Catching up with Tuscarora Organic Growers Co-op

“What sets us apart is the diversity of produce over the course of the year,” says Jeff Taylor, general manager of the Tuscarora Organic Growers (TOG) Cooperative in south-central Pennsylvania.

Eric Lofhjelm, TOG’s production coordinator, helps Christopher Waesche unload blackberries grown at Waesche’s Jubilee Organic Farm in Martinsburg, W.Va.

A glance at any of the co-op’s weekly availability lists reveals “diversity” to be an understatement. In the fall, six pages of items include kiwi berries; baby arugula; fava bean shoots; Chioggia, gold, red and white beets plus baby beet greens; broccoli leaves, florets and crowns; maroon, yellow and Purple Haze carrots; Cheddar, green, purple and Romanesco cauliflower; celeriac; chickweed; collards; cress; Italian and red ribbed dandelion; baby fennel; white, softneck, purple striped, red and elephant garlic plus bunches and braids; baby ginger; Jerusalem artichokes; yacon; Redbor, green and Lacinato kale; leeks and baby leeks; plus seven kinds of lettuces, mesclun, and Asian and mixed micro greens. This is only about a fifth of the items that were available in late October last year.

Beets, carrots and chard continued throughout the winter, along with numerous varieties of mushrooms, fingerling potatoes, claytonia, baby red kale, greens, mustard greens, turnips, rutabagas, salsify and shallots, along with the squashes – acorn, gold acorn, Honey Bear, buttercup, butternut, zebra butternut, golden hubbard, baby golden hubbard, Long Island Cheese and pie pumpkins. A wide assortment of culinary herbs augmented the mid-December availability list.

Spring brought two pages of bedding plants with assorted hard-to-find and unusual vegetables and herbs, plus a wealth of chard varieties, lettuces, and beech, crimini, maitake, blue oyster, yellow oyster, portabella, royal trumpet, shiitake, white and button mushrooms. Twenty different herbs, including five mints, five kinds of radishes, white sweet potatoes, stinging nettles, scallions and pea shoots were part of the assortment.

One would expect the summer offerings to be dazzling, and TOG’s listing in early August this year did not disappoint. Vine-ripened, field-grown heirloom tomatoes of every color – green, orange, red, red/brown, red/gold striped, pink, purple, yellow/green striped, yellow, white – and shades in between. Beefsteak, cherry, grape, plum and several odd shapes made up an entire page of the seven-plus pages. Many featured variety names. Moreover, customers could choose mixed boxes and various sizes. Galia melons; Crimson Sweet, red seedless, Sugar Baby and Yellow Doll watermelons; All Blue, German Butterball, gold, red and white potatoes; and a plethora of summer squash, peppers, corn and cucumbers of numerous varieties added to the sampling of summer’s bounty.

Taylor says, “To get that kind of diversity on a local, organic basis is kind of amazing.”

Meager beginning

The Tuscarora Organic Growers Co-op started in 1988 with three organic growers. The 80-square-foot office they started in had one desk and two telephones. The originators envisioned complementing each other rather than competing by coordinating production and enjoying economies of scale in shipping and selling. They embraced the “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” idea long before it became trendy. During their first season, seven growers shipped 1,500 cases of produce to retailers in Washington, D.C., over a five-month period.

Now, four full-time staffers and 12 part-time employees handle twice weekly, year-round deliveries of over 100,000 cases annually. They operate with 10 computers in a 10,000-square-foot facility near Maddensville, Pa. Five coolers along with storage rooms ensure the proper temperature for the 1,200 items distributed.

Currently, 44 member-growers vary in size from a few to over 100 acres. Many, but not all, farm in or near the valleys of the Tuscarora Range of the Appalachian Mountains. All are certified organic.

How TOG operates

Produce is sold wholesale in the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., metroplex. TOG’s customers are as diverse as their growers. About a third are restaurants, retailers make up another third, and the balance is comprised of growers who run community supported agriculture (CSA) programs or their own farm markets. Customers include Restaurant Nora, Woodberry Kitchen, Bon Appétit Management Company, Roots Market and Mom’s Organic Market. TOG growers host periodic farm visits for customers, where, Taylor observes, “They are appreciative and awed by what we grow.”

Except the weeks of Christmas and Thanksgiving, TOG receives produce from growers on Mondays and Thursdays. From 7:30 a.m. to noon, refrigerated trucks, pickups and SUVs converge on the loading dock. Deliveries to customers take place Tuesdays and Fridays. Orders are accepted via fax, online and by phone.

Staffers check receiving and packing and oversee shipping and delivery. Written standards, approved by TOG’s growers, were developed to ensure quality. These also include size and are based on USDA and industry sources. The standards also encompass packaging to ensure consistency among various farms. “When you open a box, it’s beautiful to look at, with paper liners, product the same size, fragile items individually wrapped, and we’re consistent,” says Taylor.

All the boxes are labeled with the grower’s name, lot number and date of packing, which facilitates tracing if it becomes necessary. Organic certification also requires record keeping.

Growers are trained by Penn State in good agricultural practices (GAP) and good handling practices (GHP). In addition, they hold educational meetings to stay current in production techniques, and open communication is prevalent among growers.

During the winter, Eric Lofhjelm, TOG’s production coordinator, visits each farm for a commitment to supply, with their best efforts, a designated amount of certain produce items during specified weeks. Of course, farmer experience, location, facilities and preferences are considered. Synchronization avoids oversupply at peak times, facilitates longer seasonal availability, and provides the enviable diversity that TOG has nurtured. Taylor notes, “TOG is market driven, not production driven.”

Thoughts on Cooperatives and Organic Production

Two of the three founders of the Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative, Jim Crawford and Tony Ricci, share some insight on co-ops and organic production. Both are still member-growers.

In his presentation in the session “Challenges and Solutions for Local Food Producers” at the USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum in February, Crawford had several suggestions for the USDA: preserve and strengthen cooperative extension and the sustainable agriculture research and education program; conduct more research on organic production; implement new and beginning farmer programs; encourage the formation of marketing cooperatives and food hubs; and fix and expand H-2A.

Ricci notes that the structure of agriculture today does not constitute an environment for young people to enter the business. He says the success of the organic and buy local movements were built from the ground up by people who grow and buy, not by the government or agribusiness. However, he foresees change. He says, “Consumers are now more proactive. They want to know what’s on their plates.” That was personally important to TOG’s originators, but Ricci feels that now consumers have a newfound freedom. TOG will continue to grow and fulfill their needs.

If demand for certain items cannot be fulfilled, the staff sources the product among nonmember organic growers to satisfy customers. In addition, TOG supplements its availability with a few items that cannot be grown in its region. However, the nonmember organic growers TOG uses are held to the same standards of harvesting, grading, packing, storage and food safety.

TOG growers can also sell in other outlets. Many operate CSAs and sell at their own or other farmers’ markets. The bylaws do prohibit a grower from competing with the co-op, however.

Growers receive 75 percent of TOG’s selling price. The other 25 percent, calculated to maximize return to the growers, is set to operate the service provided by TOG.

The board of directors, each a member-grower, provides direction. One of the founders, Jim Crawford of New Morning Farm, serves as president. Mark Stanley, Help From Above Farm, is vice president, and Roy Brubaker, Village Acres, serves as secretary-treasurer.

A grower for 40 years, Crawford reports that more greenhouse growing and increased storage capacity has enabled TOG to be profitable even in the winter months. He counts excessive labor costs and inefficiencies and the changing climate among the challenges the co-op faces. Jim and his wife, Moie, rotate 45 acres of diversified vegetables adjacent to the TOG facility.

Eric Lichty, Shoestring Acres, shows the size and glossiness that TOG’s markets prefer with Irene, a hybrid Italian eggplant.

Benefits to member-growers

Taylor says, “We work for the growers; they don’t work for us.” He explains that the co-op was created by the growers as a service for themselves, and the staff was hired to provide that service.

“I’m a better grower than a salesman,” explains Eric Lichty. “I would not be in the business if not for TOG’s marketing organization. It permits growers to focus on growing.” He and his wife, Helen, own Shoestring Acres and grow an assortment of vegetables near Clearville, Pa. Previously conventional growers, the Lichtys joined TOG in 1997 after transitioning to organic production.

Tim Derstine in Hares Valley, Pa., farms a range of standard vegetables plus specialty items such as fingerling potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, pea shoots and lemongrass. As a youngster, he assisted in his father’s corn and wheat farming. Derstine was in the landscaping business for 16 years before he began producing vegetables and joined TOG in 1989. With his wife, Linda, the Derstine family currently farms in two locations and maintains a flock of laying hens. Derstine counts the knowledge imparted among the advantages of TOG. He also points out the benefit for TOG’s many Amish growers: “At their locations everybody grows vegetables. TOG gives them the opportunity to get their produce to cities.”

TOGs general manager, Jeff Taylor, runs the day-to-day operations from this office.

Founding members of TOG, Tony Ricci and Becky Smith operate Green Heron Farm near Three Springs, Pa. They specialize in greens, herbs, garlic, berries and flowers. Ricci says TOG provides a market advantage that growers, both large and small, would not have individually. “They codify the standards,” Ricci adds, referring to TOG’s system to ensure consistency and quality.

Taylor attributes the success of the Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative to the truly cooperative business model developed by Crawford and Chris Fullerton, a long-standing manager. Coordinated production, an independent staff, the stress on quality and product diversity allow TOG to fulfill its promise.

The author is a writer/researcher specializing in agriculture. She currently resides in central Pennsylvania.