By Craig Idlebrook
Once every four weeks, neighbors in small towns throughout Maine come together to do their grocery shopping in unusual places, such as farmhouses, town halls, grange halls, even a seaweed-packaging plant. They catch up with each other and sip coffee while they wait for their food.
Then comes the sound of the approaching delivery truck…followed by a flurry of activity. Orders are checked and boxes are unloaded off the truck. Everyone lifts and sorts until the room fills with rows of bulk food. The shopping day won’t be done until every bit of that food finds a home.
So goes the typical delivery day for a Maine buying club (or buying co-op), a loosely organized group banded together to buy food at wholesale prices. Be it 50-pound bags of flour, a 20-pound tub of peanut butter, or 10 one-quart bottles of fruit juice, buying clubs can order nearly everything at discount from their main supplier, United Natural Foods – except for fresh, local Maine produce. Some in buying club circles wonder if that’s enough.
The Power of the Economy of Scale
Wendy Karush has been with the buying club movement in Maine since its beginnings. The Franklin buying club she organizes dates back 34 years. Things were more informal then.
“It was real funky,” she says. “Everything was in barrels.”
Deanne Herman, marketing manager for the Maine Department of Agriculture, was among the first-generation of buying club members, too. In fact, she was one of the delivery truck drivers who routinely lifted those 50-pound bags of flour. She laughs at the memory. “I can’t lift much of anything these days,” she says.
According to Herman, many early buying-club members weren’t that concerned with local produce. Just the opposite. “People were looking for foods they couldn’t get here.”
The buying clubs began when Maine had only one farmers’ market and no natural food stores; when getting foods as exotic as cashews was virtually impossible; and organic and whole-grain foods were practically out of the question.
Buying clubs worked well, Herman says, because people pooled their orders to get a cheaper price. She calls this an example of the power of “the economy of scale” – the more one buys, the cheaper the price per item.
Some buying clubs grew large enough to fund storefronts, giving rise to permanent co-ops. Others divided and subdivided, but continued.
A Movement That May Die Out
Unfortunately, the same economy of scale that made buying clubs a bargain may become their undoing. Food distributors have been consolidating, as small-scale and cooperative distributors have given way to larger, corporate ones. A little over two years ago, Northeast Foods Cooperative, the last major, cooperative, natural foods distributor in New England, merged with United Natural Foods, a wildly successful private company. With the buyout, United became the only large natural foods distributor in the Northeast and the largest distributor in the country.
As part of the buyout package, United pledged to continue providing the same level of service to buying club members that they had come to expect with Northeast. However, this hasn’t been the case. Buying club members interviewed for this story had a wide range of complaints with their new distributor, including unreliable customer service, confusing record keeping and an unreadable catalog. (Multiple calls and e-mails from both the author and editor to United for comment were not returned.)
Perhaps one of the biggest shake-ups for Maine buying clubs was United’s decision to change delivery days from Saturdays to Thursdays. The change was easy for a business to accommodate, but many buying clubs have lost as much as one-third of their membership, because members couldn’t take off work to meet delivery trucks.
Tina McGowen, organizer of a buying club in Sullivan, estimates that the club’s order volume has dropped by at least one-third since United’s takeover. “They made it hard on us,” she says. In fact, she’s not sure that buying clubs will be able to survive. “Maybe it’s a way of thinking that will die out with us old hippies.”
A Home-Grown Solution
With growing disenchantment toward United, some buying clubs are looking to local produce to fill the gaps. Daaby Tingle and her husband, Glen Mittelhauser, organize a buying club in Steuben and Gouldsboro. Like other buying club organizers, they were wary of the United takeover.
“When [Northeast] got bought out by United, some of us were frustrated,” she acknowledges. That frustration grew, Tingle says, as they dealt with higher prices, botched orders and the switched pickup day.
Tingle and her family decided to explore using the club’s buying power with local farms. The task became a project for their home-schooled children, Celeste and Pepin, ages 11 and eight at the time. The two children contacted area farms and put together a small catalog of local goods for their buying club in the fall of 2004 and spring of 2005. Members chose from local winter vegetables, goat cheese, beef, chicken, maple syrup and sausage. Half the club’s members elected to buy the local goods, and Daaby heard positive feedback from both customer and farmer.
“I think people who did it were very enthusiastic,” she says – but she was disappointed that many farms didn’t respond to the club’s queries.
The Economy of Scale Redux
Allison Watters gets a better response from local farmers when she calls, but she’s not with a buying club. She’s the produce manager at the Blue Hill Co-op, a much larger produce buyer. Watters deals regularly with more than 30 Maine farmers and says that farmers prefer to sell to buyers like the Co-op that can order large quantities of produce at once. Many farmers are reluctant to deal with the smaller orders that buying clubs could put together, because to do so wouldn’t be so cost-efficient. “A lot of farmers I deal with would never drive to Franklin [for an order],” she says.
Martha Putnam deals with even larger orders than Watters does, as she helps large-scale Maine farmers find markets. “They can produce 1000 to 2000 pounds of one crop in a week,” Putnam says.
Putnam is the executive director of Farm Fresh Connection, a business that connects Maine farmers to markets in southern Maine. Farm Fresh Connection sells to such large-scale consumers as universities, hospitals and restaurants.
Putnam says she’s never sold to buying clubs. She’s used to putting together orders of 30 cases of broccoli at a time, a volume that buying clubs would find hard to match. Selling at less volume would be so cost-prohibitive for Putnam that she couldn’t offer competitive prices. To recover her costs for a small order of 10 pounds of spinach, for example, she would have to charge $8 per pound.
Still, she sympathizes with small-time buying clubs in their search for fresh produce. “It’s a struggle to get fresh stuff, because they’re the end of the line,” she says.
Start Small and Start Local
The solution for buying clubs searching for Maine produce may be to target small-scale farmers in the local community, much like Tingle and her family did. “I would urge them to join a CSA [Community Supported Agriculture program],” the Blue Hill Co-op’s Watters suggests. CSAs typically are smaller, family farms that are used to dealing with smaller orders.
Buying clubs might need to be aggressive about making connections with local farmers, however. Farmers might be eager to sell, but they often don’t have the time to seek buyers. “Somebody has to take the initiative to make contact,” says Herman.
Putnam says it’s best to plan ahead in the winter for the next growing season, like she does with her farmers. “Sit down with them in January and figure out some numbers,” she advises, and she recommends starting small, with as few as 10 items, then negotiating a price that’ll make everyone happy. “It could be that simple,” she says.
Craig Idlebrook is a freelance writer in Maine who is learning how to type with one hand while his newborn daughter uses his other hand for a pacifier.