Whole Farm Co-op, early local foods innovator, changes to survive

Robert Bromeling, who has been the full time manager at Whole Farm Co-op in Long Prairie since 2002, became a once-a-week volunteer on Monday. That’s because the cooperative’s board of directors has decided to do without paid staff, at least for now, in a bid to make the organization more financially viable.

“They are not closing, just redoing,” Bromeling said of the board. “We will be volunteer-run for a bit. They are refiguring out how to do some things.”

That refiguring includes changing the way the cooperative sells to its customers. Given an increasingly robust local foods marketplace in the Twin Cities, shoppers have myriad options when it comes to buying local produce and meats. As a result, Whole Farm is struggling to adjust to a newly competitive landscape.

Founded in 1997, Whole Farm has acted as a food hub, connecting sustainable and organic farmers in the Long Prairie area with customers, mostly in the Twin Cities. Via the web or in person at the co-op’s basement store, customers could buy vegetables, flour, meat and other goods from around 30 farmers and producers. They could order items as specific as a single package of locally raised Italian sausage or an individual bag of flour for delivery to a drop site. They paid by check after receiving a paper bill.

The setup, while innovative 16 years ago, hasn’t worked as well lately, especially for farmers, who often wait months for their products to sell, one bag at a time, and in turn wait to be paid. “Producers are saying with price of feed and everything, they need a faster turnover instead of waiting,” Bromeling said. “Most of them are willing to stay (at Whole Farm) if they can get a faster turn on the dollar. You can see the producers’ point.”

Going forward, meat will be sold in larger quantities and customers will be asked to pay for some goods in advance. Vegetables will be sold on a subscription farm model, requiring 50 percent payment up front for a season’s share or half share. “Instead of selling meat by the piece, we’ll be doing bundles, quarters and halves,” said Bromeling, noting that meat has been the co-op’s mainstay. “All the vegetables will be in boxes. This way, producers can get their money faster. Now, it can be up to eight months before they get the money from one animal. Chickens will be whole.”

In addition, according to an emailed note from board chairman Roy Perish, deliveries will be made less often and possibly irregularly. The co-op will keep its store but, “The office hours are unknown.”

Whole Farm’s other staff member, Kristin Wilson, will start a new job this week at Camphill Village, a working farm for people with developmental disabilities near Sauk Centre.

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Kristin Wilson in the Whole Farm meat locker/MPR Photo by Chris Welsch

How these changes resonate with longtime customers remains to be seen. It could be that different people will be interested in a quarter of a cow than a pack of steaks. “We will find out how that will affect customers,” Bromeling said.

Whole Farm’s operating model isn’t its only challenge. Sales have slowed recently, largely due to competition from the growing variety of local food sources in the Twin Cities, including grocery stores, subscription farms and consumer co-ops.

“There is nothing you can say, it’s just a changing market,” said Bromeling. “When we set out, we set the pace for a lot of things to change. We were a pioneer in a lot of ways. A lot of people have picked up and are doing the same thing. It’s not saying we’ve done anything wrong, just that there is a lot of competition out there.”

“Bigger stores now have organic natural food sections,” he said. “It’s easier for people in town to go and pick up a package of ground beef that is grass fed, instead of dealing with a package that’s frozen. They don’t have to preorder or think ahead. They don’t have any of that to do.”

When it comes to local foods, the Twin Cities is extremely well served, according to Stuart Reid, executive director of the Minnesota-based Food Co-op Initiative, a group that helps launch retail food co-ops across the country. “The Twin Cities has one of the highest concentrations of food co-ops,” he said. “It’s a sophisticated market. Plus you have Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, plus Lunds and Byerly’s and Kowalski’s. They do a really good job.”

With all these choices, organizations like Whole Farm have a harder go of it. “We really have a tough market,” Reid said. “We are flourishing, which shows that people do care how their food is handled. But there are factors that put the buying club at a disadvantage. There is not as much selection. You may not be able to buy in the exact quantities you prefer. You have to wait until the next order cycle.”

Nor do they typically offer the one-one-one relationship between farmer and customer found in subscription farm arrangements.

Reid said buying clubs or food hubs like Whole Farm can be successful, but mainly if they are located away from large metro areas, or if the nearby metro doesn’t have many sources of local produce and meats.

Bromeling hopes the changes at Whole Farm will keep the co-op around for another 16 years. “Change is inevitable,” he said. “We have to streamline and change a little bit to keep up with the times. It should work. But we are going to have growing pains. It’s going to be a little different.”

“We are a smaller hub,” he said. “We are hoping to get bigger.”