Finding a good supplier of local produce, particularly locally grown fruit and vegetables, can be harder than you might imagine.
This is because fruit and vegetable production is much lower in the UK than in other European countries and has been declining dramatically over recent years. In addition, the short supply of seasonal labour, high input and machinery costs, and low profit margins means that growing fruit and vegetables may not be as attractive as other types of agriculture. So although there are a lot of websites and directories listing local producers there tend to be far more meat and dairy and secondary producers (food processors or manufacturers) listed than there are fruit and vegetable growers.
Also, even when you have do have a farm's contact details, you may find it difficult to find someone to speak to as farmers are very busy and often out in the field, so may not always respond straight away to phone calls, letters or emails. However, it is worth persisting and contacting as many potential growers as possible, making sure that you provide details about your project and what you are interested in buying.
Once you do get in touch, many farmers may not be interested in supplying food co-ops because they are not able to deliver small orders, are already at capacity or have decided to concentrate on one main outlet, such as selling via farmers' markets or running their own box scheme. They may even see you as competition. It is important that you 'sell' the objectives of your food co-op, the fact that is aiming to help the community and not make a profit and that, if successful, it could provide a long-term outlet for their produce.
You may also find it hard to find the range of produce your need for your food co-op. What farmers grow depends on the individual supplier and their location. Some producers grow a range of vegetables, others focus on one crop. Some farmers will grow just potatoes for example; others concentrate on supplying outdoor crops such as a full range of seasonal vegetables, which will mean that what is available will vary markedly depending on the time of year. Others will use greenhouses and polytunnels to produce crops that need protection such as salads and exotics like peppers. Many might also be able to supply eggs. Fruit growers tend either to specialise in tree fruit (also known as top fruit) such as apples, pears, plums or cherries; or soft fruit such as strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, blackcurrants.
It is also important to remember that most shoppers at food co-ops will want to buy some produce that cannot be grown locally, such as bananas and oranges. So if you are going to provide all your customers' needs you will need to buy some imported as well as locally grown fruit and vegetables.
This means you may have to use more than one supplier, for example a local farmer for some produce and a wholesaler for others. Alternatively you may be able to work with local farmers and see if they are also willing to act as wholesalers. As well as supplying their own produce, they could also deliver different varieties grown by neighbouring farms, as well as some imported produce. These may be farmers who either run or supply other retail outlets such as farm shops and so already have to buy other produce anyway. There are also a number of farmer co-operatives or distributors who will supply on behalf of a number of producers.