coop vegetables

Start a Produce Co-Op

I started my first produce co-op when my oldest was five years old and it started out of necessity.  My family had a limited budget and I was determined not to feed them anything that required to be opened with a can opener.  Fast forward 23 years, and I’ve started another co-op but this time I started it to support our local South Carolina farmers and to “spark joy”.  Anyone that knows me, knows I love supporting our local farmers! 

With the SC State Farmers Market just 20 minutes from Irmo, all things grown can be found there and at wholesale prices.  Want to purchase a Washington State apple for .20, or a one pound bag of carrots for .30?  Then start a produce co-op.

So, how do you get started?  With these simple steps.

  1. Pick an organizer.  The organizer will set the date, time, location of the produce pick-up, keep all families in the loop and ensure all monies are collected.   I’m the organizer of our co-op and sorting/pick-up is at my house.   We shop on the 2nd and 4th Saturday mornings of each month (consistency), and have 3 shoppers/3 sorters each time.  This makes the chore of shopping and sorting super easy.
  2. Gather families that want to save money, require them to commitment, and set a contribution amount.  I gathered 12 families, we shop early on Saturday mornings (market opens at 5 a.m.), require the 12 families to commit to participating twice a month, (if they are unable to pick-up they are required to find a sub, but we have many families on a wait list), and each family contributes $20 in cash for each sort.  All monies are pooled together and spent on fresh produce. Keep it a “cash only” contribution.   Farmers don’t take plastic and frown when you show them a check.  Keeping the co-op limited to 12 families makes it easy since produce items come in bulk and packed by 12’s.  By way of example, a bushel of corn has 48 ears and with 12 families, the math is easy.  Also, bring a calculator to keep up with what you spend. You do not want to overspend and you want to spend every last dollar you have.
  3. Make sorting and shopping easy.  Our co-op requires everyone to volunteer to shop or sort.  We schedule 3 shoppers and 3 sorters each time.  As a shopper, you’ll get to choose what’s being purchased for the week (FUN!) and it’s always best to purchase what is in season. I would encourage you to walk the market to find out what deals farmers are offering and, if possible, drive your husband’s pick-up truck.  Our goal is to purchase 6 different types of veggies and 4 different types of fruits to pack in the bags.  It’s plenty for a family of 4 and generally will last for up to 2 weeks. 
  4. Families picking-up produce and getting ready for the next co-op day.  To make life easy, when our families pick-up their overflowing bags (usually at 9:00 a.m.), they must drop off next sort’s $20 into an envelope, decide and sign up to volunteer, and drop off two brown paper bags that we always use to sort into. Super easy and ready for the next sort! 

I started my first co-op because I was determined to provide my three young children something healthy to eat and yet affordable. You would be amazed how much money starting a co-op will save you, your friends and family. Not only does a produce co-op save money, it also encourages healthy eating habits that our children will take with them into adulthood. Plus, it helps our local farmers and that’s what community is all about. Now take these tips, find your 12 families, and go start a co-op and support our beautiful farmers!

Author: Heather Hardy, former owner of Brown Box Veggies