Iowa Food Cooperative: farmers to consumers
More than 100 different producers
DES MOINES — Call it a win-win. Farmers access a new market and add more sources of revenue into their business, while cutting the time and cost of marketing.
On the flip side, consumers enjoy convenient, year-round access to hundreds of food choices directly from Iowa farmers.
It’s all part of the Iowa Food Cooperative (IFC), which has served Iowans since 2008.
“Every day people make choices about what to eat,” said Gary Huber, general manager at the IFC. “We make it easy to shop your values.”
Farmers across Iowa who sell through the IFC supply everything from beef, pork and poultry to fruits, vegetables, grains, flour, honey, herbs and more. Shoppers can also find a selection of non-food items made by Iowa artisans, from health and beauty products like soaps and bath oils, to household supplies like candles, home decor and more.
“Unique, quality products are available from more than 100 different producers through the IFC,” Huber said. “Shoppers also have the ability to find what they want, based on preferred product attributes.”
The IFC’s online shopping platform, complete with a search function, streamlines the ordering process. Delivery and distribution occur at specific dates in Des Moines, plus consumers can pick up their goods at satellite sites in West Des Moines, Ankeny, Ames and Osceola, according to the IFC’s website.
“My order last time was so good,” said Susan Seitz, an IFC shopper from Des Moines. “The greens and salad additives were outstanding, as was the homemade bread. I served both at three different meals, and people were amazed at the freshness and quality of the food. Thanks to everyone who helps supply me with such flavorful, healthy food.”
Know your farmer, know your food
While the IFC took shape a decade ago, its roots run even deeper.
“The cooperative incorporated in July 2008, with its first distribution in November 2008,” Huber said, “but the whole process involved a decade of trying to figure out how to access markets, followed by a two-year planning grant from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture that led to the IFC’s launch in 2008.”
Since then, more than 200 people have sold products through the IFC. Approximately 65 to 80 suppliers sell during any given cycle, Huber said. Top-selling products include eggs, meats, yogurt, kombucha tea and baked goods, along with produce during the winter months.
Lee Matteson and Rose Schick, who run Lee’s Greens, LLC, of Nevada, got connected with the IFC by other farmers who were selling through the cooperative. Lee’s Greens has been supplying products to IFC shoppers for nearly five years.
“We have heated greenhouses and outside field produce, so we are able to do all-year sales,” Matteson said. “In the winter, greenhouse-grown salad greens are our most popular product.”
The process of selling through the IFC is fairly simple, Matteson added.
“Once your farm is approved by the IFC, produce is listed on an online format every other week. Inventory can be altered during the buying period. Once the buying time is closed, we bag or box the produce and deliver it to the IFC pick-up store to be picked up by customers.”
This direct connection to consumers in the Des Moines metro area is a big plus for a small business like Lee’s Greens.
“We also appreciate that the people with the IFC are super friendly and are always trying hard to sell for the farmers and vendors,” Matteson said.
Francis Thicke, owner of Radiance Dairy, of Fairfield, has only sold his dairy products through the IFC for a few months, but he’s impressed with the service.
“We sell fluid milk, of which whole, unhomogenized milk is the best seller,” he said. “We also recently started offering Jack cheese, and we sold a lot more of it than we expected for the first time offering it.”
The ease of selling through the IFC is a benefit to Thicke.
“Farmers post products they have available online in a shopping cart,” he said. “Buyers select what they want by clicking on available products. That signals to farmers how much of each product has been bought, and farmers then deliver those products to the distribution center for buyers to pick up.”
Thicke plans to sell Radiance Dairy products through the IFC year-round.
“The IFC is well organized and managed,” said Thicke, who grew up on a Minnesota dairy farm, trained to be a soil scientist and worked at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C. before returning to dairy farming in 1992. “If we have any questions, the management is good about helping us. The whole system is very easy for farmers to participate in.”
Redefining the future of local food
Consumers like Lauren Young, of Ankeny, appreciate the ease of connecting with Iowa’s farmers through the IFC.
“Over a year and a half ago we joined the IFC, because I like to know my steak was grazing the fields near Creston,” she said. “My ground beef was humanely raised near Kellerton. I like knowing my cream-line milk, butter and cheese came from Waukon, and that my purchase allows these farmers to carry on the work they’ve dedicated their life to. I also like knowing that our purchase every two weeks helps preserve Iowa’s farmland, gives back more money to farmers and supports my community.”
The benefits don’t stop there, Young added.
“The food tastes better, it’s way fresher and it’s not overpriced. You can’t beat the fact that membership is free for the first six months,” she said. “When you buy from the co-op, you’re supporting your neighbor, not the corporate food industry. Shop local, thank a farmer.”
While the IFC has faced its share of challenges through the years, from governance issues to adding drop-off sites and balancing supply and demand, Huber said the future is bright.
“We’re changing the way we feed ourselves, and people are responding with enthusiasm,” he said. “We also have something no other grocery store can easily do, meaning every product is traceable back the Iowa producers who have grown, raised or made the products.”
Thicke believes this system has the power to transform local food systems.
“The IFC is a really neat and progressive model,” he said. “It’s a great use of technology, and it seems to be manifesting the future in local food networking.”
Those interested in more information about the IFC are recommended to visit them online at iowafood.coop.