Ozark Farmers Cooperative finds success first year - The Packer

Ozark Farmers Cooperative finds success first year

10/14/2013 06:06:00 PM
Coral Beach

Ozark Farmers Co-opHaving waded into the locally grown market this season, some growers in a co-op based in West Plains, Mo., plan to dive in and plant more than triple the tomato plants for 2014 in response to overwhelming demand from a regional grocery chain.

Craig and Patrice Jennings got the idea for the Ozark Farmers Co-op a couple of years ago when they were taking classes at Missouri State University-Springfield and stopped by the dean’s office to discuss local agriculture.

“We were talking about how one of the biggest challenges for local growers is getting their produce to market, finding a buyer,” said Craig Jennings.

Encouraged by the dean, the couple started talking to other growers in the region and spent a year getting paperwork together and filing documents with the state.

Grower Dan Leary, West Plains, is president, Patrice Jennings is vice president and Craig Jennings is project manager for the co-op.

Then the officers started looking for buyers and they found Dennis Hughes, director of produce operations for RPCS Inc., formerly Pyramid Foods.

Craig JenningsCourtesy Ozark Farmers Co-opBecause of sell-out results this year, Craig Jennings, West Plains, Mo., plans to triple his tomato plants for the 2014 season, which will mark the second year of operation of the Ozark Farmers Co-op.Hughes said he was immediately interested in listening to the cooperative’s pitch because of the increasing demand for locally grown produce. Hughes said 10%-15% of the produce in the chain’s stores is locally grown.

The chain, based in Rogersville, Mo., was founded with one store in 1919. Today it operates 53 stores under 10 banners across southern Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas. Hughes said demand for local labels really took off in the past year in the Midwest.

“One of the biggest challenges local growers have is getting consistency in sizes and quality. They have to mirror pack sizes and styles of major players because that is what our systems are set up for,” Hughes said.

Craig Jennings said the cooperative’s growers are up to the challenge. Although harvest wrapped up already this season, the cooperative members are still working. They are developing a planting schedule for members to help ensure consistent supplies through the 2014 season.

The cooperative officers are also working on securing cooler space for short-term storage. They are also fine tuning transportation and box designs for their produce.

Craig Jennings said some of the cooperative’s growers plan to plant additional commodities for 2014, including beans and squash.

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