Today we’d like to introduce you to Cindy Gentry.
Thanks for sharing your story with us Cindy. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
Sun Produce Cooperative (SPC) is a multi-stakeholder agricultural and marketing organization that includes agricultural producers, distributors, buyers and market specialists.
Incorporated in 2017, Sun Produce Co-op (SPC) was started to address a need expressed over and over again by smaller-acreage farmers in the Phoenix metro area for viable alternative distribution streams. Specifically, it exists to reduce barriers to market entry, gain economies of scale through its aggregate size, and leverage cooperative branding and marketing and supply purchasing efforts for these small-scale producers.
The co-op model supports its members to combine product volume and variety as well as resources and expertise to expand reach into new markets. SPC connects increased consumption of local food for the better over-all individual and community health to farm viability and economic development.
SPC coordinates farmer-member production, aggregation and distribution to increase sales of locally-produced fruits and vegetables. It serves children, families and individuals throughout the Valley of the Sun and Tucson area through its Farm to School, Farmraiser / Healthy Fundraiser programs and through caterers, restaurants, food banks, health care, wholesale and retail partners who want to provide locally grown food to their customers.
With a dedicated volunteer board and the participation and guidance of its members, it has grown its customer base from serving one school district in 2017 to 12-15 customers in a given week. Grant funding from Vitalyst Health Foundation and the Maricopa County Cooperative Extension support the rental of a truck from United Food Bank / Waste Not each week as well as a part-time driver. Maricopa County Dept. of Public Health dedicates 50% of a Food Systems Coordinator staff position to help coordinate orders and administrative tasks. It has currently 9 farm members and 13 additional members from non-profit and government agencies as well as representatives from the local food community.
And a burgeoning relationship with Pivot Produce, a like-minded group based in Pima County that connects smaller-acreage farms with chefs, hospitals and schools, works with the Co-op to offer produce that is in season in southern Arizona to central Arizona, and produce available in central Arizona to Southern Arizona customers – expanding volume and variety year-round in both geographic areas.
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
The road has not been entirely smooth of course: encouraging small-scale farmers to work together after years of viewing each other as competition has been an opportunity and a challenge. And, since the co-op is ‘owned’ by its members, they need to be active in guiding its growth and trajectory. This often adds additional work and time commitments to people who are already way too busy. Likewise, engaging the farm members to view the co-op as more than just another sales outlet is also a work in progress. Further, based on the success of the Farm to School movement across the country, the co-op initially identified schools as having major customer potential. We are working to address barriers identified by various school food service staff that preclude them from buying local. They are too busy, and would prefer to buy through a single source purveyor (which usually does not source from local farms); there is a perception that local produce is more expensive. And sometimes it is – although it can’t be beaten for freshness and taste. There is also a perception that procuring local food is more complicated, though it is not. And there is a concern about food safety. What are the farms’ production practices since the schools do not want to accrue a liability for serving produce that may not be safe for their children.
Finally, getting funding for staff and infrastructure – a staging cooler, general manager, field coordinator, marketing and more is, as for most start-ups, an ongoing effort. Currently, two volunteers staff the co-op (one is paid 50% of her time through her job at Maricopa Co. Public Health). And thanks to grants through the Vitalyst Health Foundation and the Maricopa County Cooperative Extension, and a generous price discount from United Food Bank /Waste Not to hire a truck, the co-op has a part-time driver and delivery vehicle. And one of the members, Pinnacle Farms in Laveen, allows the co-op to cross dock orders each week in their cooler – and get them ready to deliver. But SPC still struggles to find the people-hours to go out and do customer development as well as provide the education that is necessary to encourage people to buy from local farms, and, even to know what to do with the fresh produce: how to store and cook it, and why it is important to buy local. We say we are working with paper clips and bubble gum to hold everything together, but looking back over the last 2.5 years, the co-op has come a long way. Using even more paper clips and bubble gum but now with some added experience. SPC is starting to gain attention in the community because of the high-quality products it provides and because it is helping to create a demand for local produce.
Please tell us about your business.
SPC coordinates among 9 small-scale farms that are sprinkled throughout the Phoenix area, Maricopa and its partner in Tucson, to provide fresh and local produce to its customers. These customers include caterers, a mobile farmers market, schools, neighborhood grocery stores, and FarmRaiser partners. The FarmRaiser program offers a weekly subscription bag of products assembled from the co-op members. FarmRaiser partners include schools, businesses and municipalities throughout the valley.
With three major growing seasons in the valley, SPC specializes in offering a wide variety of heirloom and unique products each week, well beyond the types normally found in grocery stores. With the fall season coming in strong now there is a gorgeous panoply of fresh greens, root veggies, fruit, herbs, squash, onions and garlic and even flowers and honey and eggs. They are harvested within one or two days of delivery and so just exude color, freshness and vitality! The passion of the farmers and their commitment to working the land to provide food for their families and the community is inspiring. Working in all seasons, out of doors, with their faith that their hard work and connection to the earth will pay off, in the face of the vagaries of nature and the onslaught of commercial development, keeps us at the co-op moving forward, to lift up their importance and help more people than ever appreciate and value them. We are proud to celebrate working together and learning from each other as well as establishing this cooperative experience together.
If you had to go back in time and start over, would you have done anything differently?
I would recommend creating an advisory board that included some angel investors that would have allowed the co-op to build some infrastructure and operating revenue from the start. I would also recommend involving some specialists in farmland conservancy since so many of the farms in the Phoenix metro area are rapidly losing their land to developers.
- Address: 2816 E. Mercer Lane, Phoenix, AZ. 85028
- Website: sunproducecoop.com
- Phone: 602-469-9400
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Facebook: Sun Produce Co-op