an alternative for food purchasing a certain segment of the population clearly want. Weier sends out an email two week’s prior to the delivery, receives customer orders and directs them to HMLFI volunteers who then figure out who has what for sale. She said she’s had no trouble finding people eager to buy farm-fresh food this way.
“A lot of the people in my food-buying club are in their late 20s and 30s,” she said. Many have young families. They’re all motivated by a desire to know where their food comes from and to support Manitoba farmers, she said.
Cartwright farmer Wayne McDonald is the driver of that delivery truck from time to time. One of the HMLFI participating farmers, he now sells some of his grass-fed beef and lamb as well as pastured Berkshire pork through these clubs. He also helps with the farm gate organizing for orderly delivery on customer orders.
It’s proving to be quite an efficient and effective way to direct market, says McDonald. He’s impressed with progress made thus far. They started only last year and they haven’t invested a cent advertising, he said.
“And there’s already significant interest,” he said. “I think we’re just scratching the surface as far as what these buying clubs can be.”
The buying club concept isn’t new, nor unique to the HMLFI.
Mel and Elva Groening, organic farmers near Lowe Farm, have been supplying two grassroots buying clubs, one for nearly five years now.
Mel chuckles as he recalls his first introduction to the concept. Someone involved in a Winnipeg club had heard the Groenings had organic chicken and arranged for them to do a delivery there.
“She’d invited all her friends and we met under the street lights at Moxies Grill on the parking lot and did our chicken deal there,” says Mel with a laugh.
They liked the connection the direct sale gave them with customers and it quickly led to supplying one and eventually a second club with beef and pork and vegetables too. Today several farmers are involved and supply about 60 families between these two clubs, which meet every couple of weeks.
It’s much more efficient and profitable to direct market than trying to do individual deliveries, says Mel. And it works better than sitting at a farmers’ market either hoping customers come, or putting in the time after everything has sold.
“We might have 25 orders from people in one group and we do one delivery,” he said. “When you total it all up it’s worth our while to take it in.”
In Brandon, Murray and Sally Smith have also recently organized a small and informal buying club they call the Good Food Club. Theirs has just eight purchasing members buying from a core group of area farmers. The club meets at the Smiths’ home.
“We’re getting what we feel is quality food and we’re supporting the local economy,” said Murray. “Our vision would be to see a lot of these small organizations in Brandon.”
Waldrop says after eight years seeing double-digit growth in their sales – including during the U.S. economic downturn of 2008 – he’s concluded the buying club is an idea whose time has come. Consumers want their food to come from closer-to- home sources they can trust and for a whole host of reasons, including concerns about food safety to worries about global instablility, says Waldrop.
“I think this is the way of the future.”