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Field Day Recap: Farmer-led Local Food Aggregation

Is it possible to “accidentally” start a business? If you ask Jan Libbey, co-founder of North Iowa Fresh, the answer is “yes”. Jan is the first person to admit that she wears several hats. In fact, it was while she was wearing her Healthy Harvest of North Iowa hat that the conversation began about looking at new markets for locally grown produce.

Those conversations turned to commitment and led to the realization from someone in the founding group, “Sounds like we are starting a business”, and so they did. North Iowa Fresh (NIF) became incorporated in 2014 as an aggregator and online marketplace for locally grown and produced food. Jan admits, “It hasn’t all been rosy. There are a lot of questions and a lot of work to do.” But, North Iowa Fresh seems to be on the right track. They have grown from 6 to 13 producers and are growing their customer base as well.

As with many successful business ventures, it takes partnerships to make it all work. Here is how the process looks on paper…

Producers  ⇒  Broker  ⇒  Aggregator  ⇒ Distributor  ⇒ Eat!

For North Iowa Fresh, the producers are the 13 local growers that provide the fresh produce, the broker coordinates the produce and sales, the aggregator collects, cleans, packages and delivers the produce, the distributor gets it to the end user…you!

A closer look at the partners helps highlight what a truly unique collaboration this is. For producers, this local-food aggregation allows them to collectively market to new distributors. Jim Cherry, one of the founding producers for NIF reflected on the benefits of pooling resources, “Alone, I don’t amount to a spit in the wind”. But by aggregating produce, NIF is able to approach distributors that single farms would not have the capacity to attract. Another benefit? “I don’t pick until I know it is sold”, says Jim. This cuts down on harvested produce that does not get sold through more traditional means, such as farmers markets.

Then comes the broker, Andrea Evelsizer, who coordinates the available produce from the growers with the distributors. For North Iowa Fresh, these distributors are 12 different grocery stores and restaurants in the local area. The goal is to encourage brokering on-line, however as Andrea demonstrates for field day participants, it is often more complicated than that.

Andrea Evelsizer of North Iowa Fresh demonstrates the brokering process

Andrea Evelsizer of North Iowa Fresh demonstrates the brokering process

Each week, Andrea makes connections with both producers and distributors through the NIF website, phone calls, emails, follow phone calls, follow up emails, and more follow up phone calls. Each strand of yarn represents her efforts.  You get the picture (shown left).

Next in the process is the aggregator- One Vision. One Vision is a non-profit organization with the vision “to inspire meaningful lives by connecting people with purpose”. The people they connect are individuals who are looking to achieve a greater independence in their communities. For some of these individuals, that independence comes in the form of learning a skill or trade in the food services business. As the food aggregator, One Vision provides space to collect the weekly produce deliveries from growers; and the work force to sort, clean, and package the produce for delivery to the distributors. This provides a valuable service for North Iowa Fresh and a valuable skill for the individuals at One Vision.

Following the weekly delivery to the distributors, the locally grown produce finds its way to the final stage…as produce in the local grocery store, or prepared food in a local restaurant. Either way, this collaboration works. Thank you to all the partners in North Iowa Fresh for hosting this field day.

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