Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A special bobaganda just for producers!

In this bobaganda:
Eggs. . . Loofas. . . Dried beans. . . Corn Meal. . . Chicken feed. . . Fish. . . The 10 most popular vegetables. . . Some vegetables that have never graced our pages. . . Vegetables available in such small quantities as to be practically unavailable on our pages. . . Not a vegetable but still not available. . . What about pork rinds? . . . What customers want to see. . . Getting more sustainable and resilient . . . Now is the time to break our fossil fuel addiction before it kills us. . . Rainwater harvesting . . . Keeping your shelves neat and tidy. . . Business is up!. . . But we shouldn't take anything for granted. . . We should all be thinking about . . .

I used to occasionally send a bobaganda to the producers' listserv, and thought it was about time I did something similar on my blog.

The summer and fall production season is beginning to wind down, and most producers will begin a process of deciding what to grow and plant for next year.  I have a few suggestions for your consideration, and intend to start a discussion at okfoodret@yahoogroups.com about what customers would like to buy that isn't presently available through the coop.  If you don't subscribe to okfoodret@yahoogroups.com, participating in that on-going conversation is a way to raise your visibility to customer members.   The subscriber base of that listserv is around 350, so it obviously doesn't include all of our members, but it does include many of our more active members, including those customers who buy a lot of groceries and non-food items from the coop every month.

I have long recommended that a diverse set of products is the best goal for anyone selling food direct to the public.  So in that spirit, here are some ideas for 2011.

High on the list of demand items in the coop is eggs.  When I was receiving the complaint emails, one of the more common requests was for "more eggs".  Eggs make a great addition to any producer's product line.  They are also a great project for young people.  One of our larger egg producers is a teenager in high school, Calvin Parker, son of Jerri and Greg Parker (GJ All Natural Beef).  Besides earning money (and what teenager doesn't need more money?), he is learning invaluable lessons incorporating responsibility, the value and productivity of work, and how to make a profit in business. 

As with all the other product lines in the coop, I have always felt that a variety of producers is the best way to ensure product availability and sustainability, so one thing I'd like to see in the coming year is more of our existing producers deciding to add eggs to their product line-up. 

The loofa sponge is a natural sponge that grows on a vine and is perfectly suitable for cultivation in Oklahoma.  Grow them along fence rows, on a trellis, or let them sprawl on the ground if you got the room.  They produce gorgeous yellow flowers. Customers like them because they substitute for an industrial product made with petro-chemicals -- that is to say,  the store-bought sponge.  Let them dry on the vine, pick them, and sell them "as is", or invest a little more labor in them and pick the dried skin off and empty the seeds out and charge more.  We've had a few luffas for sale in the past, and they've all sold well, but I didn't notice any this year.  When you order them off the internet, they can be quite pricey.  This is a product without a lot of labor requirements (unless you decide to sell them without their skin), that is cheap to produce, that can add value to your bottom line.

The Kerr Center has done variety trials for raising dried beans and peas in Oklahoma, and you can get all the info you need from them.  This is a product that would do well for someone who could devote maybe 5 or more acres.  As far as I know, no one is growing and selling dried beans in quantity (one producer has had a few dried black-eyed peas this year) in Oklahoma, which opens up a lot of possibilities for sales to restaurants, other farmers markets, and the growing number of specialty stores with locally grown products.  Let them dry on the vine, combine them, clean them, package and sell them in 5 to 25 lb bags.  You'd need access to a combine and cleaning equipment, look around and see what's available in your area.

This is another product that customers like but hasn't been available for a long time.  We had it for the first year of our existence, but then the producer went on to other things.  It was a great product, there was nothing else like it for sale in any regular grocery store.  Besides corn meal, I think there would be a brisk business selling 25 and 50 lb bags of dried corn to our many members who have back-yard flocks. 

Speaking of those backyard flocks, I've heard of members driving all the way into Texas to buy organic or all-natural chicken feed for their flocks.  If you have access to a mill, this could be another money-maker, as well as contributing greatly to our developing local food system.

Another product we haven't seen since the first year of the coop is fish.  Fish can be raised on the farm in tanks and barrels.  If you need to learn how, just contact the Bruce Edwards at the Urban Harvest program of the Regional Food Bank in Oklahoma City.  He has an integrated greenhouse aquaculture system that also raises salad greens using the water the fish swim in.  You can sell frozen whole fish without any particular trouble from the ODA or the local health department.  If you filet them or remove the heads etc, that work must be done in a certified kitchen, but you can harvest them and freeze them and sell them without further regulatory interference.  And besides the fish, you get seriously nutrient laden water, which can be used to irrigate gardens or to grow greens in (aquaponics) as they are doing at the Regional Food Bank.  http://www.regionalfoodbank.org/Programs/Urban-Harvest

. . . according to USDA consumption data, are Potatoes, Iceberg Lettuce, Tomatoes, Onions, Carrots, Celery, Corn, Broccoli, Green Cabbage and Cucumbers

Cauliflower, parsnips, cabbage, iceberg lettuce.

Sweet corn, potatoes, onions, carrots.  Note that carrots store well.  When I spoke at the opening banquet of the Nebraska Food Coop (February 2004, I think), we had a great dish of carrots which were harvested the previous October and stored in a root cellar.  So they are an exception to the typically fragile-must-sell-quickly-after-harvest problem with vegetables and the Oklahoma Food Coop.  Small scale equipment is available that takes a lot of the hand labor if you are growing at the acre level, and someone should.  Someone also should grow potatoes at the multi-acre level, or someone should recruit one of their neighbors who is already growing potatoes at the multi-acre level to sell some through us.  Onions are another keeper, as are most winter squashes.

Fish, sunflower seeds, vegetable oils, peanut oil, corn meal, any flour other than wheat (barley, rye, oats etc), edible soybeans. 

Edible soybeans, both fresh (known as "edamame") and dried in 5 to 25 lb bags would be hugely popular.  We have a lot of vegetarians in the coop and many of them make their own soymilk and soy cheeses and they are definitely interested in a local supply of edible soybeans.  I think this is a different variety than that grown for animal feed, but I am not sure on that.  If you grow enough of them, the local tofu makers in Oklahoma City's Asian district might be interested.  Again, this is something that should be grown at the multi-acre level.

What happens with the skin of all these pigs that our producers are converting to tasty pork products like sausage, ham, and pork loin?  Well, the skin is every bit as edible as anything else on that pig.  My grandmother Dovie Bagwell Waldrop said, as I have told you often before, that when they butchered a pig, they used every bit of it except the squeal.  That should be your goal.  In the meantime, I am paying $1.66 for a bag of about 3 ounces of pork rinds, and I would much rather buy pork skin from producers and fry my own at home.  No, I don't know how to do that yet, but lack-of-knowledge has never stopped me from any culinary adventury.  Google is my friend.  But before I can make my own pork rinds, I need some pork skin.

And then there's chicken feet.  A cancer-curing broth can be made from the feet, and even if it doesn't cure cancer, it reputedly is the finest tasting chicken broth you can get.  Buy For Less in Okie City at NW 23 and Penn occasionally has "mega-packs" of chicken feet.

One thing that our customers want to see is evidence of the producer's care of Creation, his or her commitment to a more sustainable way of farming and a more humane approach to lifestock management.  So the more you integrate "green" practices into your production, the more the customers will like your products -- as long as you tell them what you are doing.  I know you've heard me talk about "telling your story" so often you're probably bored with it, but we don't just sell food, we sell food with a story.  Your food, without your story, will not stand out and be as attractive as your food will be WITH your story.  I get a couple of newsletters from producers, but not as many as I would like to receive.  A couple of producers always put some kind of note in with their products, thanking me for my business, but not many.  I get a few emails from a few of the people I buy from, occasionally recipes, but not very many.  I tend to think that many of us need to work on our story telling.  Your narrative is an essential aspect of your bread and butter in the Oklahoma Food Coop, so do as good a job on that as you do your products and you will do better.

And then there's the myriad of possibilities opened up by video.  Video cameras are cheap these days, you probably know someone who has one, yet I think only one producer has actually put up videos of his production, Wes Downing, who gets kudos from me for that. Take your video around your farm and put it on the internet, and a link to it on your producer info page at our website.  If you need help doing that, why not suggest to the VP of Producers, Paulette Rink, that we have a workshop at the upcoming annual meeting in January 2011 on how to use video to sell your products?

I can even imagine WEBCAMS, showing your happy frolicking chickens or your plants growing in greenhouses or fields -- YES, it's TRUE, some of us LIKE TO WATCH plants grow.  I do it all the time in my own garden, I just sit there and watch things grow.  It's a wonderfully peaceful antidote to the busy-ness of modern urban life. 

So catch rainwater and use it for irrigation.  Work on growing and producing your own feeds, either on your own or in conjunction with neighbors.  (The need for feed is one of the biggest holes in our local food system and that subject needs attention.)  Try bio-diesel -- Matt Burch, the Urban Agrarian, can tell you everything you need to know about bio-diesel and he is also a potential market for your products.  He runs all over the place buying locally produced foods and selling them at farmers markets and to restaurants and stores.  Contact him at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Urban-Agrarian/173779793816?v=info .

Now is the time to break our fossil fuel addiction before it kills us.
Biodiesel (or farm-made alcohol) is not just a quirky thing that sustainability advocates are interested in.  It is an important step towards energy independence for our country.  If you are dependent upon gasoline or diesel for your production activities, then your livelihood is dependent upon the good will of fanatics and terrorists. Good luck with that, you'll need it.

The fact that Oklahoma is an energy producing state often blinds us to the reality of oil in the modern world.  The world oil pool is one big tank.  If there is an interruption in Middle Eastern oil, or if a hurricane shuts down the Gulf oil production, or if any one of a thousand other things that could cut the flow of oil happens, the folks in Chicago and New York have more money than we do, and Oklahoma's oil will be sucked right out of the state and "No Gas" signs will be everywhere, and we'll be paying the world price for gasoline and diesel and it won't be cheap.  What would six dollar/gallon gasoline and diesel do to your farming operation? 

Well, the time to break free of fossil fuel addiction is BEFORE the terrorists blow the oil pipelines of the Middle East to smithereens. 

And then there's methane. . . and wood gas (also known as producer gas). . . and etc.  Check out the energy sections of my Compendium of Useful Information at http://www.energyconservationinfo.org/compendium.htm for all the info you need.

And then there's the risk of peak oil, which many of your customers are intensely concerned about.  They are worried about future energy supplies, and as a producer, you should be too.   Oil is presently hovering around $80/barrel, there's a general expectation of $100/barrel early next year, and then if it goes much higher, we are a big risk for another round of financial crises.  It shouldn't escape anyone's notice that it was only a couple of months after oil reached its higher price in history (July 2008) that the nation's financial system crept right to the edge of the abyss of financial collapse.

So becoming less dependent on the international energy system is important for the on-going sustainability and resilience of your own production systems.  And it really is true.  The time to develop an alternative energy system is BEFORE the really serious energy crisis hits.

Do you ever wonder how many crises the Powers That Be can manage at any one time?  It looks to me like they are starting to have management problems.  Despite the happy talk in the mainstream media, there is plenty of economic turmoil going on.  Another run-up in energy prices, plus another financial crisis, plus a foreign policy crisis, plus a little domestic turmoil here at home, and well, it wouldn't be happy days are here again. 

The more dependent we are on these big international systems, the more danger we are in.  That's one of the big reasons I started working on local foods back in 2001-2002.  The time to grow a local food system is before the famines start.  As you know better than anyone, agriculture does not turn on a dime.  If we wait for a food crisis to get a local food system, it's too late.  An unsustainable system cannot continue on indefinitely.  It will either become more sustainable or it will collapse.  Our present system is unsustainable in every way that can be counted, and if we want to protect ourselves and those we love from what is coming at us, now is the time to be very busy.

And on a more positive note. . . trust me, your customers would love to read about your adventures with biodiesel, ethanol, wood gas, methane, or even animal traction.  Producers who decide to add alternative energy to their suite of production practices will be rewarded with the business of customers who really want to support that kind of commitment to sustainability and local resilience in the face of what may become overwhelming challenges.

Rainwater Harvesting.
The same schtick is true for rainwater harvesting.  The techniques for capturing and using rainwater are endless, ranging from terracing and swales and irrigation ponds to gutters and ferrocement tanks.  As my own urban system matures, I will have a rainwater harvesting system that feeds into fish tanks, whose water then grows greens in my greenhouse and irrigates my outdoor gardens and container plants.  I have a total of 2298 sq ft of buildings on my property (1548 in the main house and 750 in the storage house that is becoming the greenhouse).  In the driest year for the last 100 years in central Oklahoma, where the rainfall was 16 inches, 23,000 gallons of water fell on those roofs.  In a more typical year, with 36 inches of rain, the potential rain harvest from my roofs is about 52,000 gallons.  So you could pay for electricity to pump that water, or buy it from the water district or town/city, or you could put a system together yourself with cheap parts from the local Home Despot or hardware/building supply store or garage sale, and use that free water.

To calculate your potential water harvest -- add the square feet of your buildings, multiply times your typical annual rainfall in FEET (not inches), that gives you the cubic feet of water falling on your roofs in a year.  Multiply that figure times 7.48 and that tells you how many gallons fall on your roofs in a year (because there are 7.48 gallons in a cubic foot of water).  Size your storage based on the monthly rainfall patterns and your monthly needs for water.

And finally, a little note on housekeeping with your online presence at http://www.oklahomafood.coop/ .  If you are out of a particular product, and won't have any for sale this month, toggle the "do not display" button so it doesn't clutter up the shelves of our online store.  As any retailer can tell you, empty shelves are dispiriting to customers, they won't even walk in the store, they'll stay away.  Month after month, I see products displayed for sale with zero inventory, I know they won't have any this month, the products haven't been available for months, but still there they sit, cluttering up our shelves, turning off customers who log in and find zero inventory everywhere they go.

This isn't a minor matter.  Anything that turns off our customers is bad for our business.  We shouldn't do things that are bad for our business, we should do things that are good for our business.  Not keeping your product shelves "clean and tidy" sends a message that you aren't a very effective producer.  You don't care about the fact that you are wasting the customer's time and the coop's bandwidth by cluttering up our online store pages with products that are not for sale this month, and will never be for sale this month. 

OK, that's harsh, I don't really believe that any of our producers have this intention.  But the consequences of not keeping your product shelves clean and tidy are exactly as I have described here --
  • you waste the customer's time,
  • you consume bandwidth (especially if you have product pictures) and that slows down the loading of pages,
  • you create the online equivalent of a dirty, cluttered, poorly stocked retail establishment
-- and all that can turn off our customers and may have something to do with our problems with member participation. 

We have more than 3500 members, yet typically only 800 or so order in any given month (although I will say the last time I ran the data, it looked to me like half of our customers order at least once each quarter, but that is year-old data).  Everyone needs to look at what they are doing to make sure they are not doing anything that is turning off customers, and one small part of that is having pride in your public product display and only displaying those items which you actually have for sale each month. 

It looks to me like business is up quite a bit this year over last year.  Our product sales increased last year by their smallest amount to date, about 8% IIRC.  This year it looks more like we are up 20% or so.  One area which seems to be struggling is prepared foods, and I'm betting that that's a consequence of the on-going economic troubles, since every prepared food I've bought through the coop has been an incredible adventure of taste and nutrition.  One suggestion I have for prepared food producers is to think about convenience items that customers can use to create their own meals at home. 

Now is not the time to rest on any laurels.  Retail can be quite pitiless, satisfying customer needs often means dealing with fickle, changing moods and fashions.  It always pays to be a bit ahead of the curve, and we are positioned to make major advances going forward.  But meeting these on-coming challenges means paying attention to issues of sustainability and resilience and inventory that I have been talking about in this bobaganda.  We aren't like Wal-Mart, where a store manager can just use his computer to order in whatever he or she needs.  We don't have anyone to call up producers and say "OK, you need to grow X number of bushels of corn this next year."  So we have a situation that is kind of anarchistic/spontaneous order, and we hope that going forward the variety and supply of all of our Oklahoma foods increases.

And finally (I know, I've already said this once), we all need to be thinking about alternative economic arrangements for financing.  I'm thinking that eventually we need some kind of a local food credit union, where depositors could pool their funds for loan to local food enterprises.  Or some kind of an investment fund that provides capital for local food production.  I don't have anything more than that right now, but its something we should think about and talk about and see what happens over the next year.

Keep on providing more supplies for our bon appetitin' Oklahoma foods feastin seasons!

Bob Waldrop, one of the founders of the Oklahoma Food Cooperative

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