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Photo: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/11646053@N04/8439347472/">Sergio Ruiz</a>, Creative Commons, some rights reserved
Photo: Sergio Ruiz, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

How a St. Lawrence county coop is building local food distribution

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A farmer cooperative in St. Lawrence County is getting a federal grant to sell more local produce to schools and hospitals. As David Sommerstein reports, the North Country Grown Cooperative is one group trying to build a distribution system for local food in the North Country.

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One of the biggest obstacles for the “local food” movement is distribution. Farmers markets and roadside stands only serve so many people.

Essentially, small farmers have to create a distribution system from scratch, parallel to the traditional one set up by CISCO and supermarkets and the like. Hospitals, schools, and restaurants need huge deliveries of tomatoes or apples or lettuce.

Our biggest challenge is to get enough product to sell to them.

Sue Rau manages the North Country Grown Cooperative, which pools the produce of 30 farms in St. Lawrence County to sell to those institutions. Rau says the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 109,000 dollar grant will help those farmers scale up.

In methods of growing better, and being more efficient, and planning their crops better, so that we will be able to have more product for our customers when they need it.

North Country Grown already sells to SUNY Canton, SUNY Potsdam, and St. Lawrence University. But it’s annual sales only total anywhere from 80,000 dollars to 100,000 dollars a year, less than the USDA’s grant. Rau says one big opportunity for growth is to extend the growing season. She says the grant will help farmers do that.

Our growing season in the North Country is almost exactly opposite the busy season at the colleges and the schools and everything, so the more we can get into high tunnels and greenhouses and cooler storage facilities, the more we can sell in the winter months.

The USDA grant is part of a program that helps small and minority farmers grow their businesses. The USDA’s Doug O’Brien says aggregating produce is crucial for small farms to succeed.

The best place to get to scale so that it’s truly profitable for farmers is to access these institutions, universities, hospitals, places that buy significant amounts of food.

Rau says the money will also help farmers draft food safety plans, something many institutions require to do business.

This is the third grant the USDA has given to North Country Grown. The cooperative has also recently gotten money for a new refrigerated truck and coolers for storing produce.

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