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Marnie Feeleus has been delivering “fresh boxes” of locally grown produce to Winnipeg homes since 2006, serving as an important go-between for customers and small-scale vegetable producers.
Now, with a retailer and an institutional buyer asking her to source locally grown produce for them too, the owner of Fresh Option Organic Delivery is forging a new and stronger link between her suppliers and end-users – through a value chain.
The “chain” is an agreement between herself and four Manitoba vegetable growers plus Vita Health Fresh Markets and Diversity Foods, the institutional buyer at the university supplying the university’s cafeteria.
It involves a level of collaboration and communication between all parties that goes beyond the more traditional supply chain approach.
The goal is to prioritize production and more effectively match supply with consumer demand, thus reducing Fresh Opt ion’s own rel iance on imported organic produce when local sources can’t be found.
The Local Sustainable Produce Value Chain is the latest project launched with the help of a federal-provincial program in Manitoba designed to jump-start the value chain business approach.
Feeleus says the concept suits her business well. “This arose out of a need for a more collaborative way of working along what was a supply chain and me trying to aggregate local produce in the past,” she said.
That hasn’t always worked to everyone’s benefit. The grow plan she’d prepare annually, setting targets for production and sales, would come up short, with customers wanting something, or more of something, that local growers couldn’t provide, she said.
“There were lots of things that weren’t being communicated about what the market wanted and also what the farms’ restrictions were,” she said.
Forecasting supply and price-setting were also tricky.
Under the value chain arrangement, a pilot project to run to end of December, those participating want to see what comes of a freer flow of information, including sharing of retail sales data with Feeleus and the growers themselves.
They hope to be able to measure how much efficiency can be gained by sharing that data, Feeleus said. They also hope this demonstrates a systematic way for retailers to source local produce.
The benefit comes from gaining access to local products on a regular and consistent basis, says Mathew Holtmann, corporate grocery manager for Vita Health, which has seven stores in Winnipeg.
They know their customers want to buy local, but it’s a big challenge dealing one on one with local suppliers and handling multiple small accounts, he said.
“You have to order from each one and they all come to town on different days and then it’s that many more people to have accounts payable with. To have one person deal with those farmers and provide us with a one-stop shop for ordering makes it so much simpler.”
Holtmann said as a result of partnering in this value chain, they will also begin stocking products they previously didn’t carry such as Neva Hydroponics lettuce.
“Sometimes we’ve overlooked some of these local suppliers because of the challenge of how much effort that goes into dealing with them one on one.”
Feeleus’ role with the value chain will be organizing weekly order guides and communicating crop status with purchasers. All parties have signed a partner agreement outlining each partner’s responsibility in the value chain. The growers themselves are either certified organic or will attain Local Food Plus certification. Not all the growers are organic producers, she noted.
“We were originally only going to do this with those certified organic but there weren’t enough farms able and willing to supply us,” she said.
Investigating the benefits of an on-farm pickup for the growers is also part of the plan.
VCMI is pleased to help launch this chain, said VCMI co-ordinator Eugene Warwaruk, whose staff facilitated the group’s first meeting and also met individually with the partners. Feeleus already had strong connections in the food industry through an established business, which provided a strong foundation for the concept, he said.
“And it made it a lot easier that she’s so passionate about sourcing locally.”
Value Chain Manitoba Initiative is a special initiative by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and MAFRI, available to Manitoba-based applicants and providing guidance and financial support for projects that can lead to value chain formation.
The three-year initiative helps introduce more producers and processors to the value chain approach.
Video-conferenced workshops were broadcast through MAFRI GO offices this past winter on how value chains operate by more closely linking production, processing and marketing activities.
They hope to roll out several more Manitoba value chains later this year, Warwaruk said.
They’d love to hear other ideas for creating value chains, he added, noting that the VCMI is now into its final of three years and the program will end March 31, 2011. Their goal is to have multiple projects in place demonstrating the value chain approach, Warwaruk said.