BriarPatch Natural Foods Community Market
Grass Valley, California
Year founded: 1976
Number of members: 4,000
Member equity requirement: $200 per household
Retail square footage: 11,000
Number of employees: 130
BriarPatch Natural Foods Community Market is located in Grass Valley, Calif., a town located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains and adjacent to the Tahoe National Forest. When the co-op decided a few years ago to concentrate on its local buying program, you’d think it would be really easy, and to some extent that’s true. It’s California after all—what isn’t locally grown there?
Despite the state’s legendary agricultural scene, Grass Valley historically wasn’t a farming region. Grass Valley was home to the California Gold Rush a century and a half ago, and the economy until the 1970s was focused on mining. Food growing as an economic activity literally started from the ground up, with farmers augmenting poor soils and figuring out through trial and error what would grow well. With the right techniques, the area around Grass Valley has grown to include many citrus and olive groves, vineyards as well as agriculture and meat production. The co-op has also grown its capacity to sell what’s local over the years, and some of what has happened in the area’s agricultural development has been in partnership with BriarPatch.
What’s considered “local” food at BriarPatch is that which is produced within a 20 mile radius of the store. “Regional” is defined as 120 miles. For other parts of the country, local may be defined more broadly within 100 miles, and regional within all adjacent states, for example. Yes, at BriarPatch it’s strict, even by California standards, but intentionally so, according to the co-op’s general manager, Chris Maher. “It wouldn’t be a challenge otherwise,” he said. One of the co-op’s goals is to sell 15 percent of all goods from local sources.
One of the motivating factors Maher said is for the co-op is to “build a vibrant agricultural economy through robust producers.” He said that the co-op’s approach to sourcing local products has been a big evolution and a critical part of the mission. “It’s crucial. The biggest thing we can offer producers is a way to be successful. We help communicate to them a realistic view of the marketplace,” Maher said.
As such they’ve also worked hard on creating ways for other groups to interface with the farming community. The co-op supports the efforts of groups like Eat Healthy Nevada County, the Eat Local Challenge, Come Home to Eat and the Nevada County Fair, with information, meeting space and grant money.
“We’ve started to reach a tipping point,” Maher said about the impact this has had on the area, agriculturally, socially and economically.
“We have a very educated consumer at BriarPatch. They felt the victory of the organic standards, but they also see the downside, especially regarding economic changes. They understand the benefits of eating healthy and local and want to know where their money is spent,” Maher said.
“I really got a sense of how passionate they were about their local program when I worked with them last fall,” said Mark Mulcahy. “With their dedicated crew, they’ll be able to take their program to the next level.”