Plenty of small farmers get by just fine without ever selling produce or other small farm products to a food distributor. But some farms find it's a great way to market their products and keep income coming in steadily on the farm.
What Is a Food Distributor?
Food distributors act as the middleman between the farmer and the customer, or retailer. They purchase farm-grown products directly from the farm, then sell them to a variety of customers: restaurants, grocery stores and supermarkets, schools, institutions like hospitals and universities, food processors, and food manufacturers.
Kinds of Food Distributors
There are several different kinds of food distributors. Some distributors buy a mix of conventional and organic products, while others specialize in only organics. These must be certified organic and so must the produce they buy.
A food distributor is great if you have a higher volume of produce. They help reduce the amount of labor you have to devote to direct marketing and other complications that arise when you decide to sell your farm products directly.
Some food distributors will come to the farm, pick up the food, and handle everything else: cleaning, processing, and delivering the food to buyers. However, others may require you to do some cleaning and processing. You will need to research the food distributors that serve your area to find one that fits your needs best.
What You Need to Start Selling to a Distributor
You will need to make sure your products and farm processes meet the distributor's requirements.
- Legal product. You can start by ensuring that your product is legal to sell. Things like raw cider, for example, may not be legal to sell in your state. You should check with your state Department of Agriculture and Department of Health and Human Services as well as the United States Food and Drug Administration to make sure that your product is licensed, labeled, and legal to sell in your state. No distributor can purchase an illegal product.
- Proper documentation. This is going to vary by distributor, but will generally involve a food safety plan, a water test to show that you have an appropriate water source to wash your produce, product liability insurance, and evidence or certificates that back up any claims you make about your product (for example, organic certification if you are selling organic produce).
- Packing standards. Talk with your distributors about how they need the product packaged. Distributors are handling products in bulk and need to protect it and handle it efficiently. Packing must be durable and standardized in terms of weight or count in each box.
- Labeling. Your product must be labeled with your farm name and a lot number so that the product can be traced back to the field and harvest date, in the case of any safety or quality concerns.
Tips for Selling to a Distributor
These helpful hints can make your first distributor relationship go more smoothly and keep your relationships strong and healthy.
- Invest in a long-term relationship. Communicate clearly with distributors. Contact them in the off-season to begin your relationship and plan ahead to supply them with the product. You will need to supply your distributor with reliable availability information and don't expect to be able to dump excess produce on them.
- Be professional. Provide your distributors with the quality product they expect. Adhere to their safety and documentation standards and their packaging and other regulations. Be clear about what you have to offer to avoid surprises on either end.
- Set clear pricing. Know what price you need to get and work with the distributor if possible; some are willing to accommodate your pricing needs. Realize that you will sell to a distributor at a lower price than when you direct market. Be clear about payment terms.
- Do your homework. That means setting up a business plan and running your business professionally and properly. It means researching what products distributors want and fitting your plan to sell to distributors into your overall business plan.