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Co-op helps small, South Ohio farms tap large markets.


Pumpkins are the third largest fresh market vegetable produced in Ohio. More than 7,000 acres across the state are dedicated to pumpkin production. According to the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service, consumer demand for specialty pumpkins has grown steadily in recent years, and future growth is forecasted. The thriving market for pumpkins provides Ohio growers an opportunity to sell locally grown pumpkins at a premium price. The Southern Ohio Growers Cooperative (SOGC) illustrates how small farms can work together to serve large markets.

Buyers search for great pumpkins

Brad Bergefurd, horticulture specialist at the Ohio State University (OSU) South Centers, has conducted pumpkin research since 1998. His research identifies top-performing pumpkin cultivars with highly marketable traits and tolerance to plant diseases and pests. His reputation for helping farmers grow superior vegetables means Bergefurd often fields questions--from growers and buyers alike--about pumpkins, produce and fresh vegetable marketing.

In 2015, Bergefurd received calls from regional buyers seeking pumpkins.

"I was being contacted by larger buyers. I talked to local growers who I have consulted with for years and who had shared their interest in expanding to wholesale markets; but they did not have large enough acreage to do it on their own. I pitched the idea of a marketing co-op, and invited them to OSU South Centers to meet with Ohio Cooperative Development Center (OCDC) Program Manager Hannah Scott."

A group of eight growers, including Cameron and Mandy Way of Way Farms, attended the meeting to explore how cooperatives help members achieve their goals.

"Our motivation to start a co-op was the idea that small growers could come together to serve larger markets," Cameron Way says. OCDC provided co-op education, assisted with business and financial planning, and guided the group through federal and state business filing procedures to legally form the Southern Ohio Growers Cooperative.

Co-op helps members diversify crops

The cooperative business model supports SOGC members' aspirations to diversify their operations.

"Over the years, we have had to reduce the amount of burley tobacco we raise," says Joy Bauman of Turkey Run Farms. "We had been seeking out other opportunities to enhance our farm income. This is our second year of raising five acres of pumpkins. If it weren't for being able to work with the members of the SOGC on marketing, we would not have considered raising pumpkins to help fill the gap."

Cooperatives create stability, thereby strengthening relationships with customers. Consumer spending on fall decor is second only to Christmas spending. A stable supply is critical to buyers' bottom lines during the fall season.

"My farm had heavy rain this season," says John Voltolini of Three V Farms. "I anticipate a lower yield because of it, but other members can make up for shortages."

Members new to growing pumpkins benefited from the advice of members who had grown and marketed pumpkins in the past. Members Cameron and Mandy Way guided new growers through chemical application procedures. When it was time to pick varieties for the upcoming growing season, veteran growers shared their experience and selected varieties with consistent performance.

Mandy Way's background in business helps her effectively manage the co-op. She oversees ordering, distribution and supply purchasing. "The co-op purchases bulk supplies, like bins and chemicals, and passes the savings on to members," she says.

Research, technical help benefits growers

Bergefurd continues to provide growing assistance to members of the SOGC. This year, his research focuses on powdery mildew, a persistent problem for pumpkin growers in Ohio. OCDC also provides ongoing technical assistance to the co-op, including board of director training, and helps members develop a marketing agreement and end-of-year financial statements.

"One of my proudest moments was seeing SOGC's first year profits shared back with members," Hannah Scott says. "That revenue would not have happened without the co-op."

The Southern Ohio Growers Cooperative's first season was a success. SOGC delivered over 500 bins of pumpkins to regional retailers.

The co-op's goals for the future include building a reputation for quality, increasing the volume of pumpkins and adding additional fresh produce offerings.

Ivory Harlow

Editor's note: Harlow is a cooperative development specialist with the Ohio Cooperative Development Center, Ohio State University South Centers.

Caption: Cameron and Mandy Way check on the pumpkin crop at Way Farms. The motivation behind the Southern Ohio Growers Co-op "was that small growers could come together to serve larger markets," says Cameron. Inset: Kent Bauman with his daughters Molly--holding a 40-pound, Early Giant variety pumpkin--and Whitney. Photos courtesy Ohio Co-op Development Center
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Title Annotation:Pumpkin Power
Author:Harlow, Ivory
Publication:Rural Cooperatives
Geographic Code:1U3OH
Date:Sep 1, 2017
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