Barriers and Opportunities to Local Agricultural Purchasing
by Restaurants and Institutional Food Buyers






Amory Starr, Adrian Card,
Carolyn Benepe, Garry Auld,
Dennis Lamm, Ken Smith, Karen Wilken




Amory Starr

Department of Sociology

Colorado State University

Fort Collins CO 80521

voice 970/491.5951 fax 970/491.2191


April 2002

Barriers and Opportunities to Local Agricultural Purchasing
by Restaurants and Institutional Food Buyers



Applying for an Agricultural Experiment Station grant earmarked for research “supporting sustainable agricultural ecosystems”, we began by defining “sustainable agricultural ecosystems”. Sustainable agriculture fits into the larger framework of sustainable ecosystems by reducing inputs (emphasizing on-farm, renewable resources), reducing polluting production-related outputs, and minimizing transport distance so as to reduce transport-related pollution.

During the 1980s, third world food programmes were dismantled or restricted under the command of “structural adjustment programmes” required in conjunction with renewal of International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans. [Bello 1994] While public food programmes withered, the global market did not necessarily take their place. Need does not produce effective demand because need does generate buying power. For this reason the international food market does not direct itself to “hungry” locales and populations. These facts and tendencies may explain the quantitative explosion of urban gardening at many scales (balconies, rooftops, neighborhood gardens, etc.) across the third world as documented by the United Nations Development Programme. The UNDP convened a Support Group on Urban Agriculture in 1992 which resulted in the publication of a major study on urban agriculture published in 1996. [Smit, et. al. 1996] Voting with their feet, the third world plebiscite confirmed the proposals of the U.S. community food security concept that local production and control of food increases food security. Simultaneously, first world organizations argued that urban food production could play an important role in the reduction of fossil fuels. [CSPI 1977] The Canadian Office of Urban Agriculture was founded in 1978 and began printing City Farmer. (now see Farmers markets and other direct economic institutions have received increasing attention as part of community economic development. Open Air-Market Net founded 1995 is “the World Wide Guide to Farmers' Markets, Flea Markets, Street Markets, and Street Vendors…research and educational project that aims to gather and provide information about open air marketplaces around the world, both formal and informal…Every open air market related resource on the internet should be accessible from here.” (

In the late 1990s, international farmers organizations began organizing across first world/third world boundaries and articulated the important political concepts of food sovereignty and multifunctional agriculture. The organization Via Campesina (founded 1993, Mons Belgium) argues that nations should have the “right” to “food sovereignty” even in a globalized marketplace. They should not be pressured (by international institutions or market forces) to devote agricultural land to export crops, to reduce the numbers of farmers, or to rely on imported food simply to participate in “comparative advantage”.  The term ‘multifunctional agriculture’ emerged at the 1992 UN Rio Earth Summit and was mentioned in Chapter 14 of Agenda 21. In 1998, the OECD Agricultural Ministers Committee confirmed agriculture’s multifunctional nature in keeping with European and Japanese efforts to protect small farms and the culture and landscape which they manifest. Traditional agriculture extant in the OECD countries is recognized to have social, economic, ecological, health, landscape and agronomic functions. In November 1999 the UN Food and Agriculture Organization held a conference entitled “The Multifunctional Character of Agriculture and Land”, contributing to the impasse on agriculture (U.S./Cairns Group vs. EU & Japan) which contributed to the collapse of the Seattle WTO Ministerial later in the month. [DeVries 2000]

            During the 1990s, Cuba was not only forced to transform agricultural production to essentially “organic” techniques to survive the loss of imported inputs, but was also forced to resurrect a traditional diet (heavier in viandas) and to create new economic institutions to manage local production decisions and to distribute fresh produce quickly. The resulting decentralization, urban markets, and semi-privatization of control over farming affirmed the importance of small-scale ownership in farm efficiency. Agricultural economist Marty Strange [1988], agronomist Wendell Berry [1977], and others had argued this case within a capitalist economy, but Cuba proved that small farms are efficient independent of the larger economic system in which they function (confirming Chayanov’s assessment that farms must be understood as a special economic category). [Rosset 1994] Meanwhile the Institute for Food and Development Policy (Food First) analyzed data cross-nationally and discovered that despite the wide variation in average farm size from country to country, it is each nation’s smallest farms which are most productive. [Rosset 1999[1]] The U.S. Department of Agriculture created a Small Farm Commission in 1998 and issued the report “A Time to Act”, which argued, affirming Strange, that small-scale farming is crucial to the economic and social health of rural communities.

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, U.S. farmer’s share of retail food expenditures was 40% or higher. In 1952 it was 47%. By 1980 it had fallen to 37% and to 30% in 1987, and in 1997 it fell to 21%. In 1967, fruit farmers earned 31% of retail expenditures. In 1997, they earned only 18%. The fall for fresh vegetables is from 32% to 21%. These changes are accounted for by the increasing share of food expenditures spent on processing, marketing, and corporate profits, and most importantly by the concentration of power in food retailing which enables corporate buyers  to drive down farm prices. While “produce is the most profitable and fastest growing department of the typical grocery store”, providing 20% of grocery stores’ net profit. The wholesale to retail margin for fresh produce is 44%, compared with 30% for farm products overall. [Elitzak 1997]

            In addition to the environmental aspects of sustainability, allies of sustainable development have pushed to expand the definition of sustainability to include social concerns including working conditions, trade equity, labor policy, and quality of community life [Trainer 1989]. In order to address new environmental and social concerns, advocates of sustainable agricultural ecosystems have recently emphasized aspects of sustainability which go beyond production concerns to embrace the economic systems in which sustainable agriculture must operate. New axes of analysis and experimental models in the field of sustainable development address the expanded matrix of sustainability in complex ways. The practice of “fair trade” emerged in the 1960s as a form of solidarity trade  aimed at increasing returns to third world artisans and primary
producers...More recently, fair trade proponents have broadened their focus from social justice to include issues of sustainable agriculture. In 1997, fair trade activists working with Equal Exchange founded a program called Red Tomato to address the fact that U.S. farmers face the same social justice problems they were working on internationally.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), developed in the late 1960s in Japan under the name “farming with a face on it”, created a new economic institution which provided secure income to farmers while educationally linking urban families to the changing fate of the farm, to seasonal food cycles, and (optionally) to farm production experiences.  Families purchase a share of the harvest once a year and receive a weekly basket of whatever is ripe, sharing both the bounties and losses of the harvest with the farmer. [Groh & McFadden 1990, Imhoff 1996]  The idea spread to Europe and then to the U.S. in the 1980s. 20 years later, there are over 1000 CSAs in the U.S. Beginning in the early 1980s[2] U.S. farmer’s markets have enjoyed a renaissance as a meeting place between changing food cultures and small farmers’ desperate needs for direct marketing in order to escape price fixing. [Lyson et. al. 1995]

Farmers markets and CSAs emphasize middle-class and upper-income households’ consumption of fresh produce. In 1991, Arthur Getz reconfigured the analytic framework of “watershed” around the local food system’s “carrying capacity” in order to trace a “foodshed” [Hedden 1929, also see Kloppenburg et. al. 1996] and Judy Green did the same with the idea of a “landscape” to image the local “marketscape”. [1994] Such systems analysis of local economies has led to policy suggestions, such as “community food security”, “food policy councils”, “food circles”, and “shortening local food links”.

Urban economic policy experiments have included attempts to “shorten the food links”, by bringing farmers and consumers closer together as the beginning of redeveloping the local economy. [Norberg-Hodge 1991, Campbell 1997]. Other urban programs, such as the Rainbow Plan in Nagai Japan have worked with other parts of the food system, such as recycling food wastes onto local farmers. [Ichiyo 1993] “Food circles” came out of the US Green Party movement and aim to develop decentralized and sustainable food systems by linking up consumers, farmers, retailers, environmentalists, and so forth. [see Hendrickson 1997]

As organic agriculture has gained market share and become a corporate agro-industrial product [Imhoff 1998], it has diverged from principles of sustainability in several ways. The definition of ‘organic’ as free of petroleum-based chemicals does not necessarily lead to a sustainable reliance on near-farm inputs but can mean import of a different set of chemicals approved for fertilizer, pest and weed control within the “organic” certification framework. “Organic” standards offer no particular resistance to mechanization, so production-related fossil-fuel pollution may not be reduced at all. Finally, organic agricultural products have been integrated into the global marketplace as any other product, resulting in rates of processing and transport undifferentiated from conventional luxury food products. [Pollan 2001, Rowell 2001]

The Community Food Security Coalition (U.S.) grew out of a 1995 white paper by Andy Fisher and Robert Gottlieb which requested federal funding as part of the 1996 Federal Farm Bill. The funding would provide seed grants for programs designed to increase nutrition and secure food access in low income communities by building new market-based economic institutions rather than relying on charity.  These have included: CSAs redesigned for low income communities which cannot invest up front in the harvest, farmer’s markets for low-income neighborhoods, urban gardens, community kitchens, incubators for processed food micro-enterprises, baby food making and other cooking classes, and shuttle services to facilitate access to higher quality and lower priced grocery stores outside the neighborhood.[3] Community Food Security analysis itself has been institutionalized in the form of Food Policy Councils, local bodies which analyze and design interventions into the foodscape in pursuit of community food security principles. [Dahlberg 1994, Dahlberg et. al. 1997, Clancy 1994] Within the Community Food Security framework, several projects have aimed to re-connect food-serving institutions like schools with local small farms. There has been some success in these efforts.

Nouvelle cuisine, developed by Chef Paul Bocuse and others during the 1970s and officially founded in 1976, brought chefs’ attention back to ingredients whose flavor was allowed to stand on its own through simplification and reductions. Starting in 1972, Chefs Jeremiah Tower and Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in California began using the freshest vegetables (which at the time was not important at fine restaurants). This twist on Nouvelle Cuisine eventually came to be known as “California Cuisine”. Chefs’ new passion brought them to farms and farmer’s markets.  According to Tower, before the late 1970s farmers market comeback in California, the only place to buy really fresh vegetables was Chinatown. Soon he was contacting farmers asking them to grow seeds he brought from Europe and to raise livestock to his specifications. [Elder 2001]

By 2000, fresh products produced in small scale had become so important to fine cuisine that top chefs in New York and even Denver were having not only artisanal cheeses but even their produce shipped in by Federal Express from their favorite farms. The organization Chefs Collaborative (founded 1993) would not have encouraged such extravagance. Their articulation of “sustainable cuisine” not only “celebrates the pleasures and aesthetics of food” but also “recogniz[es] the impact of food choices on our health, environment, and the preservation of cultural diversity.”  In 1998, a U.S. Chefs Collaborative “Woodstock” introduced chefs from across the nation to heirloom varieties, taught them about the dangers of pesticides, and encouraged them meet farmers, support urban gardens, and work on nutritional issues with schools. The New York Times quoted a chef saying “I will never again look at a glass of wine or a plate of food and not wonder how it was grown.” [Hamlin 1994]

Meanwhile in Europe the Slow Food movement, founded 1986, started to defend “the right to taste”.  [Dahlburg 1998] Recently, Carlo Petrini wrote in Il Sole 24 Ore,

Slow Food came into being…to develop correct nutritional education and to pursue and improve the quality of the food we eat. Tens of thousands of teachers and students in Italy have attended food education courses designed to improve knowledge about production processes and establish direct contacts with farmers and artisans.

In the mid-Nineties, Slow Food also decided to come out in defense of our agricultural heritage, organizing major events in support of numerous disappearing fruit and vegetable varieties and animal breeds. At first sight, such products may appear to be no more than the results of microeconomies, but in actual fact they represent a safety net for the entire European agricultural sector. As a result of our efforts, hundreds of products have been saved from extinction…

Slow Food publishes a magazine and hosts an annual fair to celebrate and protect traditional and small-scale producers. []

As issues of sustainability, food culture, and community-based economics have converged, the possibility of local food systems has become interesting to diverse actors. A number of studies have explored the possibilities for helping food-serving institutions and restaurants to link up with farmers. A 1998 study of “white tablecloth” restaurants in Florida cities found a 22% of them already buying produce directly from farmers and significant proportions willing both to try it and to pay a small premium for organic produce. [Zimet & LaColla 1999]

Organizational involvements include the USDA’s “farm to school” program. The 1998 Agriculture Appropriations Bill from the House of Representatives also mandated that federal Food & Nutrition Service “acquire commodities from local farmers markets and cooperatives to maximum extent possible”.  School programs are usually driven by nutritional concerns (therefore often parent-driven, trying to improve fresh food in schools in affordable ways), and novel education programs (school gardening programs, composting programs). Several universities have built relationships with local and/or sustainable farmers/producers for use in food service.

According to the early studies of institutional purchasing, institutions share many of the same barriers and opportunities faced by restaurants with direct purchasing, while others are distinct. The barriers shared are: increased logistical burden on food buyer (more phone calls, accounts, and deliveries to arrange), ability of farmer to deliver regularly, product availability unpredictable or inconsistent (including seasonality), cost, lack of knowledge as to how to find local suppliers, and unavailability of pre-processing (without which labor costs are higher). Additional barriers for large institutions (such as schools and colleges included in several of the studies) are: vendor bid system and contracts lock out local producers, requirements to take food from government commodity programs and Department of Defense food program, insurance requirements for vendors, little to no discretionary budget, little to no discretion to pay higher prices for higher quality. Studies of institutions found that institutional barriers were much stronger for public institutions than private ones.

The opportunities discovered by these studies include: agriculture and nutrition educational components of the program for schools and colleges, community involvement reflecting well on the institution, and growing consumer interest in seasonal, fresh, and local foods. Most of these studies were underway simultaneous with ours, so results were not available. [Lawless 1999, Johnson et. al. 1998, Enshayan & Cooley 2001, Azuma & Fisher 2001, Yazman 1991] 


Responding to the state-of-the art thinking in sustainable food systems summarized above, we defined sustainable agriculture as local agriculture (regardless of agronomic practices). Aware that this definition is neither necessary nor sufficient for achieving sustainability, we chose it as a way of participating in the localisation vector of the sustainability movement.

Next we had to define ‘local’. We sought a definition with some ecological grounding. What is the appropriate scale for a ‘local’ food system? One of the only geographical definitions which takes into account both human settlement and ecology is Peter Berg’s 1983 term ‘bioregion’. Our bioregion is the Southern Rocky Mountain Steppe, which includes the Western part of Colorado and parts of Wyoming and New Mexico. That looked too big, so we cut it down to the state of Colorado (sort of aspiring to the bioregion). This unit had some precedent, with a Colorado marketing program entitled ABC­, “Always Buy Colorado” (1981), and the revamped Colorado Department of Agriculture “Colorado Proud” (started September 1999).

Concerned with the survival of local farmers, we sought to expand on the retinue of economic institutions available to support them, by searching out larger, more stable, contracts through institutions and restaurants. Increased consumer interest in local produce could be augmented by larger-scale, more stable buyers.

We also wanted to extend the nutritional aspects of the food security movement by paying attention to the quality of food eaten by people who do not cook, or who eat few meals at home. Finally , we saw restaurants and institutions as an educational site to facilitate other sustainable agriculture goals: seasonal eating, eating responsive to what’s happening locally ecologically, a new constituency for small farms and local economics.

We call a purchasing relationship between a farmer and an institutional food buyer a local “foodlink”. Our goal was to learn how to build these “foodlinks”. 


The project was to have three phases. First, we would do telephone interviews with agricultural producers and institutional food buyers exploring barriers and opportunities to local purchasing. Second, we would design educational materials (video and print) that addressed these barriers and opportunities and encouraged farmers and buyers to work together. Third, we would use the video as a stimulus in a focus-group type setting and examine the interaction between farmers and restaurant buyers.

            We proposed to study local producers and local buyers. We defined a local producer as an owner-operated farm within Colorado. The Front Range area (including Denver, Fort Collins, and Boulder) amounts to 53% of the population (and therefore the food consumption) within the state. There are three primary agricultural regions of the state for non-grain, non-livestock crops: the San Luis Valley (13%), the Tri-River Area (39%), and the Front Range (47%).

We sampled buyers (restaurants and other food-serving institutions) in the same three areas. The Front Range, again, is where over half of the state’s resident consumption happens. The other two regions, while accounting for very little of the state’s population, but significant amounts of its agricultural production, were therefore of interest from the perspective of foodlinks. One problematic error is the exclusion of the mountain resort towns, which have low population and low levels of agricultural production but high levels of consumption, and as tourist areas, potential interest in local products. The sampling frame was the Colorado Department of Revenue lists of Retail Food Service Establishment Licenses for 1999. Over half of the sample was drawn from the Front Range, proportionally by county according to its share of the region’s population. Random sampling was then used in each county list. Sampling was continued until each county’s sample was made up of 60% local restaurants, 20% national chain restaurants, and 20% other food-serving institutions (schools, prisons, congregate meal sites, nursing homes…) Letters were sent two weeks in advance of our interview calls. Buyer interviews were performed by Carolyn Benepe, a former restaurateur, between October 1999 and February 2000.

Since exhaustive lists of producers do not exist, we created a master list from 13 producer association lists.[i] All of the producers were entered into an SPSS database which enabled random sampling for each region. 53% of our sample was drawn from the Front Range, 13% from the San Luis Valley, and 34% from the Tri-River Area. Adrian Card, Natasha Pernicka, and Seth Roberts, undergraduate and graduate students majoring in Food Crops, did the producer interviews in February, March April, November, and December, 2000. Qualitative analysis of both sets of interviews was completed by Jeff Broadie, a sociology major.

At the end of the project in Spring 2001, Benepe did telephone intervews with representatives from nine distributors operating in Colorado, not including Nobel Sysco and Alliant.

When we reached the third phase of the project, we had mixed results with the focus groups. The first one, in Fort Collins, was well attended and resulted in some new foodlinks. Additional ones were poorly attended. We decided to change the phase III strategy and hire an “organizer” to take our message to the streets. We hired Julie Finley, an experienced organic farmer who had been working on her farm’s sales to restaurants. She spent 100 hours on the phone and in person working to build relationships and she documented the trials and tribulations of each relationship she tried to build.

Findings: Food Buyers at Restaurants and Food-Serving Institutions

Of the 393 buyer interviews initiated, 154 were completed (37% response rate with four callbacks). Of the completed interviews, 15% were from Western Slope, 18% were from San Luis Valley, and 59% were from the Front Range.[4] 14% of completed interviews were chain restaurants, 61% were locally-owned restaurants, and 24% were institutions. 29% of completed interviews served less than 100 customers per day, 26% served between 100 and 200 per day, 28% served between 200 and 500 per day, and 17% served over 500 per day.

The interview schedule addressed business size, menu variability, purchasing practices and specifications, reasons for buying or not buying local products, interest in shopping on-line, and Likert scale questions regarding the importance of several variables relevant to local purchasing. 

Out of the initial sample, thirteen of the incompleted interviews were with corporate chains who said that all purchasing decisions are made by corporate headquarters and then didn’t complete the interview. After learning this from one store in any chain, we then eliminated any additional stores from that chain from the sample and replaced them. Of the 22 chain restaurants which did complete the interview, nine said that all decisions are made by corporate headquarters. So of corporate restaurants with which we had contact, 63% do not make their own purchasing decisions. Only four chains (11%) buy anything locally. A small Colorado pizza chain which buys honey from a Denver producer expressed interest in buying local produce if it could be delivered. A chain San Luis Valley motel restaurant buys its potatoes from local trucks. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream buys milk and coffee locally. An unknown burger chain buys locally, but refused to complete an interview. The buyer for 15 restaurants of one national chain without an internal commissary said that due to the restaurant’s “theme” he “would like to use Colorado products across the board if they could figure out accessibility and who to contact” but “distributors are driving the bus.” He said that if he knew how, he would contact local suppliers and see if they could match price on items. This buyer said that buying locally gives him “better control over quality, quicker service, more leverage, and also supports the community.”  Fifty percent of chain restaurant respondents said that purchasing decisions are made by corporate headquarters.

Forty-five percent of institutions surveyed do some local purchasing. None of them ranked quality as the top priority for purchasing, but thirteen percent do have seasonally-changing menus. Buyers’ information about government regulations varied widely from “Buying local is school district policy” to “state requirements prevent buying local produce or supporting local businesses.” Some saw local food as a “huge risk” or as affecting their liability insurance coverage. Of the 38 institutions, 5 claimed to be restricted to a bid system. Two of these mentioned “No local grower has ever approached us for the bidding process. They would have to meet the specifications but then would be given first shot because they are local.” Another six claimed to be restricted by purchasing guidelines or state requirements which they felt prohibited them from buying from local producers (this includes a school district which gets all food from a Department of Defense program). Another four claimed to be restricted to a list of approved vendors. And two specifically cited budget constraints which made it impossible to work with local producers. In toto, 45% of institutional buyers felt one or another of these constraints, but of these 17 constrained buyers, four still managed to source something locally.

Of the remaining 21 institutional buyers, 13 do some local sourcing and one is trying to start. Some mentioned that they “love local”, that “direct purchasing is easier and fresher and I try to support local business”, and that they “try to keep money in town”. The reasons given by the remaining seven, who do not face severe institutional constraints, but who don’t buy local, were: three insisted that they want to work only with one supplier, two claimed there is no local produce in their area, and two said that they couldn’t buy local because of the volume that they need.

Among locally-owned restaurants, 53% put quality alone as highest priority in purchasing decisions and another 14% put price and quality as equal factors. Only 18% put price alone as their top priority. (The remaining 15% put some aspect of service as their highest priority.) 10% have seasonally-varied menus. Fifty-one percent already buy something locally. The interviewer expressed concern that some buyers believe they are buying local produce when they buy it from a small, local distributor or when they walk into a grocery store to do their purchasing, but these more uncertain purchases were not included in our accounting. Interestingly, a full 60% of restaurants who do not buy locally put quality as their top buying criteria compared with 44% of those who do. This suggests that the restaurants who don’t buy local produce might well be willing to spend a little extra for it if they were convinced it would bring them higher quality.

Among restaurants who do buy something local (n=48), many buyers explained why they don’t do more of it than they do. The most common answer (n=7) was service-related issues of dependability, reliability, convenience, preference for having one supplier, and ability to get refunds. The next most common concerns (n=3 each) were delivery and the availability of the right products. Seasonal constraints, price, and supposed health department restrictions were each mentioned by two buyers in this category. There were one mention each of cleanliness, need to be able to use a purchase order, and not having been approached by local producers.

Buyers in this category also listed what works about buying local. The most popular answer was liking small, local growers and liking the face-to-face interactions (n=6). Four buyers each said local is cheaper and they buy local because of freshness. Three each said they prefer it so they can buy low volumes and that they like that growers come to see them. Two claimed local producers provide better service than distributors. One each claimed that they do it to keep money in the state and because the growers eat at their restaurant.

Among the 46 locally-owned restaurants who buy nothing local, four like the idea and are working on it. Only six expressed perceptions that it would be more expensive. The same number said that what they need is not available locally. The next most popular reason (n=5) was lack of time, followed by convenience, preferring one supplier, not knowing how to find local products, and the fact that local producers don’t approach them at n=3 each. Two buyers each mentioned the need for delivery (assuming that local producers can’t or won’t deliver) and a belief that local products are low quality. One buyer each mentioned that their distributor prevents them from buying from any other source, a belief that their distributor is honest, they are just “sticking to what we know”, a concern that health codes prevent buying local, not trusting local producers, that local producers can’t provide the volume, and one believes that their distributor already brings them local produce.

This group also mentioned some aspects of their purchasing habits which present opportunities. One said that even though the distributor is more expensive the buyer is “just lazy”. Another two said that they pay attention to whoever comes to them. One said he buys local produce at Safeway and would buy directly “if the price was right”. One said “SYSCO is low quality.” We asked buyers how they found new suppliers and ingredients (open-ended, multiple answers allowed). For locally owned restaurants, the most important source of information about new products is the salesman. Other sources mentioned by locally owned restaurants were “experience in the business”, food shows, print material, and word of mouth. They said “they come to us”. Many noted that they had never been approached by a local producer, but would be interested to be. “I would buy locally if someone would come in and show me what they’ve got.”  “We would buy locally if we were presented with a good quality product, at a good price.”

Respondents ranked on a Likert scale (5=extremely important, 1=not important) several factors. In the following chart, chain restaurants are called ‘chains’ and locally-owned restaurants are called ‘restaurants’ (rests, r). Average responses are reported three ways, as a group, those restaurants “who do” buy local, and those “who don’t”.






r who do

r who don’t

supporting local business












freshness of produce






using ingredients without pesticides and other toxins






environmental impact: amount of packaging, whether packaging is recyclable, and costs involved in transporting ingredients






choosing foods that are grown and processed locally






dependable supply (delivery times, quantity)






This analysis provides a useful check on internal validity, confirming that price is not the highest priority for any category of buyer. Freshness and service are high priorities for all buyers, which are clear opportunities for local producers. Restaurants which buy local are those for whom supporting local business is important. It’s not clear if this value was one they held before they started buying local or if it was acquired through the process of doing so.

Producers: Owner-operated produce farms

The sample of producers was initially 253, of which 46 were not called because we ran out of wintertime during which to politely ask growers for their time, 42 turned out not to be produce growers (field corn, wheat, sugar beats, grains, livestock), 32 were unreachable by phone, 14 declined the interview, 18 interviews were lost, and 101 interviews were completed and analyzed. Fourteen percent of the analyzed interviews were in the San Luis Valley, 38% were Front Range, and 49% were Tri-River area. Farm sizes ranged from half an acre to 2122 acres. Median farm size was 60 acres. 57% of the farmers gained 100% of their income from the farm while 21% gained less than 50% of their income from the farm.  Seventeen percent of the farms use some sustainable farming technique (IPM, organic, NPU, IRM, etc.) We asked what percentage of sales are within the state and what percentage are within 30 miles of the farm, but the answers to these questions are unreliable as some included sales to a nearby shed or broker here and others did not.

Thirty-eight percent of the farms sell all of their produce to middle men (packing sheds, elevators, distributors, or brokers). The other sixty-two percent sell at least some produce directly (to restaurants, grocers, at produce stands, or at farmers markets). Farms in the sample which do not do direct marketing tend to be larger — median size is 500 acres, compared with a median acreage of 30 for those who do direct market. Farms who direct market also tend to be more diversified, with 28% of those who direct market answering the question “what do you produce” with “vegetables”. Of those who do not direct market, 47% listed only one or two products, compared with 6% of those who do direct market. Twenty nine percent of the farms already sell some of their produce to restaurants. Of these farms, 60% earn at least 95% of their income from the farm. The mean farm size of those who sell to restaurants is 23 acres.

We asked farmers two separate questions about the kind of buyers that work best for their operation currently and about the kind of customer they would like to sell to. They generally answered these two questions with the same answer. Farms that do not currently do direct marketing answered very consistently that they want to sell to “ones that pay the most”, “paying buyers”, who will “buy the whole crop”, who are “loyal” (consant and repeated),  and who are fair and honest (won’t wrongfully accuse farmer of decay, “that won't lie about how much money they're making”), and who pay in 30 days. Farms that do at least some direct marketing had much more diverse responses. They talked about wanting to sell to “homemakers who want flavor”, to people who are “interested”, who “recognize a better product”, or who appreciate family farms, to people with whom they can have “direct contact on a daily basis”, to an “upscale market who don't argue about price”, to people who “know us, trust us, respect us”, who have “good attitudes and “appreciate farmers’ work”, “empathetic, consistent, and loyal”, people who “buys frequently, know and love local produce”, who are “friendly”, who like to “try something new”, “personal sales”, a “mixed clientele”. Farmers who engage in at least some direct marketing, who are diversifying their marketing are also diversifying their production and the kinds of social interactions they are having.  Instead of talking about people who will buy the whole crop, these farmers are looking for “$500 accounts”, “truckload-size sales”, and “consistent, cash sales”. A number of farmers already doing direct marketing talked about their desire for a farmers’ coop to do large-scale buying and distribution, but eliminating the middlemen’s outrageous cut.

The most important information shared by the farmers is their understanding of the problems they face: “The American farmer is an endangered species.” The wholesale prices they are receiving are totally inadequate: “Prices are similar to early 1900s.” “A family farm of 240 acres 20 years ago could make a living. Now he can’t…need more income for product.” “It would be good to see how farmers can get proportional increases in price as reflected with price on the shelf.” “Grocery stores need to be held accountable for how they do things.” “WA is doing under the table business w/ CO grocery chains.” International trade policy is destroying American farming: “NAFTA is messing up prices.” “NAFTA has killed the American farmer.” “How they can ship produce from Australia and compete with the US?” There are very few large volume buyers and they have little choice who to sell to: “There are fewer buyers now. Grocery stores have consolidated with buyers.” Small farms cannot compete with big ones and their special contracts: “Too many big farms coming in and hurting the small farmers.” “The stores are with big corporations and won’t buy locally.” The reduction in the numbers of middlemen have turned their broker or packing shed into a price fixer. Importing has resulted in a massive overproduction problem in the US: “You can build houses all over farm land and still production is too high.” They were most particularly angry that grocery chains and state institutions are not committed to selling Colorado products and that they refuse to buy direct from farmers and pay a decent price. The middle men are making all the money. From the perspective of farmers the most important thing needed is to force the grocery stores to buy from local farmers and to pay better prices.

We asked farmers “We’ve heard some buyers won’t buy locally because they can’t rely on consistent quality and quantity. What are your thoughts on this?” Farmers answered all over the map on this one, with great vehemence in both directions and nuanced answers in the middle. Those who claimed it was a big problem blamed other growers’ shoddy practices and the packing sheds for irresponsibly failing to maintain quality. Some left it at “a bunch of crap”, or “bullshit”. Those in the middle claimed that people are misinformed on this issue, that consumers have been led to have totally unrealistic expectations, that there are some weather problems but overall a good product, that it’s a quantity (length of season) issue but not a quality issue, that it’s simply about different varietals, “true, but I don’t want that class of buyer”, people “don’t really want organic”, and emphasized educating consumers.  To summarize farmers responses to this question: Perceptions of Colorado produce quality and quantity problems have some foundation but are exaggerated. The seasons are longer than buyers know and quality is higher. In addition, farms which sell grocery store produce wholesale to a packer have to give him their highest quality, when they bring what’s left to the farmers market or produce stand, customers then base their perception of Colorado local produce on the quality of seconds.

We asked farmers how many months a year they sell produce. The average was 6.4 months, with 26% of farms selling 9 or more months a year.

Respondents ranked on a Likert scale (5=extremely important, 1=not important) several factors. In the following chart, average responses are reported for farms by size category.



£20 acres




³1000 acres

n (total=101, 4 declined to state)






diversification, not counting varietals: % with more than 10 products, up to 40






% doing direct marketing






% selling to rest or inst






of those selling to rest or inst, average % of sales






average months of sales/yr






% with sales 9+ months/yr







average likert responses

using more environmentally friendly agricultural practices






reducing transportation costs






selling foods locally






As farm size decreases, farmers become more interested in sustainable farming practices and in selling locally.  The smallest farms are far more likely to direct market and to sell something to restaurants. Larger farms have slightly longer sales seasons. Twice as many large farms as small farms sell 9 or more months per year. These largest farms are not all large monocropping potato farms, some are among the most diversified category of farms who reported their products as “vegetables”.

Despite encouraging statistics, restaurant sales account for very little of total sales. It would be helpful to find out what percent of total sales are direct market in every category. It would also be helpful to find out among those who sell to restaurants or institutions how much they would like to be selling to restaurants and institutions. Some small farmers prefer direct consumer sales at farmers market, so the low percentages here could in part express preferences.


We interviewed representatives of nine distributors who sell in the state, based on a convenience sample. Eight of the distributors are Colorado owned and were able to provide estimates of how much of their produce is purchased from Colorado farmers. Their answers ranged from 6%-70% with a mean of 40% and a standard deviation of 25%. One which reports only 15% of his produce being from Colorado sources 95% of his potatoes in state. But only four of the nine buy Colorado potatoes at all.

Two of the distributors already market “Colorado-grown”. One who doesn’t said that he perceives interest from restaurants. Five say it would lower their transport costs and five say that their systems could handle point of origin labeling. On the issues just discussed, the non-Colorado owned distributor only answered affirmatively on the transport issue.

The interviews revealed a number of barriers and opportunities to distributors carrying Colorado produce. The barriers were: “California has higher quality produce and ‘pre-cools’ it”; “it’s hard for Colorado producers to compete because when produce is in season here, it’s also in season everywhere else, and may be cheaper from somewhere else”; “the demand for pre-processed vegetables makes it hard to buy from local farmers.” One distributor claimed that Colorado only has four months of production. One mentioned that a marketing campaign emphasizing “Colorado grown” would disadvantage Colorado fruit since Washington fruit has a better reputation.

The benefits/opportunities of Colorado produce for distributors are: Freshness (n=2), since it’s close it’s available more quickly (n=2), cheaper (n=2), higher quality, longer shelf life and higher yield due to less spoilage with fresher products, good relationships with growers, those Colorado farmers who are still surviving are doing a good job which “makes it easier on the distributor”, “keeping it local is healthy for the environment and business”.

Taking it to the Street: Trying to help them link up

The project produced a brief video outlining the foodlinks approach for institutions, and restaurants at all price points. We armed a community organizer with the video and some print material and sent her out to actually establish some links. Data on this part of the project are not yet available.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Colorado farms of various sizes producing corn, pinto and other dry beans, onions, potatoes, apples, cherries, and peaches sell nearly all their produce to packing houses/distributors/brokers. They know that supermarkets are charging incredibly high prices relative to the price-setting farmers face at the packing house. These products are so abundant (some used the term ‘overproduction’) that farmers see no possibility for direct marketing because brokers are the only buyers big enough to buy a significant amount. Their problems are compounded when chain groceries with stores in Colorado do not buy these Colorado products. They are angry at the packing houses for selling inferior products which damage the reputation of the entire region. (This problem is most troublesome for Colorado apples, which have superior flavor, but smaller size and less consistent appearance than Washington apples.) They are also angry at supermarket produce buyers who are too picky and have given buyers for chain stores overly rigid criteria which then trains the customer to expect a perfect unvarying and unrealistic product. [Card 2001]

If small American farmers are to survive as wholesalers, systemic change is needed to ensure that they receive an adequate, stable price. Short of such change, their survival depends on their ability to direct market.  Direct marketing requires farmers to diversify their skills and use of time. While farmers would prefer to direct market to grocery stores, large grocery chains largely refuse to engage in direct purchasing, as do chain restaurants. Farmers seeking large, stable, direct market accounts can target buyers for food-serving institutions and locally owned restaurants. It is the farmers who are not currently direct marketing who need the most assistance in making this change so as to increase the farm gate price.

Restaurant buyers are interested in quality, freshness, and specialty products. Their time constraints lead them to believe that only the distributor can provide timely, convenient delivery at a reasonable price. But restaurants who’ve done business with farmers find direct marketing to be competitive on price, quality, and service. A number of recommendations flow from this study which can help farmers and restaurants make connections.

A straightforward policy change on a state level mandating that state institutions purchase major Colorado crops (potatoes, onions, apples) from Colorado farmers would be the single most powerful market-based solution to support farmers. Second, state support for value-added processing of potatoes, barley malting, and independent beef slaughterhouses would support Colorado farmers in selling to major Colorado markets. State agriculture offices could mount campaigns to defeat myths about health department and liability problems, quality and diversity of Colorado products, and length of season. Year round products include: beans, honey, meat, cheese, eggs, potatoes, onions, quinoa, millet, flour, wine, mushrooms, apple juice, and greenhouse vegetables (tomatoes, salad mix, cucumbers, herbs). Nine month products include: apples, carrots, garlic, kale. Six month products include: bok choi, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, radishes, winter squash, celery, lettuce and salad mix, leeks, chard, spinach, kohlrabi, beets. Three months a year, Colorado produces high quality seasonal crops, including: peaches, cherries, apricots, plums, nectarines, grapes, green beans, peas, eggplants, summer squash, sweet corn, melons.

State subsidies for construction of energy-efficient greenhouses would be a powerful way to facilitate the development of a high-quality year-round supply of salad mix and tomatoes for Colorado restaurants and consumers. Finally, a state campaign should be mounted to focus on the quality of Colorado apples and their particular appropriateness for institutional and restaurant uses. While the heart-shaped large Washington apple may have become most appealing to grocery store buyers, smaller, less cosmetic, but more flavorful Colorado apples are perfect for most restaurant uses, where apples are sliced and/or cooked.

Seasonal limitations can be addressed in part by facilitating year-round production, but the more important task is fostering seasonal eating. This study found that already about 10% of restaurants have seasonal menus. This cuisine fashion may continue to grow. Chefs Collaborative and Slow Food are already encouraging restaurateurs to make this transition. Increasingly, chefs describe “market” cooking as menus that change not only seasonally, but which respond in inspired ways to what farmers bring to the market on a given day. For restaurants willing to constantly vary their menus, a CSA-type setup scaled to restaurant size would eliminate the hassles of ordering while providing stable sales for farmers. Another possibility for farmers is to contract to custom grow for a restaurant. This would provide convenience and stability for both parties. 

Many Colorado year-round products (beans, potatoes, onions, quinoa, millet, flour) are low value per volume. Small orders and constant delivery would be costly. Although the products are easy to store and have a long shelf-life, restaurants may have quite limited storage facilities. Some kind of storage is needed. Coop warehouses in urban areas with appropriate cooling facilities could store apples, potatoes, onions, winter squash, grains, meat, and dry beans. If buyers bought on contract, farmers could make one large delivery to the warehouse and then restaurants could pick up their items as needed or pay a fee for regular delivery.

Farms which already direct market most of their sales at the farmers market and in niche markets do have high prices. Their goods may not be affordable for restaurants and they may not want large accounts that take too much of their crop. But farms that are still selling most of their crop wholesale are getting such low prices that they could benefit greatly from direct marketing. They could easily ask a price somewhere between the niche market rate charged by progressive farms and the rate a restaurant is currently paying a distributor. If farmers can provide a competitive price and adequate service most local restaurants will be willing to consider direct purchasing as only a few insist on one-stop shopping. Direct marketing will require increased effort for sales calls, distribution, and transportation for many small accounts rather than dumping truckloads at the nearby broker’s warehouse.

Brokerages (including internet ones), producer coops, and “foragers” committed to supporting small farms can vastly reduce the share of price taken by middlemen and their stranglehold on the market while taking some of the marketing burden off of farmers and mimicing the convenience of a distributor for buyers. Short of these new institutional developments, the key move is for local producers to approach vendors to show quality products and explain the kind of service they could provide (delivery, responsiveness, billing cycle) as well as their pricing. In working with institutions, farmers should figure out which local institutions use a bid system and get into that process. Producers should be encouraged that nearly half of institutions and local restaurants already buy at least something local already. Farmers should be persistent and not become discouraged too quickly. Some interviewees who have approached restaurants say that the restaurants don’t want to buy enough and others say that restaurants want too much and they can’t provide the volume. This set of responses suggests that farmers should work to identify the right size of buyer for their specific operation. This anecdotal information suggests that farms just need to keep searching for a buyer of the right size for them. Farmers should also keep in mind that while some buyers will emphasize price, most will be more interested in quality. Farmers should approach buyers to show them the quality they can provide.

In encouraging restaurants to buy local, it’s important to realize that they don’t have to make a total commitment and change their whole menu constantly. It can mean just integrating Colorado staples into the menu, buying a few high-quality specialty items (salad mix, quinoa, winter squash, honey, goat cheese, herbs) from a farmer, stopping by the farmers market just for a few seasonal items, having just one changing seasonal special on the menu, or having one local (not seasonal) item: Colorado potato pancakes and Colorado applesauce.


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[1] Small farms are actually 200 to 1000 percent more productive than larger ones.  This holds true across the world where the peak productivity is well under 10 hectares and frequently under 3 hectares.  In the US, farms under 27 acres have more than tem times greater dollar output than larger farms.

[2] In 1977, the California Department of Food & Agriculture implemented a Certified Farmers Market Program. Since then the number of farmers markets in the state has grown to over 350,000. (California Federation of
Certified Farmers' Markets

[3] Low income neibhorhoods often suffer exploitation at the hands of grocery stores which charge higher prices there, market inferior products, and fail to provide a diversity of product choices.

[4] The 13 state-run senior congregate meal sites in the sample were not categorized by location, so the location percentages do not add up to 100%.

[i]   CO Dept of Ag Marketing Producer Mailing List, CO Dept of Ag “Farm Fresh” Directory, CO Apple Administration Committee 1998-1999 Assessment List, Boulder County Farmers’ Market 1998 List, Mesa County Farmers’ Market 1999 F.A.R.M. Membership List, CO Chefs Collaborative 2000 Mailing List, CO Potato Administrative Committee Warehouse and Bulk Shipper List 1999-2000, Garfield County Extension Agent’s List, Cooperative Extension NW Northwest Regional Office 1999 Vendors list, CO Onion Association 2000 Grower/Shipper Members, List of Greenhouse Growers provided by Steve Newman, CO Producers Association 1999 Directory, Dept of Ag Marketing CO Food Directory 1999.