Foraging away

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff

Dave Schrader, produce assistant manager at the Monadnock Food Co-op, holds a tablet showing Forager, the platform the co-op is using streamline ordering from local farmers.

The Monadnock Food Co-op has partnered with an online platform to improve its connection with local producers.

Forager is a software that allows farmers to communicate to grocers which crops and products they have available and at what prices.

David Stone founded Forager a few years ago in Maine.

“Technology has not caught up with our demands for local foods, and it really needs to, to help improve the whole supply chain,” Stone said.

Forager acts as a facilitator between farmers and the grocer, he explained. Without the platform, each farmer sends their crop availability to the co-op individually.

“The challenge is, if I want to buy from a single distributor, even two, it’s pretty easy,” Stone said. “... If I’m working with 20, 30 independent farms, the communication, the ordering, the paperwork, everything is manual and very difficult to do.”

The co-op’s produce manager, Allen Raymond, agreed.

“It can get very hard,” Raymond said, adding that in the shuffle a grocer can lose potential product and damage relationships with farmers.

Stone said the platform is a boon to farmers, as well, noting that those who use Forager sell, on average, 11 percent more crops.

The co-op launched a three-month trial of Forager last fall with seven of its main local suppliers. Raymond said the platform’s benefits quickly became evident, saving the co-op about six hours a week in labor.

“(It) doesn’t seem like a lot, but when you’re working with tight margin items and the perishability of produce, saving six hours a week — to be able to talk to our farmers more or converse with our customers more or organize the cooler — can be pretty impactful,” Raymond said.

After the trial’s success, the co-op fully implemented the software and has since doubled the vendors on the platform. The co-op typically gets to a peak of at least 40 suppliers a year, and Raymond hopes to see 30 of them on Forager by July.

“It’s our new normal now,” he said.

Raymond said Forager contacted the co-op early last year, but the grocer didn’t have the resources to invest in the platform at that time. When Raymond was promoted to produce manager in August, though, he said testing out Forager “seemed like a no-brainer.”

Jenny Wooster owns Picadilly Farm in Winchester, which was one of the initial testers of Forager during the pilot program.

Despite every supplier’s best efforts, she pointed out that each farm was establishing its own unique system for interacting with the co-op, which in turn had to juggle all of those different systems.

“While our communication was going smoothly and running well for five years, it still required a very specific effort on the part of the co-op to look at our list at the right time and order at the right time,” Wooster said. “So Forager, it meets everybody right at the middle.”

The platform streamlines the process for the store without adding any work for the farmers, she said, and it reduces errors in invoices. And with the technology in place to handle most of the logistics, there’s more room for personalization in the business transaction.

“It’s a way to automate without removing the relationship piece that we really value with our buyers at the co-op,” Wooster added.

While Picadilly is easily one of the largest farms selling produce to the co-op, Wooster said, Forager presents an opportunity for smaller suppliers to get their foot in the door with an easy-to-use platform.

“As it catches on, it’s going to be a boon,” she said, for farms of all sizes in the region.

Sierra Hubbard can be reached at 355-8546 or at shubbard@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @SierraHubbardKS.