One of the most common questions we hear from new farmers and producers in the Kootenays is about how to get their products into the local market. The Kootenay Co-op is an important sales channel for locally produced food in the Kootenays through the True Local Program. Our Columbia Basin Land Matcher, Hailey Troock, interviewed Nadine BenRabha, the True Local Program Coordinator, to learn more about how farmers and food producers can sell through the Kootenay Co-op.
What started in 1975 as a food buying club run by volunteers in the Slocan Valley has since blossomed into a community-owned store that has almost 200 staff, 150 True Local Suppliers, and welcomes up to 100 new members every month. Learn more about the Co-op’s history and vision on its website.
The Kootenay Co-op created the True Local Program to support a resilient local food system and to differentiate what they mean by local. Legally the term local can be applied to a product from anywhere within the province or 50km across provincial lines. At the Co-op, True Local means that the product is grown or made within 160km of the store.
What is the process for inquiring into what the Co-op is looking for and what they need more of for the True Local Program?
Reaching out to Nadine first is a great way to go. She is able to let producers and farmers know what departments to reach out to and who they need to speak to. She is able to gauge how ready a farmer or producer is to talk to a buyer or if they are still in a market research stage.
In some cases, farmers may need more preparation through the Community Futures Self Employment Program on their business plan, for example. These kinds of programs (along with the YA Business Mentorship Network!) can enable entrepreneurs to be as prepared as possible when approaching contacts at important sales channels for their products and to make a strong first impression.
The mandate of the Co-op is to try to carry as many local suppliers and products as possible within its buying guidelines. They also source organic whenever possible, prefer non-GMO and focus on traceability. Getting your product onto the shelves of the Co-op also depends on what the product is and what department it’s sold through. The Produce Department, for example, carries exclusively Certified Organic produce.
Produce Managers have communicative relationships with local suppliers and conduct preseason meetings. There are no formal contracts, since this changes due to weekly supply and demand, which allows for built in flexibility. Generally, produce meetings happen from November to February.
Can new entrants and farmers reach out to the Co-op directly to get current numbers and needs?
Yes! However, it is always valuable for farmers to do their own market research. The Kootenay Co-op does not publish the lists of what they’re looking for to ensure that businesses do not base their business plans around old or outdated information in a constantly evolving market environment. Producers or processors are always welcome to contact Nadine to obtain current information about trends at the Co-op, and she is able to access sales history for given products or categories. Even with this information from the Co-op, it is very important to conduct independent market research as well, because the data Nadine is able to provide is specific only to the Co-op’s particular store.
How does the Co-op negotiate with farmers over price and quantity?
Department managers strive to have strong and collaborative relationships with suppliers and are always open to discussing pricing to ensure sustainability for everyone involved. Nadine is also available as a liaison if suppliers ever have questions or concerns. The most important thing is for farmers to know their costs and to determine what price they need to remain viable. The Co-op will then be honest and communicate whether or not those prices are viable with a retail margin and for consumers.
An important question to ask oneself is what is viable pricing when selling through direct sales versus a wholesale environment? Producers need to know their margins and have a sense about how grocery stores also need margins to make their own business viable. The Grocery Department at the Co-op needs a 35% margin to remain viable, for example.
Does the Co-op plan to move to only certified organic produce?
One of the Co-op’s core values is to “source organic products whenever feasible and available.” In part because of the amazing concentration of certified organic farms in our region, the produce department has found that certified organic options are always feasible and available. For new suppliers, the produce department is now seeking only transitional and certified organic produce.
The Co-op is open to purchasing from suppliers who are in their transitional phase to support their move to certification. At this time the produce department is over 99% certified organic, with the exception of seasonal wild mushrooms and one non-certified True Local herb supplier who was grandfathered in. Several previously uncertified suppliers have obtained organic certification, and as of 2020 the department will be 100% certified organic.
In other departments, such as Grocery and Butcher Shop, the availability of certified organic is still growing, and non-certified products are considered on a case-by-case basis. Our region is fortunate to have its own organic certifying body, the Kootenay Organic Growers Society. The Co-op is happy to support this organization and Nadine sits on the Board as a commercial member.
You can reach out to Nadine with more questions about the True Local Program at Nadine@kootenay.coop.
GOT LAND? WANT LAND?
Through the B.C. Land Matching Program, Young Agrarians is offering support to farmers looking for land for their farm business and landowners looking for farmers to farm their land in the Kootenays. You can send a message to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
The B.C. Land Matching Program is funded in the Columbia Basin by the Province of British Columbia, with support from Columbia Basin Trust and the Real Estate Foundation of BC.