In Small-Town Indiana, New Co-op Store Helps Connect Farms and Community, With “Cool” Assist From CoBank

To the casual observer, Bloomington, Indiana’s newest retail store looks like your run-of-the-mill neighborhood market. Together in one store, under one roof, 42 vendors sell farm and artisan foods that range from fresh produce to meat, dairy, eggs, honey, sauces, and soaps. A wide assortment of flower bouquets and small plants are also available for purchase. From the in-store café, the inviting fragrance of freshly brewed coffee, teas, and baked goods permeates the air.

A closer look at the Rose Hill Farm Stop of Bloomington reveals something different. It has to do with the store’s consignment-based business model. Open seven days a week, year-round, the entire operation is owned by a nonprofit cooperative of Indiana growers. All products in the store are grown or made by the vendors who also set their own pricing. Local farmers keep 75% of the product price for purchased items, and the co-op itself keeps the remainder to help cover the cost of rent, staffing, and utilities. The in-store coffee shop subsidizes operations and serves as a community building space.

Photo courtesy of James Krause

The farm stop concept has proven successful in growing local food economies elsewhere around the country, for communities in Michigan, Ohio, and West Virginia, says Rachel Beyer, local food coordinator for the City of Bloomington. Born and raised locally and a farmer herself -- and on assignment by the city -- she has facilitated the launch of Rose Hill over the past two and half years, along with a volunteer board of farm members.

“Most of America’s food system is set up to ship products from far away into places where corporations have control,” Rachel explains. “With Rose Hill, we’re trying to connect consumers and farmers in a way that gives farmers more power in distribution, setting their own prices, and enabling them to make a good livelihood from the work they do to provide food for their community. We also want to make it easier for consumers to buy locally grown food that’s healthy and transparently sourced.”

Rose Hill is an outcome of the City of Bloomington’s Sustainability Action Plan. As part of its work to address pressing environmental issues, with a view towards economic prosperity and social equity, in 2018 the City became a partner in a statewide USDA Local Food Promotion Program Grant, called Indiana Farm Connect. After conducting a comprehensive assessment to understand the needs of local farmers and food buyers and after researching how other communities around the US have built up the capacity of their local food systems, the city committed to investing some pandemic recovery funds in the launch of a new Bloomington based farm stop project. The goal was to offer both a direct-to-consumer retail store component as well as an online aggregation hub to help regional farms connect with institutional food buyers such as schools, universities, hospitals, workplaces, restaurants, and grocery stores.

Refrigerators And Freezers Help Business Heat Up

As with most business concerns, funding was key to getting Rose Hill up and running. Among the major costs involved: renovating a building and setting up a grocery store. Initial funding came from grants offered by various sources, including the City of Bloomington, the Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County, and the local Urban Enterprise Association, as well as a fee investment from member farms. While these funding contributions covered most up-front costs, Rose Hill still lacked a way to finance the refrigerator equipment it would need to operate smoothly from day one.

CoBank took a risk on us and decided to help us get the refrigeration equipment we absolutely needed to operate in the first place

Thanks to guidance from the Indiana Cooperative Development Center, an organization that promotes co-ops to address the state’s economic and social needs, Rose Hill connected with representatives of CoBank. They helped arrange for a low-cost equipment loan that ensured the on-time delivery of a 12-foot produce deck, three reach-in refrigerators, another three reach-in freezers, and a walk-in cooler for backup storage.

“CoBank took a risk on us and decided to help us get the refrigeration equipment we absolutely needed to operate in the first place,” Rachel says. “We were also fortunate to get it all delivered before our opening despite supply-chain issues that everyone was experiencing at the time. It’s exciting to get a loan from a cooperative bank that understands what co-ops are about and the value of communities and people working together to run a business.”

A Cautiously Optimistic Outlook

Back at Rose Hill, business has been steady since opening and Rachel’s next goal is to keep improving sales numbers. The biggest hurdle ahead, she says, is to build consumer awareness of the farm stop, and inspire locals to change their buying habits in support of area farmers.

Still, city leaders, vendors and staff are proud of what Rose Hill has accomplished so far with an eye toward a more sustainable food economy.

“It’s taken a lot of work to get where we are today,” Rachel says. “I’m extremely grateful, especially to all the farmers and food artisans who have taken a risk and agreed to be part of this endeavor. It gives me hope as we figure out ways to address climate change, and to protect our natural world and communities. Projects like Rose Hill, and the local food infrastructures they create, are going to be really important in the future.”