Iowa Public Television


Growers Group Goes Wholesale

posted on November 21, 2003

From the tension-filled streets of Miami to the corridors of power in Washington, it's been a week of impact for rural Americans.

Even so, the day-to-day business of working and earning a living rolls on. In some cases, that's required a novel approach.

One such example is an Iowa-based operation that originally was financed through the sale of $10 shares to farmers. Those shares have doubled in value since they first were sold in 2002. And some retailers now are paying three to five times the cost of conventional commodities to get Wholesome Harvest products into their stores. David Miller provides this update on a marketing success story.


Growers Group Goes Wholesale

Wende Elliott, and her husband Joe Rude, run the Harmony Hill Farm, just south of Colo, IA. Elliott and Rude are actually new to farming. The couple first met while working in New York City, only to discover they were both Iowa natives who shared a common dream of living a rural lifestyle. After the birth of the first of their three children, the couple decided to move back to Iowa and follow their shared dream.

Wende Elliott, Harmony Hill Farm: "And we thought it would really make sense for our health and in a spiritual way and in a physical way to go back to Iowa and raise the kids in rural Iowa. And so we both got really excited about that even though I didn't come from a farm background."

They are typical small farmers; Rude has an off-farm job and Elliott works out of their home. After returning to Iowa, it was clear that staying on the land would not be possible without a profitable method of selling what they raised. <

In the beginning, the pair went to various farm group meetings where Elliott heard producers complaining about not having an easy way to market their products. She began to think about the fact that by using skills from her previous job in logistics, she might be able to come up with a solution.

In 2002, after three years and several hundred thousand dollars in grants, loans and personal time, Wholesome Harvest, a limited liability corporation, was launched.

The first small group of farmers has blossomed into a consortium of 34 entrepreneurs in four states. Since the word has gotten around, there are now 60 family operations across the U.S. awaiting evaluation to become members.

Elliott became president of the board for the fledgling company. She assembled a staff to handle marketing, logistics and technology duties. Recently, she gave up the marketing duties and hired two people to take her place.."

Wende Elliott, Wholesome Harvest: "Well, I'm still planning on working about 70 hours a week, I'm not yet out to pasture. But we hired two national account sales managers that really will be our road warriors and represent the farmers..."

It was decided that all the animals would be raised, processed and certified according to USDA certified organic standards. The only direct to consumer venue would be via the Internet.

Wende Elliott, Wholesome Harvest: "I would say the people in our coalition are some of the most successful direct marketers in Iowa and in the Midwest, so they're not dilettantes or beginners, they're people who have already worked at farmers markets or made direct sales in a limited way and they know where they've reached their ceiling and how many hours there are in a day."

Currently, all the meat is processed and distributed by the Edgewood locker in Edgewood, Iowa, about 145 miles away. But this will not be the only locker used by Wholesome Harvest in the future. As the company expands into different parts of the country, other more centrally located processors will be found to do the work.

Bill and Mary Beaman raise 180 Angus-cross cattle and grow row crops on 320 acres near Lenox, Iowa. With two off-farm jobs and all the chores associated with their Beamans Grazier Farms, the benefit of having someone else do product marketing was too good to pass up.

Bill Beaman, Beaman's Grazier Farms: "Farmers are great producers but they just let the marketing slip away from them over the years until we've fallen into this trap of commodity pricing where you just take what you're going to get. And with Wholesome Harvest we have the ability to ask a premium price and we have to furnish a premium product and we have to find customers that want to be part of this."

Though Wholesome Harvest will purchase product from non-investor farmers that conform to the company's strict standards, as stockholders, the Beamans will be among the first to be contacted when the corporation needs more product. As yet, no cattle from their farm have been sold to the consortium but when it happens they will be paid $1.65 per pound. .

Shortly after the group was formed, Elliott managed to get products into organic grocery stores and on to the tables of gourmet restaurants around Iowa. But over the past few months distribution has increased. In June of this year, Hy-Vee, a super-market chain with more than 200 stores in seven Midwestern states, began distribution of four products from their line.

Mike Tetmeyer, Hy-Vee: "I guess the one thing that I particularly liked about Wholesome Harvest is that they had a full profile of all their producing families. And we think that that's also a good tie in our advertisements... And I think that the customers, especially those that buy organics, like to know the source of that product.

Last month, Elliott was part of a marketing mission to Japan where she made contacts for possible overseas contracts. And the Wholesome Harvest line will soon appear on the shelves of some of stores of the Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods Market. Whole Foods, which specializes in organci and natural products, has 145 locations in 25 states and Canada.

Wende Elliott, Wholesome Harvest: "So, we're really focusing on what we can organize and what we think we do need to control which would be the marketing and the relationship with the end user and to try to outsource the things that we don't have the capital ability to own ourselves."

And as the company continues to expand, Elliott remains optimistic about the future of Wholesome Harvest.

Wende Elliott, Wholesome Harvest: "So, what I hope we do as we'll grow is that we'll continue to be decentralized in our production clusters ... that we can be as easy to deal with for a grocery store as a big food company but that we can still stay true to our mission and provide local food that has a farmer's face behind it. That's what we're shooting for.

For Market to Market, I'm David Miller.


Tags: agriculture Iowa news rural