Deb Reynolds knows the grind of the farmers' market circuit. She used to drive from Cawston to Vancouver four times a week to hit different markets around the city. The draw? A customer base willing to pay a good price for her organic fruits and vegetables. The drawbacks? A five-hour drive each way, early mornings, late nights and too much time away from the field.

While Reynolds knows that farmers' markets are an important outlet for people who want to buy local, she also knows they can be a pain in the ass for farmers.

She has since left the farm, but her experience gave her unique insight into how she could support farmers while meeting urban demand for local food. Reynolds has been the catalyst for a new co-operative venture called the Home Grow-In Market Collective, a place that offers the ethos of a farmers' market with the convenience of a retail store.

Small, specialized distributor outlets like Reynolds' likely will have to multiply if local food economies are to thrive.

Although farmers' markets are growing in size and number across Canada -- one report found they generated sales of $1.03 billion in 2009 -- they aren't an ideal alternative. Limited hours and locations prevent some shoppers from reaching them, and as Reynolds found, they are a huge time commitment for farmers themselves.

"What I'm trying to do with my growers," says Reynolds, "is bring a market to them, rather than them having to go to the market. I want to show there is a market for their produce seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year."

The Home Grow-In Collective Market is already the distribution centre for the Reynolds' buyers' co-op. The growers who contribute to the co-op, seven in total, agreed to use part of the members' fee to pay rent on the space. At the end of this month, the market will open to the general public. Fourteen vendors in total will have space there and will share the costs of utilities and staffing. Everyone involved had to contribute to about $100,000 worth of renovations, says Reynolds.

"This way, they don't have to be there -- they can get 100 per cent of the profit while paying a fraction of the operating costs," she says. "We're trying to prove to the world that a community of small businesses can get together for the benefit of all of us."

Started as neighbourhood grocer

The idea spun off from a store Reynolds opened in April 2009, called the Home Grow-In Grocer. It's a tiny shop on the corner of a quiet residential Vancouver street. On the day it opened, Good Friday, Reynolds had $2,100 worth of produce spread out on a couple of picnic tables. She sold out in two hours.

Her mission with the store has always been to support local farmers. All 41 suppliers are B.C. companies, and she says 90 per cent of the food she sells comes from within a 100 mile radius. Within months of opening, Reynolds launched a buying club -- the Home Grow-In buyers' co-op -- working with existing suppliers, her shop employees and many of her existing customers.

The co-op is similar to a Community Supported Agriculture program in that members buy shares of a farmer's harvest in the spring, and then receive produce boxes throughout the growing season. It's different in that it works with seven different producers and is staffed by Home Grow-In employees. She has two employees working full-time bringing produce from the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys, and other suppliers bring it in themselves. All of the produce goes to Reynold's warehouse in Surrey, where it's washed and packed and then trucked into the store.

This summer, shares cost $250 to $600, depending on size, and the yield was a box of produce per week from June to September. The arrangement seemed to work well for all parties -- knowing they had a guaranteed market, growers could plan their season better, and members had easy access to local, fresh produce. All proceeds went to farmers to cover the cost of production, harvest and transportation. In it's first season, it was extremely successful, selling 200 shares.

Mecca for local food lovers

The Tyee visited Home Grow-In on one of the last days that it hosted the co-op box pickup for the season. It's easy to see why they need more space. On this warm afternoon in early fall, the shop is a hive of activity on a usually quiet residential street.

Stacks of Tupperware totes filled with fruits and vegetables are arranged on the narrow strip of grass between the road and sidewalk. Employees skirt around them, filling boxes for the members, who are milling around with carts, bikes and strollers. Store manager Jennifer Sweeney makes the rounds with a plate of fresh cantaloupe ("You've got to try this," she exclaims), and co-op manager Alannah MacLennan is signing up members for next season's winter produce box and meat box.

Meanwhile Reynolds circulates like a good host at her own party, greeting regulars by name and handing out ice cream cones to their kids. Robert Commandur, an organic apple and pear grower from the Okanagan, hovers nearby, waiting to catch her attention. He has driven down to check out the store and its clientele, and to talk to Reynolds about becoming a supplier.

"Prices with conventional systems are really bottoming out," he explains. Afterwards, he says he is optimistic that supplying the co-op would be good for his business. "I'll get a price I know I can live on and support the farm," he says.

At the co-op table, Marcella Paolli is loading the goods into her bike pannier. She says she joined because she wants to support B.C. farmers and teach her kids about where food comes from. Since the farmers' market at Nat Bailey stadium moved, "it's not really convenient for me," she says. The co-op is now the most convenient way for her to get fresh, local produce.

Mark Macutcheon, who is signing up for the winter produce box, says he and his wife also stopped going to the market regularly when it moved.

"We didn't want to drive, it was kind of defeating the purpose. We'd been going to the [Home Grow-In] grocery anyway, and when we saw the box we thought it was a pretty good idea, to support local farms and agriculture. And we're happy."

Using the success of the first season as leverage, Reynolds convinced her suppliers to pitch in on a larger home base for the co-op program. This fall, the co-op began distributing its winter produce and meat boxes from the Market, a larger space located on Cambie Street.

Everyone pitching in

Reynolds says the new market space will bring a sense of permanence and credibility to the co-op box program, but will also help some of the farmers supplying the box program.

"We needed a home for the co-op boxes," says Reynolds. "But we're also working with people who have stretched themselves thin doing farmers' markets. They can't afford to put in a storefront on their own."

Jerry Gelderman of Gelderman Farms, for example, is providing pork for the winter meat box, but will also have a permanent freezer at the Cambie market. Gelderman says that while there is an advantage to going the farmers' market route, it's a lot of extra work.

"Once we started, we realized the commitment that every other store puts in to be there," he says. "It's huge."

He says working with Reynolds has been a very positive experience. "People seem to be responding really well to her and what's she's doing."

Ron Tamis of RonDriso Farms is one of the main suppliers for both the store and the food box program. He operates a 70-acre farm in Surrey, right next door to the Home Grow-In warehouse, that is part of a parcel of land that his father bought in 1958. Though he's always worked in agriculture, doing crop management and custom operations for larger farms, only in the past five years has he been farming his own property full time. He produces vegetables -- sweet corn, potatoes, carrots, onions and beets, to name a few -- as well as beef and poultry.

He and his wife run a store out of their farm, sell every Wednesday at the Surrey Farmers' Market, and also earn revenue off their pumpkin patch, which is open to school groups during the week and to the general public on weekends. Each year, his crop variety and volume has grown a little bit -- this year, he went from growing 500 to 3,500 feet of carrots. He acknowledges that he's a rare thing in today's world, where the small family farm is quickly disappearing, and says that a large part of his success is due to his relationship with Home Grow-In.

'You can count on orders'

"I'm shipping a lot more product," he says. "It allows me to concentrate more in the field. Deb reaches that target market that is specific to the type of farming that I'm doing. When you have a box system, you can count on a weekly basis that there are orders there."

It's a reciprocal relationship. Tamis and Reynolds have staff that float between the two operations. Sometimes Tamis will help Reynolds bunch carrots for the boxes, for example, or sometimes he will pay the wages of her staff to help at harvest time.

"We do everything by hand," he says. "The labour requirements that we have are way higher than what a commercial farm has."

Could the Home Grow-In model be duplicated elsewhere?

"One of the things that Deb has in spades is the go-to-it-ness, just do it," says co-op manager MacLennan. While Reynolds is focused on the co-operative spirit of all the parties involved in the Market Collective, the former thoracic surgery nurse downplays her own role as a dedicated and effective organizer. She is also someone who believes so much in the cause -- the viability of B.C. farmers -- that she is known to offer suppliers more than they ask for their products. Reynolds is the exception rather than the norm when it comes to setting price. As Gelderman puts it, "we are basically at the mercy of our retailers."

"We do not make money on the produce," Reynolds says. "Even retail. I make my money selling the milk, the eggs, the honey, the pickles and the other stuff in there." Reynolds acknowledges that she's able to sell at a premium because of the area of Vancouver she's in. "What my customers will bear is comfortable for them," she says.

Tamis, for his part, says that this system is working for him and thinks it could be duplicated elsewhere. "It's all on market demand," he says. "And I do believe it is a growing trend. We see an increase in business with our store. As long as the cheques keep coming in, then you have a guaranteed income.

"It's a light at the end of the tunnel."  [Tyee]

LOCAL FOOD TAKEAWAY: SMALL CO-OPS FILL GROCERY GAPS

Canadians spend roughly $60 billion on food each year, about half at supermarkets. Giant conglomerates like Loblaw Companies Ltd. and Sobeys have not only bought up grocery chains but also vertically integrated food wholesalers and distributors to serve their many locations.

This centralized system tends to leave smaller- and medium-sized farmers out of the chain.

Solution: A renaissance of co-ops are willing to deal with smaller growers in exchange for greater control over where produce comes from and how it's grown. Home Grow-In is just one example. The People's Supermarket recently opened in London, advertising lower prices for members willing to put in a few hours of work per week and the Elm City Food Co-op is slated to open soon in a downtown New Haven 'food desert.' Last month CNN's money section heralded 'The rise of the grocery co-op.'

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