Starting a Produce Co-Op

“A DOLLAR APIECE?!?!” I stared at the Wal-Mart checker in shock.   He held my bag of oranges uncertainly, while the turquoise readout beside him displayed its ominous message: $14.00.   Yup.   I had fallen victim to two grocery shopping faux pas.   First of all, when I saw the “Rollback” logo above a tantalizing display of beautiful oranges, I believed they were on sale.   Second of all, when I saw $1, I believed it was per pound, not each.   Wait, three mistakes.   I also didn’t know my prices, because $1 per pound still isn’t a great deal on oranges.   And I guess shopping for produce at Wal-Mart could be considered a fourth mistake, since their produce prices really aren’t that great.

fresh fruits and vegetables

We just moved to Texas last summer when my husband finished grad school.   We have never had to be as careful with our budget as we are now, and it is quite an adjustment.   I’ll spare you the details, but let’s just say that our growing family has more expenses now than we’ve ever had and the cost of living in Texas is not as low as we were thinking it would be.   I am working diligently to find every money saving measure I can.   Some things, like using cloth diapers and having one car, seem to be palatable sacrifices for our family.   Other efforts, like clipping coupons and buying used appliances, have been hit and miss.   One thing that has really helped us with saving money is our produce co-op, which is a way of buying in bulk with our friends and neighbors.   You can start one, too.

Getting Started

Here is what you’ll need:

  • 6 to 12 committed participants, preferably with large vehicles
  • A few alternates to substitute when participants are out of town
  • A shopping schedule (we go every other Friday)
  • A budget (we contribute $10 per half share)
  • An arrangement for collecting money (We use PayPal and mark payments as “personal” to avoid fees; you could also collect in person, have people mail checks, etc. This just works best for us.)

Logistics

A shopping trip will yield 6 shares of fresh produce.   In our group, most people only take a half share.   Those people are paired together so we can divide the produce six ways.   Arrange the pairs by geography (live on the same street) or relationship (best friends, mother/daughter, etc.) and designate one of them “team leader.”   Put each person/team on a calendar, according to your shopping schedule.   Since we shop every other week, each team shows up on the calendar once every 12 weeks.

On shopping day, the shopper/team of the week goes to the Dallas Farmers Market and purchases produce for the entire group.   They drive it home and divide it into six or 12 equal portions before delivering it to team leaders (five stops besides their own home). It is helpful to have some grocery bags saved for when you are dividing the order.   The individual teams are then responsible for splitting and delivering half shares.

The shopper puts their receipts and any change in an envelope/binder/flex-file/whatever that they give to the next scheduled shopper.   In my group, I also record the receipts in our blog, along with any relevant recipes for the week’s goodies.   You can check it out to see exactly how much food you can get for $10.

She Is Dallas info: The Dallas Farmers Market is located in the southeast corner of the central business district in downtown Dallas, at 1010 South Pearl Expressway, Dallas, TX 75201.   Two large lots provide plenty of free parking.   The Dallas Farmers Market is open for retail sales from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. daily.

Shopping the Farmers Market and Produce Wholesalers

Most of our shopping so far has been at produce wholesalers in the Dallas Farmers Market district.   There are a lot of places you can shop and it’s good to go to all of them to compare prices, if you have the time.   Most of them are in a straight row across the street from sheds 3 and 4 of the Farmers Market, so you can really just walk down the street and pop into each one.   Prices fluctuate on a weekly basis according to season and farming conditions, so buy in season items for the best deals. The Texas Department of Agriculture provides a produce availability guide to help you on that front.   Here are some hints about each wholesaler, working our way up the street:

Harrington Wholesale Produce–Their prices are the highest, but their quality is consistently excellent and they have everything.   You will have the fewest (if any) “bad apples” in the batches you get from Harrington’s.

Red Barn–Small selection, but great prices and great quality on most items.

Trans Pak, Inc.–A supplier for Costco, this wholesaler has some really good stuff.   We have gotten unbelievably good deals here, too.   For example, I went in once and they were trimming red grapes off bunches to make bags of equivalent sizes for Costco.   They sold me HUGE bags of grapes off the vine for $1 apiece.   In November, we paid $12 for 100 of the best pears I’ve ever tasted in my life.   They will also cut you deals on stuff that’s not moving well.   For example, they had some really ripe kiwis that needed to be eaten within two or three days, so they sold me a flat of 36 for $3.   Also of note, Harold, who works there, invented a recipe for some spicy pickles that will knock your socks off.   To try is to crave.   He knows that, so he’ll gladly give you a sample.   Pick up a bottle when you go in.

Thomas Mushroom and Specialty Produce–We have only been here once, even though it’s right next door to Trans Pak.   It’s worth stopping by just for the smell, though.   Here, you can get mushrooms, fresh herbs, spring mix, French beans, etc.   Just be sure to do the math, though.   Cilantro comes in a batch of 36 bunches.   You won’t pay much for it, but each half order will end up with 3 bunches, which is more than I can personally use before it goes bad.   We got mushrooms and rosemary there and it was heavenly.

Paradise Produce–Unbeatable price on strawberries.   The Red Barn guys actually told me about Paradise, because it was around the corner and I hadn’t been there before.   Basically, they told me that no one could beat Red Barn’s prices on anything, except that Paradise could beat them on strawberries. And they were right. When we went, they were $10 for a flat of 8 cartons.   Paradise will also fax you their price list every week and have your order waiting for you when you get there if you call ahead.

Shed 4 of the Farmers Market–Our co-op started pretty late in the year, so the local farmers haven’t had a lot.   It is picking up now, though, and they’ve got some good prices.   In addition to their regular hours, I have heard that they have a night market where restaurants go to shop.   I attempted to go a few weeks ago for a little adventure, but it was still too early in the season for the night market.   Be sure to call during the day before you go to make sure it’s open.   What you’ll find in Shed 4 is mostly local, if you include Mexico. And I do.   I’ve gotten a box of 88 Texas oranges there for $14.

And that’s a whole lot cheaper than Wal-Mart.

3 Comments

  1. Awesome! It’s so neat to hear about other people doing similar things. My friends and I came up with something like what you guys do, except that we take turns going directly to the local farms for the produce and the other members of the “split” show up at the house of the person who made the trip to the farm.

    We used to organize ourselves by having meetings once a week or by making phone calls, but that got really tedious. Now, we use an online tool called SplitStuff (http://splitstuff.com). We just post the details of the split and organize the logistics online. And it also makes it easy to buy in bulk from distributors and split the cost and the goods–that’s a huge savings for us.

    Annette

  2. Do you have to file anything to become a co-op? And how does the wholesale produce sellers know that you are a co-op?

  3. Happy Texan says:

    Hi Kristina,

    You don’t have to file anything. The wholesalers don’t need to know you are a co-op in order to give you a good price. You get the discount for buying in bulk and the prices are either posted on the wall or available in a printed price list. They don’t care if you are a co-op, a restaurant, or an individual–you’ll get the same price for a case of peaches whether you are dividing them with your friends or whether you are canning them yourself. We have posted the details from some of our receipts on our little co-op blog so you can get an idea for what things cost: http://fmproduce.wordpress.com/category/what-we-bought/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *