7 Insights from our Tour of Black River Produce & Vermont Packinghouse
By Riley Neugebauer & Stacey Purslow
On May 28, 2015, nine participants from New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine attended a tour of the Black River Produce warehouse and the Vermont Packinghouse facility in North Springfield, Vermont. Sean Buchanan, the President of Black River Produce, led the tours, which were organized to provide attendees with a chance to learn about the inner workings of a food distribution facility and find out about opportunities for farmers to partner with Black River. We also aimed to better understand how they have created a successful business around marketing and distributing local food products to customers around New England.
Black River distributes food to over 2,000 wholesale customers in Vermont, western New Hampshire, western Massachusetts, parts of upstate New York, Rhode Island, and parts of Connecticut, including many institutions. They have also recently brought on a line of meat products under their brand Black River Meats, in partnership with a company based in Minnesota, Lorentz Meats, which now operates the Vermont Packinghouse in a building that Black River owns.
Vermont Packinghouse slaughters and processes meats on site for regional farms. Black River Meats sources livestock from Vermont, New York, and greater New England. They have an eight page growing protocol for farmers who are interested to work with them in this program. They do not use contracts, and they will do what they can to help producers get started. Approximately 50% of their livestock is currently coming from New York.
Here are some things we learned during the tour that we think might be particularly useful to farmers and folks who work in the food system:
1. All boxes of produce are labeled with the farm's name.
Produce is packed in industry standard boxes that are labeled with the farm’s name. Because the farm name does not appear on the invoices to customers, the labeling of boxes allows the customers to see where the product is ultimately coming from when it arrives at their door.
2. "Native" = Local
On their invoices, local produce is written as "native." The farm name appears in a weekly native produce list that Black River e-mails out (see this email example), as well as on the boxes.
3. There's a good reason customers can't request produce from a specific farm.
Black River Produce typically does not have space for each farm to have an individual slot in their warehouse and inventory system, particularly when multiple farms are providing the same product, and to do so would also limit their efficiency, which is an important aspect to their business. Therefore, Black River cannot guarantee a specific item from a specific farm to their customers in advance. The local, or native, produce is moved through their warehouse based on when it came in, to ensure that the freshness is maintained. To learn more about their native products, watch this video.
4. Farms can freight their products on Black River trucks.
Black River offers freight logistics for farms, which means that they will help distribute a farms product for them for a fee. This is a service that they offer in addition to purchasing farm products that they will then resell to their customers in the region.
5. Customers must purchase at least $100 per order.
Black River has a $100 minimum order requirement for their customers.
6. Black River sells four types of products:
Produce: Black River Produce carries a wide variety of produce, which you can see in their product guide.
Non-Perishables: They carry non-perishables such as grains, flour, oil, and some locally made food products like Mitchell’s salsa and chips, Yolo snacks and Grandy Oats.
Seafood: They carry fish and shellfish. Not all of this is local, but they aim to use criteria to ensure sustainable products. They purchase their seafood in Boston.
Meat: Black River Meats is a brand used by Black River Produce. Black River will work with beef and pork producers and asks that they follow protocols in raising the animals. Organic dairy culls are used in ground beef product. They offer a 3 oz. burger which has been popular with some institutions. They currently offer Vermont pork, and they are starting a New York pork program as well.
7. Farmers who want to work with Black River should give them a call -- and be persistent!
If you’d like to consider working with Black River Produce, watch this video.
Are you a farmer who's interested in working with Black River Produce? Watch this video:
Want to learn more about Black River Produce's inventory system for local products? Watch this video:
To learn more about Black River Produce, visit www.blackriverproduce.com.