Kathy Sample and Bill Brinkerhoff have built a successful business that supports local suppliers year round. They’ll join Local Orbit as Discussion Catalysts for our upcoming workshop, Transparency, Collaboration & Shared Value in Local Food Economies, November 7-9 in Ann Arbor.
Bill and Kathy are founders of the Argus Farm Stop, a new model farmers market located in downtown Ann Arbor with a mission to sustainably grow the local food economy. Producers receive 80% of the sale for their products and are able to set their own prices. Started in 2014, they just completed a significant expansion of their business.
Prior to forming Argus, Kathy spent nearly 20 years in metal and gas business development and Bill spent more than 20 years in the pharmaceutical and biotech industry.
We chatted about the inspiration of creating a daily, year round farmers market, and how it impacts the local food system in SE Michigan.
What was your inspiration for creating Argus Farm Stop?
We happened upon this little grocery market in Ohio, Local Root, and literally our first thought upon walking in was “Why aren’t there more of these?” Ours is a little different, Local Root is a coop and we knew enough that we didn’t want to be a coop. That was not a business structure that we felt we could make quick decisions with. I feel confident that that’s been validated, that going with an L3C was the right decision. They did a coop because they were a bunch of people coming together.
What was your mission and goal for creating Argus Farm Stop?
Well, we knew that the farmers market in Ann Arbor was robust, in fact over subscribed. And we knew that Ann Arbor had a huge CSA population, but that CSAs have a high attrition rate, which requires a lot of marketing. So, we saw these young farmers coming in with new farming initiatives, and a lot of these folks get grants to farm but have no where to sell their products to. So we knew that Ann Arbor was ripe, and that there was a population of people who didn’t bother going to the market because it’s too crowded. There was an overflow population that wants local food, and we still feel there could be another Argus elsewhere in Ann Arbor.
How do those goals fit into the broader growth of the local food system?
These young farmers farm and think they’ll just go to a farmers market, and they totally underestimate how hard farmers markets are and how variable they are and how dependent on weather or other odd things like if there’s a football game. People who are enthusiastic about their new business, it’s hard to tell them that it’s difficult to get sales, but we knew that if we provided an easy place to sell and didn’t overcharge and had a high return they’d be interested, encouraged to continue farming, and Ann Arbor would be the better for it by having more local food. We’ve had younger farmers tell us “I cannot imagine farming without Argus. I’ve gotten my biggest checks from Argus.” We had one farmer tell us that Argus saved his farm when he had broken his hip and was in the hospital – and his wife would haul a freezer of product to Argus and we’d sell it. Hopefully in the end, it increases access to local food, even to underserved populations.
How has your perspective evolved since you first began operating?
The way we do the intake of our produce has changed a lot. When we started we were awkward and bumbling – we didn’t anticipate the questions we needed to ask or all of the information we needed to track. An example would be if a farmer brought us tomatoes in March for $3 a pound. We had a form that asks the price, weight, product name, but we were never encouraging the farmer to examine the price. If these are early tomatoes they shouldn’t be $3 a pound. We started asking if they wanted to keep the price to get them thinking about it, and intake forms helped us do this. We’ve also developed some standard operating procedures we didn’t think about in the beginning, including guidance for employees.
There’s actually a new Argus model opening in Corktown in Detroit, The Farmer’s Hand. It’s a couple of gals that worked with us, and we taught them our filing system and all the information they needed to track for their farmers. Instead of doing brewed coffee like Argus, they’re going to do prepared foods as a higher margin revenue stream.
What’s one thing you’ve learned about the local food system that would be helpful for others to know?
We’re in a unique position as a small business that we can do things the old-fashioned way. How we communicate with farmers and suppliers has been a big surprise, and it really took a lot of patience to develop a way to communicate with farmers. A lot of it is calling and texting each one versus emailing. But the relationships we establish with farmers and the lack of sophistication in-store make it easier to talk to customers about the farms.
By creating awareness of what is available, and expanding the options for local consumers, the impact of local farms becomes clearer to the consumer. They begin to try new things, to talk with the farmers about the things they are learning, and to understand the benefits of knowing who grows their food.
What advice would you have for someone trying to build a similar business?
Get to know those in the community that support your mission, and build a network of those who will help you by answering questions and talking about your business. Reach far – into academia, the community, government resources – and be ready to have a lot of conversations.
You’ll have the opportunity to work directly with Kathy and Bill, along with a stellar group of supply chain innovators, at Local Orbit’s workshop, Transparency, Collaboration & Shared Value in Local Food Economies, November 7-9. Apply now!