BriarPatch Co-op and Nevada County farms help each other
Special to The Union
This time of year, BriarPatch Co-op employees are burning the midnight oil in the produce section trying to keep up with an endless bounty that just won’t stop.
It’s September, and through the end of the month the bustling cooperative market is celebrating local and regional farms. More than 50 different kinds of locally and regionally grown certified organic and heirloom varieties of vegetables and fruits are on tap in October and November.
“In my world, it’s called ‘peak local season.’ This is the most exciting time of year. It’s harvest time,” said Produce Manager David Benson.
Year round, BriarPatch pulls directly from 50 local farms, with about 20 small farms — the “core farms” — providing the lion’s share of the store’s local and regional produce.
In 2014, 24 percent of the store’s sales dollars came from local and regional sources, directly from farmers.
“We sold over a million in local food, that’s just produce,” said Benson.
Customers who walk in the store’s front doors are met with large hanging banners featuring smiling faces of local farmers. Signs denoting the origin of mountains of fresh fruit and vegetables guide shoppers to buy from farms they know.
In addition, the store is selling T-shirts with farm names on the back, highlighting farms on the co-op’s Facebook page and giving away free samples daily.
Last month, the co-op’s tour of Filaki Farm in Browns Valley drew a crowd of 40 people, despite the off-the-beaten path location.
Meanwhile, food trends continue to grow as more and more people put in backyard gardens, ferment their own foods and invest in goat herd shares.
“That’s what people are craving,” Benson said.
Growing business with local farms
Since he started working at the co-op nearly six years ago, Benson has worked hard to increase connections with and support local farms and grow the local foodshed.
As a community-owned cooperative, things like supporting a local economy, including a stronger local food system, is in line with the co-op’s mission.
“It’s just been continually growing. We definitely are interested in growing as much business as possible with local farmers,” said Benson.
In recent years, the co-op has expanded this support by: coordinating with farmers twice a year to plan crops and quantities needed for the season, paying fair prices for local produce, providing a stable market, training farmers in retail practices, guaranteeing farm loans and helping to finance organic certification.
Farmer Alan Haight from Riverhill Farm knows first hand the benefits of working with BriarPatch Co-op. The farm went from earning 80 percent of its income from weekly CSA subscription boxes in 2011 to last year earning 35 percent of its gross income from BriarPatch and the remainder from farmers’ markets and restaurants.
The greatest area of vulnerability to farmers is growing a perishable crop for an unspecified demand, says Haight. Small farms like Riverhill Farm cannot afford to grow crops they can’t sell all of.
Before the season starts, BriarPatch and the farmer make an agreement that BriarPatch will buy a particular crop a farmer grows if it meets the volume and quality standards set by the co-op
“This change has greatly benefited our farm financially, and has enabled us to specialize in crops that we grow well and for which there is strong demand. Whereas we used to grow between 40 and 50 different crops, we now get about half of our income from just three crops,” said Haight.
BriarPatch helps Riverhill connect with California FarmLink, to obtain yearly operational loans for annual startup costs at a time when there is nothing yet to sell.
“Each year, we spend almost half of our expenses between January and June, but because of our mountain climate, we only start selling crops in May. Without these operational loans, we’d be unable to afford the yearly spring startup costs,” said Haight.
Five to seven months out of the year, Farmer Tim Van Wagner of First Rain Farm sells to Briarpatch. He began selling to BriarPatch the first year they made a strong commitment to local farms. In those early years, Briarpatch offered an “advance payment” to First Rain Farm when it became certified organic, helping to “float” extra costs.
While BriarPatch represents only 10 percent of the farm’s total sales (he can get a better price at farmers markets), Van Wagner sees the value in having a stable outlet and check in return for crops with the greatest profit margin per volume such as: Dino kale, collards and rainbow chard.
“They have done a tremendous job at being very organized with their sales numbers by crop and making that information available to the farmers for planning purposes. As a result, we’re able to plan six months out on our crop schedules — resulting in very little waste of crop due to a lack of market,” Van Wagner said.
Here’s a recipe from Riverhill that uses some of the local produce bounty:
Tomato and Red Pepper Bisque
2 cups chopped white onion
3 cups chopped tomatoes
2 cups sweet red peppers (or mix in some Krimzon Lee peppers for a little spice)
Sauté onion until soft. Add peppers and sauté 5 minutes more.
Add tomatoes and cook on low heat for 30 minutes. Blend and add salt and a dash of red wine vinegar to taste.
To learn more, visit http://www.briarpatch.coop/
Contact freelance writer Laura Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-913-3067.
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