What if you have a farm big enough to supply a restaurant or grocer but can’t or don’t want to sell your produce directly? You’d want a trusted partner to ensure you get a fair price, preferably one that can also give you packaging and quality guidance to help you sell more at a better price.
Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO) fills the role of trusted partner by working with farmers across the state to market and distribute wholesale organic produce. In February 2014, I talked with Alexis Luckey and Amy Eller at ECO, which operates out of a food hub in a repurposed East Durham warehouse, to learn more about businesses operating in the space between farms that sell their product directly to end consumers and the farms that sell to large wholesalers.
ECO not only works with farmers, they work for farmers; 40% of the ownership is currently divided among 16 farmers with the remaining 60% owned by ECO staff. Additionally, 60% of the Executive Board belongs to the farming community. They report that 80% of sales go back to their 70+ growers.
Along with the ownership structure, I also found their origins interesting because it’s a great example of grant money turning into a profitable project that attracts additional financing (see Figure 7 on page 22 of this Credit Suisse report for more about this). As a project of the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) in 2004 they received a $48,000 grant from the Tobacco Trust Fund Commission. In the ten years since they received the grant their balance sheet has been in the black each year due to their structure, market niche, and lots of passionate work by their founder, Sandi Kronick. Last year they moved from Pittsboro to Eco-Hub, a larger facility in Durham they share with like-minded organizations like Firsthand Foods, I Must Garden, and Bountiful Backyards.
ECO’s customers include local co-ops Deep Roots Market and Weaver Street Market, retailer Whole Foods, and numerous restaurants who benefit from some of the freshest produce available to businesses without a farm out their backdoor. On the day I visited in the winter, the coolers were fairly empty, but Alexis and Amy said an empty cooler is as common as a fully-stocked one since the produce typically has a 24-48 hour turnover from the field to the buyer. In fact, the produce order is likely still growing in the field when someone requests it.
Working with farmers who are new to wholesaling is one of the most challenging and rewarding tasks. In addition to being certified organic or obtaining organic certification, farms need to be able to ensure they can provide the volume and quality needed to make a profit. Quality products must meet consumer expectations, which can differ. Restaurants expect and can accept produce that may look different from what is going to be sold to you and me at the grocery store. ECO comes at the challenge from both sides—they work with their farmers to help them learn to package their products for different consumers and they also work with their buyers to help manage expectations and educate consumers.
Farmers who approach ECO considering the transition to organic production are delighted and grateful to find there’s such high demand for organic produce. This demand provides hope for farmers who want to manage their land sustainably but may have thought farmers markets or large wholesalers were the only options.
ECO fills a much-needed space in our local farming scene and they are also creating an important model that can be exported to other regions. With their farmer/staff ownership structure, emphasis on fresh food and farmer market-education support, ECO truly is a partnership dedicated to sustainable food production.
What ECO offers (Graphic courtesy of ECO):