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Natural Foods Merchandiser

Buyer's Journal Plants Seeds for Next Season

Produce Perspectives

Does this sound familiar? "Wow! That's the best peach I ever had!" "I've eaten tomato sandwiches every day for a week; I can't believe the smoky flavor of the these Black Krim."

We are officially in the peak of most local growing seasons across the United States. And along with amazing produce flavor, I've seen growers' photos and profiles on produce department walls, farm tours being offered and in-store produce tastings becoming the norm. Much to our customers' delight, I'm sure.

While you are enjoying displaying and selling this season's produce, I suggest that it's time to start thinking about next year. Why, you ask? Well, let's look at some valuable information you might have available right now:

  • Early Moon and Stars watermelons don't have enough sugar the first two weeks of the season.

  • The KY beans are most tender on the first pick.

  • Contact whitewater tour guides about using Foxfire Farm's giant zucchinis for canoes.

The quality conditions of each produce item are a lot to keep track of throughout the season, let alone remember in the winter when you have next year's grower meetings. It would be like trying to remember in December everything your friends said last summer that they wanted for next Christmas. Realistic? Not even with the best of memories.

So where do you begin? Start by keeping a buyer's journal. Take a few minutes each delivery and record everything that is going to make a difference next year. Keep a section for each grower, and list all the different categories that make a difference to the success of your program. For example:

  • Delivery and order schedules
    Your note: Growers keep calling during peak business hours. The apricots sat at the farmers' market all day and were delivered at 3 p.m. instead of 10 a.m.

  • Postharvest handling, good and bad quality standards
    Your note: Farmer A has got to stop packing zucchini in banana boxes; they get squished and are too heavy for the crew. The arugula bunches need to be larger for the price the grower wants.

  • Sales and weather
    Your note: The purple Cherokee tomatoes sold two times better than expected July 4 weekend. The hailstorm on Aug.2 really hurt the corn crop, and we had to switch to conventional, which cut sales in half.

  • Surprises
    Your note: We brought in Kadota and Calimyrna figs, and we increased our Black Mission and total figs sales. Selling mixed colors and varieties of cherry tomatoes by the pound was better for the customer and easier for the grower. Green tomatoes sell with a good recipe.

The delight of making these notes is the detailed information you'll be left with. These examples show some benefits to keeping a journal for the winter's grower meetings. This doesn't have to all fall on your shoulders; get the crew involved, have them enter their observations in the journal. As a matter of fact, I suggest that you have your growers do the same.

What's next? Take this information and review how you can make each other's lives easier. Create a set of grower guidelines that document the best order and delivery times. For example: We take orders between 9 a.m. and noon, Monday through Saturday, because then we have the best grasp of our inventory and are fully present in the ordering process (not doing three other things while trying to order).

Explain your bunching and packing needs for optimum sales and have clear quality standards and postharvest techniques. For instance: Zucchini needs to be firm, 6 to 8 inches long, packed in 20# boxes with all field heat removed.

Everyone knows what's expected, and you'll be amazed at how much chaos this will take out of both your and your grower's daily routines. Now when you sit down to draw up a grower retailer agreement for next season, you both can expect very few surprises and you can concentrate on selling the amazing, local food.

One last thing to remember is that as of Oct. 21, 2002, you will need to have proof of your growers' organic certification on file if you are buying direct from the grower. Only if the farmer grosses less than $5,000 a year in total organic sales does he not have to be certified under the new regulations. But you will have to have a detailed affidavit of each grower's organic growing practices on hand. Both the proof of certification and the affidavits have to be kept current each year.

Good luck with your local programs. I believe that doing these few simple things now may prove to be the best holiday gift you can give yourself this year.

Mark Mulcahy runs an organic education and produce consulting firm. He can be reached at 707.939.8355, or by e-mail at

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIII/number 7/p. 30

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