This month has been significant for Friends and Farmers, an organization whose founders hope to open a locally owned, cooperative grocery carrying food and other products from local farmers and artisans.
After three years, its members saw their labors pay off when the Friends and Farmers online market began Dec. 2. It was a benchmark moment on the road to State College’s first cooperative.
“We live in an agricultural paradise,” co-op President Sara Spock Carlson said. “We have a really great network of farmers markets and access to local food, but that really serves a specific part of the population, and our goal is to reach out to everyone in the community.”
Friends and Farmers wants to ensure that all have access to foods local to central Pennsylvania, especially those who want to buy local but are unable to make it to farmers markets in town, Carlson said.
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“Co-ops are wonderful organizations, and many of us who have used one in the past hold it in high esteem because everyone in the community benefits from it,” said State College Mayor Elizabeth Goreham, a member of Friends and Farmers. “They have the commitment and people who want to work with them — I certainly do — to make this happen.”
Operating a grocery store is possibly a year or two away, Carlson said, so Friends and Farmers is focused on its online market, found at www.friendsandfarmers.coop.
For the online market, from noon Wednesday to 6 p.m. Friday, producers upload the available products for the week.
The almost 60 users currently registered can then peruse the website for products they want to purchase from Friday until noon Monday.
Twelve producers offer products such as vegetables, fruit, eggs, beef, cheese, bread, cookies, pies, sauces, soups and granola mix.
“With the Internet base of this, it allows consumers to shop until 3 in the morning, so it’s one more way to reach more demographics and be more technically savvy,” said producer Jason Coopey, owner of Way Fruit Farm.
Customers pick up their purchases at Good Shepherd Catholic Church on Tuesdays.
At the first pickup, Dec. 2, 24 customers shopped among seven producers, with almost $600 worth of local produce and products sold, Carlson said.
David Rice, producer and owner of Clover Creek Cheese Cellars, said the first weeks have gone “incredibly smooth considering all the learning curves,” and he has had more costumers ordering each week.
The idea of having an online market is fairly new. The motion to open one was passed by the co-op’s board in September after research had begun in the summer, Carlson said.
She described the online market as an excellent way for the cooperative to prepare to run a business and become accustomed to working with farmers and pricing before it achieves its end goal — a storefront.
“We keep using the phrase, ‘from click to brick,’ ” board member Michelle Marchetti said. “The online market is really the teaching tool for us.”
Marchetti said she hopes the online store will teach the Friends and Farmers network how to effectively market and package the food before the cooperative is ready to open its store.
Carlson said multiple benchmarks must be reached to open the store, with the biggest being securing a site and, more important, growing membership.
To get the grocery store Friends and Farmers wants, 1,300 people must be signed up as members, far from the current total of 288.
“Our community has what it takes,” Goreham said. “We have a lot of interested farmers and a lot of consumers who would love this.”
Membership is not required to purchase from the online store, but owner-members are allowed to vote at membership meetings and run for board positions, and they will receive a year-end patronage dividend of net profits at the discretion of the board, according to the Friends and Farmers website.
The price of membership is $300, to be paid either in full or in three installments. Applicants with limited incomes may pay 10 installments of $30, Marchetti said.
“We have people ask us all the time, ‘When is the store opening?’ ” Marchetti said. “But we can’t open until we have enough community members investing. Now is the time to invest and help us go forward.”
To encourage investment, Friends and Farmers offers its members a 10 percent discount on the online market and a loyalty program involving more than 40 local businesses that have agreed to offer discounts to cooperative members.
“I believe we really do have an agricultural paradise here, and we need to preserve it,” Marchetti said. “The whole notion of the cooperative is that we can achieve something together that we can’t achieve on our own.”