Kansas Grocer Forms Unique Relationship with Local Farmers

Produce items adorned with oval-shaped gold stickers at Hiawatha Thiftway, located in northeast Kansas, are grown by local farmers. Store owner Tim White partners with the local farmers’ market to bring these locally grown foods into his store.

“That’s the relationship I’ve tried to build with the producers,” White said. “They come to the market to sell their goods, and they hope they sell out. If they don’t, I’m here to help them out. I want to sell that product on my shelves, too, and give people who can’t make it to the market the opportunity to buy those locally grown products out of my store.”

The local market runs out of Hiawatha Thriftway’s parking lot on Tuesday evenings and gives people the opportunity to have more access to fresh produce. Vendors display their garden vegetables, fruits, herbs, and homemade jams, jellies and baked bread in front of the store, which might seem odd considering some of the items compete with goods sold in-store.

White said at first he was skeptical about putting competition at his front door, but he remained open-minded. A customer helped him see how the situation could prove beneficial.

“A customer looked at me and said, ‘You know, you put that farmers’ market in your parking lot, I’m going to shop it, and then I’m going to shop your store,’” he said. “So a light bulb went on at that time.”

The customer was right indeed. The market has created a social event that White said has made him feel as though he’s contributing to something greater for his community. It has even brought new faces into the store.

A parking lot that belongs to a neighboring church has been used at times for vehicle overflow on Tuesday evenings, which he said used to be the store’s slowest night of the week.

“The grocery business is a hard business,” White said. “Profits are almost unattainable sometimes, but that particular evening, we saw about a 4 to 5 percent increase in sales. I consider that amazing, because to get a 4 to 5 percent increase in sales is almost impossible to buy through advertising.”

David Procter, director of the Center for Engagement and Community Development at Kansas State University, works regularly with grocers through K-State’s Rural Grocery Initiative (RGI)—an initiative that helps identify and develop models to sustain retail food sources in rural areas. He said the rural grocery business is not only tough, but it’s competitive. To be successful and compete with some of the larger food retailers, rural grocers must be innovative and entrepreneurial.

Research (http://www.ruralgrocery.org/news-archive/Miller%20-%20How%20Rural%20Stores%20can%20Imporve%20Sales.pdf) led by K-State agricultural economists Hikaru Peterson, professor, and Hannah Miller, graduate student, found certain strategies can help make rural grocery stores more competitive.

These strategies include partnering with other institutional food buyers such as nursing homes, schools or other businesses; offering a fresh and locally sourced meat counter; maintaining a strong sense of customer service; and partnering with local growers to sell locally grown produce in the grocery store, as Tim White has done.

More access to fresh produce

Some say necessity is the mother of invention, meaning that difficulties inspire solutions. Several citizens of Brown County, in partnership with organizations such as the Kansas Health Foundation and Hiawatha Foundation for Economic Development, formed the Brown County Healthy Foods Coalition that made the farmers’ market at Hiawatha Thriftway possible.

“The necessity was that Brown County was unhealthy,” said Don Nigus, program director of the coalition, referring to Brown County’s former rank toward the bottom of healthy counties in Kansas. “Some people in the community were looking for a project, and the project seemed to fit the need.”

Three years ago, this group of people, called the “transformers,” wanted to first help the Hiawatha community by improving access to healthy food, particularly fresh produce. They determined through focus groups that one potential solution was regular access to a local farmers’ market.

With grant funding, the coalition formed, and volunteers from many areas—farmers, business owners and representatives from some of the Native American nations in the county—figured out how to improve food access for the county and even more broadly, northeast Kansas.

The work by the coalition, however, has expanded beyond the regular market at Hiawatha Thriftway. Nigus said the coalition helped establish the Community Foundation of Northeast Kansas, a nonprofit organization that brings rural communities together in the area and helps facilitate grant funding for various community development projects.

The coalition is also looking to expand its community gardening effort as a result of the Postage Stamp Produce Production Project, a grant-funded project that examines using tracts of land that are tax delinquent and not being cared for, to plant a variety of specialty crops.

“The key and our hope is that we can keep the growing season going long enough to get healthy food to kids in public schools and also to senior citizens,” Nigus said.

This year, Nigus said the community garden network involved individuals and groups to manage the plots. The network allowed for more produce available to the community and the farmers’ market, but there is potential in the next few years for the county to become a sub-hub that can ship excess fresh produce to food hubs established in more populated cities—Lawrence and Kansas City—close by.

“In terms of economic development, this could mean creating jobs, growing more food and getting those foods into a greater area,” Nigus said. “There is potential for the sub-hub to get more producers involved.”

He added that getting more people involved, especially young people, to grow food in the community gardens could create a sense of belonging to the food production system and provide an important educational opportunity. People can learn what it takes to grow various types of fresh produce and how it can be used to make nutritious meals.

Making a rural business work

White said he knows food access is necessary to sustain a community, which could be a reason why he has spent most of his life in the grocery business.

“I actually grew up in Hiawatha as a youth, but I moved away and did the city thing,” he explained. “When I had my first child, I said, ‘We need to get back to the small community.’ I went back to the grocery store where I worked in high school and asked that owner if he would be willing to hire me back. He was actually working toward retirement and felt he had a need for somebody he could train to manage the store.”

When he moved back, White said he had been away from Hiawatha for 10 years. The town wasn’t the same as he remembered, and he knew he had a lot of learning to do. He got involved in the Hiawatha Chamber of Commerce, as well as school and other local activities. He aimed to reacquaint himself with people in the community and customers of the store.

“If you don’t do that, you might as well not be in business,” he said, “not only for the reason of getting to know people, but also for the reasons of giving back and building on your rural community. As an ag-based community, it’s important that we build on what we have.”

If people living in rural communities desire to sustain that rural community, Procter said it is important that the grocery store survive, as it is an “anchor business.”

“These small rural businesses provide an average of 15 local jobs,” Procter said. “They provide, on average, 20 percent of local sales tax revenues. They are the primary source of healthful food options in a rural community, and they are consistently one of the main gathering spots in a rural town. Research has also shown that, ‘As the grocery store goes, so goes other businesses,’ meaning that if the grocery store struggles, other local businesses struggle as well.”

White has now managed Hiawatha Thriftway for about 14 years and owned it for five. In that time, building trust with customers has been a priority to keep them coming back.

“I think it’s important for any business person in any community to be involved in what’s going on, but as a grocer, in my opinion, it’s even more important,” White said. “People have to trust their local grocer and feel that grocer cares about the community. Otherwise, they’ll go other places to shop.”

Trust. Support. Relationships. Key tips for rural survival might be easier said than done, but it helps when local leaders, as visionaries for the future, make them come to life.

“The move toward locally grown (food) is catching on everywhere,” White said. “Eventually, the bigger markets and bigger players are going to catch on to this, too. I hope that getting on the ground floor, and building relationships now, will help maintain us when that does happen.”

A video interview with Tim White is available on the K-State Research and Extension YouTube page (http://youtu.be/LEuHaAH0DRc).

More information about strengthening rural grocery stores is available through the RGI at www.ruralgrocery.org. The Rural Grocery Toolkit is a recently added resource to the website that was designed for two primary audiences: those considering establishing a grocery store and existing rural grocery store owners. That toolkit is available at www.ruralgrocery.org/resources.

For more information: David Procter – dprocter@ksu.edu or 785-532-6868
Story by: Katie Allen – katielynn@ksu.edu or 785-532-1162

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