Each farm is unique, in what they grow, in the number of employees (or not), and also, in how they market—sell—what they produce. Weather and other factors typically affect sales. But 2020 is no typical year.
It just so happened that Emily Reno, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, embarked on a regional market analysis in February for Agua Gorda, a farming cooperative in Long Prairie, MN, at a time when wholesale markets were hit hard by the pandemic.
One of Emily’s conclusions from working with brothers Javier and Jose Garcia—two of the farm’s four workers—is that a language barrier can make traditional assistance resources unattainable. Farm owner Javier is part of the Shared Ground Co-op of farmers, which includes other Spanish speakers, but more resources in Spanish are needed to close the gap. It was only this year that Minnesota Grown’s application became available in a language other than English. Appropriately, Emily’s report is available in both English and Spanish. Could this be the beginning of a larger trend among farmer-serving organizations and businesses?
The State Demographic Center estimates that by 2035, 25% of Minnesota’s population will be people of color. While the number of farmers of color is dramatically less—under 2% of all farmers in the state—the replacement rate of retiring farmers is not high enough, and access to land and financing for beginning farmers is not equitable across racial demographics. (Learn more: Emerging Farmers in Minnesota report from the MN Department of Agriculture). Relationships with a community of farmers, supporters and buyers are also very important. They are the social capital that helps farmers maintain their operations in good times and bad, and this can be more difficult for farmers with a cultural or language barrier who aren't doing farmers markets or CSAs where they'd regularly meet with individual consumers.
Agua Gorda, like all farms, seeks to find strong relationships with buyers. In their case, they have chosen wholesale markets for their tomatillos, jalapeños, cilantro, zucchini and other produce. That means instead of selling to individual customers at a farmers’ market, they seek to sell bulk amounts by the bin or truckload to buyers like schools, restaurants, or others that serve prepared food. They’ve seen disruption in those sales due to COVID, but it has also created opportunities for word of mouth cooperation at the regional level.
Part of the motivation for undertaking this analysis was to help put Agua Gorda in a better position to interact with the public - that is, the residents of Long Prairie itself. They have often found that when residents of more urban areas want to learn about Latino growers, Agua Gorda often comes up due to their affiliation with Shared Ground. Yet, the same question to residents of Long Prairie may be met with a shrug of the shoulders.
What is standing in the way of Agua Gorda connecting with their customers in Central Minnesota?
Much of Emily’s work centered on assessing pro’s and con’s of selling to different types of large scale buyers, all with tight budgets and a need for efficiency. Communicating with and convincing these buyers to take a chance on a farmer that represents themselves can be challenging, especially when buyers are used to purchasing using advanced ordering systems from larger companies, such as Sodexo and Sysco. The technological capabilities and coordination that they have access to for just-in-time harvest and delivery put cooperatives like Agua Gorda on a very different playing field.
Farms trying to sell high quality, organic produce to large buyers must demonstrate the ripple effect of purchasing from a smaller producer—the economic benefits of keeping money in the community. Things like creating a website to share information about farming practices, job creation and giving back to the community all take time—difficult for a farmer to do on top of the actual work of farming. However, e-commerce doesn’t have to be the only way that farmers make sales. One of Emily’s recommendations was to consider institutional procurement policies as a requirement of local government, schools, nursing homes, and other large buyers.
Learn more from the links below, and keep an eye out for restaurants and cafeterias that buy from local farms!
Full Report — English:
Full Report — Spanish: