How do small direct-market growers adapt when niche markets go mainstream? Members of the High Plains Food Co-op of Northwest Kansas are in the process of figuring that out.

How do small direct-market growers adapt when niche markets go mainstream? Members of the High Plains Food Co-op of Northwest Kansas are in the process of figuring that out.

Many of them operate in the shadow of McCarty Family Farms, a dairy with four facilities that milk around 8,500 cows. The McCarty family has an unusual exclusive supplier arrangement with The Dannon Company. Last April Dannon made waves when it announced it would shift its flagship products to non-genetically modified versions, starting later this year.

Dannon is still in the process of developing its feed sourcing and inventory procedures. Still, the company’s attempt to jump on the coattails of a hot consumer trend is hardly unique. Large commercial flour millers like Ardent Mills are diversifying into organic; huge food companies like General Mills are rapidly buying up small organic food brands; and the country’s largest food retailers, including Wal-Mart and Kroger, already sell large volumes of organic and non-GMO products.

As specialty products become more ubiquitous, more widely distributed and more affordable, what happens to small producers who built their identity on delivering an alternative to mass-produced food?

For Jeter Isely, president of the High Plains Food Co-op, the changing marketplace is not a cause for alarm but it does create a sense of urgency.

“Right now there’s a wonderful window open to us,” he said recently. “The non-GMO market is still growing 20 to 30 percent a year. It will commoditize, but it’s not there yet.”

The co-op, which currently consists of roughly 55 producers in Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska selling hundreds of products through an online sales platform, has already made big strides in connecting farmers on the High Plains to the booming consumer market along the Front Range. In addition, the co-op has become part of a network with other food co-ops and food hubs around the region.

These growers are used to being in a David-versus-Goliath struggle.

“I can’t compete with Tyson so I have to be different from Tyson,” explained Isely, who farms roughly 1,100 acres of organic grain near Bird City, Kansas, and markets a herd of Belted Galloway cattle as grass-fed beef.

Another point Isely made is that as specialty products enter the mainstream, the pool of interest among the general public broadens and expands, even in rural areas.

“There’s actually a huge market in Northwest Kansas for higher quality food,” Isely said.

Interest might be growing, but the rural population is still small. In Cheyenne County, the northwestern-most county in the state of Kansas, the population peaked back in the 1920s and has been trending downward ever since.

That’s why the co-op’s original organizers, including Chris Sramek, who is part of a large local farm family, first formed the group. The goal was to connect isolated farmers in the region with distant population centers. Sramek, who has long worked as an economic development specialist in the area, said he’s not sure how the mainstreaming of specialty niches will affect the co-op and its members, but for now he’s optimistic.

One encouraging development he has seen is that many grocery stores now stock three variations of each specialty item — local, regional and national — giving shoppers three options at three different price points.

Being “personal” and “local” remains central to what makes the co-op and its vendors unique, said Christie Godsey, who grows produce on a small acreage near Bennett, Colorado.

“The market these big companies can’t touch is the local market,” she said. “That’s you doing business with your neighbor. That’s how I look at it and that’s what I want to specialize in.”

Farmers participating in that market need to be prepared to spend as much time cultivating relationships with customers as they do producing food, she noted.

She concedes there are frustrations. As a small poultry producer, who “buys into the spirit” of what it means to be organic, she can’t afford the extra costs of certified organic feed that would allow her to legally label her product with the term.

Bob Klie, who raises organic wheat and beef on a centennial farm that straddles the state line near Hale, Colorado, pointed out the cost of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) certification can run as high as $3,500 a year, hindering individual growers from expanding into markets that demand it.

One potential solution to that, which Sramek wants to explore, is a state program offering GAP certification to groups, which helps bring down the cost for individuals.

Another thing the co-op hopes to do is to cluster farmers around various pick-up locations — or hubs — within its distribution network. Maps are available to show prospective growers where these hubs, or collection points, are located.

The group of growers is also reaching out to other agencies that share an interest in food access and community health issues. The co-op is part of the Western Prairie Food, Farm and Community Alliance, which brings together local food and health advisory committees representing eight northwestern Kansas counties.

The alliance is the only regional farm and food council operating in the state. It funnels input from the K-State Extension Service, Kansas Rural Center, Kansas Health Foundation and similar groups into a collaborative project overseen by the regional Resource Conservation and Development Council of the Natural Resource Conservation Service for the purposes of improving health and quality of life in the region.

The alliance is raising grant money and hoping to convert a building into a formal food distribution hub similar to the one the Arkansas Valley Organic Growers operate near Avondale, Colorado.