Is America ready for “share-farm”?

We have all seen the trend toward larger farms, especially for commodity crops, dairy and tractorlarge-scale poultry operations. Closely related to that trend is the loss of younger farmers, particularly in the types of farm sectors that require major investments to start. Simply said, if you don’t inherit a large-scale operation, you can’t afford to buy the farm, or even the equipment to farm. The logical, long-term outcome of those trends is either corporate ownership of all such farms or the end of the industry, especially in places like Maryland with high land values.

bfsWith a grant from USDA, University of Maryland Extension initiated a Beginning Farmer Success program in 2012 to help new farmers get started. Extension also collaborated with two non-profits: Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission which initiated a Mentor Match Program and Future Harvest CASA, which utilized the funds to enhance its Beginning Farmer Training Program.  These programs have been successful, particularly for vegetable, fruit and small-scale poultry producers. Both non-profits hope to continue to assist beginning farmers even after the grant period ends August 31st.

http://freshstartlandenterprise.org.uk/

http://freshstartlandenterprise.org.uk/

However, neither program has been able to help beginning commodity farmers or large-scale livestock farmers to get their start.

In the UK, a new program is getting started called  share-farm, a national “matching service’ to bring retiring farmers together with aspiring new entrants. The goal is to create a pilot farm business matching service for young or new entrepreneurs seeking land and joint ventures with owners who have land to offer.

Such a program would be very useful in the U.S.! Who is ready to take the lead?

 

 

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Buy Local Challenge Week continues to grow customers!

Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.36.13 AMSeven years ago, it started as a way to create markets for Southern Maryland farmers who had transitioned out of tobacco and into food/drink production. Quickly it morphed into a statewide Buy Local Challenge Week.

Governor Hogan welcomes attendees

Governor Hogan welcomes attendees

As it matures, the event is serving as a celebration of accomplishments in the resourcing of locally produced food in Maryland. This year, perhaps the biggest celebration was at the Governor’s residence in Annapolis where Governor Hogan welcomed hundreds of happy grazers of offerings from 15 Maryland chefs, including the First Lady, who served up one of the best recipes of local food.

However, the main purpose of the week is to find new converts to local farm products. I helped to teach a class of realtors about selling and leasing farmland last week. As I often do at such events, I asked how many attendees had consumed some food produced locally in the last week. Perhaps a third raised their hands and only a few had heard of the Buy Local Challenge.

I believe that, as Wendell Berry says, “eating is an agricultural act.” Consuming local foods Screen Shot 2015-07-22 at 10.34.29 AM helps to create local jobs. It helps to determine how food is produced (ask farmers at markets how often they get asked how their food is produced!). Consuming local foods helps to keep farmland out of the hands of developers. It keeps land open and porous and alive for nature’s systems to thrive. Local food production creates surpluses that are usually donated to those in desperate need of fresh healthy food. How cool is it that you can do all these things just by eating fresh healthy food?

Just a few more days in the Challenge to convert new disciples!

 

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Food hub workshop yields a bountiful crop of ideas

Next to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Wallace Center, Winrock International Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 5.07.06 PMknows more about food hubs than any other organization in the country. One program of the Center is the National Good Food Network which regularly holds webinars about food hubs. The USDA often supports the Wallace Center in its research and workshops on food hubs.

Vineyards at Dodon in Anne Arundel County

The Vineyards at Dodon in Anne Arundel County

 

Understandably, Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission was thrilled to co-sponsor a workshop held at The Vineyards at Dodon last week with the Wallace Center for emerging food hubs appropriately titled “Emerging and Early Stage Food Hub Development Workshop.” Joining us were representatives from Chesapeake Harvest, Miltons Local, South Central PA, Community FARE, Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture, Chesapeake Farm to Table and Garrett Growers Cooperative, Inc.

As expected, the Wallace Center provided a plethora of information about food hubs. However, the focus of the workshop was a facilitated discussion about what works and what doesn’t and participants had the opportunity to ask the tough questions.

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Devona Sherwood, Program Officer, at the Wallace Center, listens to a response by Haile Johnston

Attendees were excited to be able to discuss food hub formation with Haile Johnston, co-founder of Common Market, a non-profit located in Philadelphia. It operates in the black. This year, they expect to sell $3 million in food. His hope is to enable new food hubs to succeed in half the time and with half the problems that new food hubs typically face.

Food hubs are often considered as more than just aggregators and distributors of food. The good ones create a food chain that adds value to participants at every stage. Haile began the discussion with a situation that occurred at the beginning of Common’s Market’s formation. They were at an auction to purchase apples to be distributed to those who could not afford fresh, healthy food. They were thrilled that the auction price was only $4.50 for a bushel of apples and they bought a number of bushels that day. Afterward, they reflected that they may be helping those in need of healthy food, but it was at the expense of farmers who would not earn a living with those prices. They resolved that their non-profit would operate in a fashion that would help producers as well as consumers of all income levels.

From the beginning, Common Market’s market strategy was to sell primarily to the institutional sector, because they didn’t see the competition at that level with the small operations. The largest segment of their sales is to schools (90), hospitals (20), elder cares facilities and cooperatives. They buy from 85 farmers with a very diverse product line, including turkeys, eggs, yogurt, chicken, apples and vegetables. They do not process yet, though they plan to eventually.

They began with one leased truck and now own a fleet of five refrigerated box trucks. All their food is farmer identified. Seventy-five percent of the food comes from within 80 miles of their non-profit and all of it comes from within 200 miles. Meat and eggs are key components. They operate on a 30% blended mark-up. Three times a week they send out an email to farmers with changing prices. They do some speculative buying but 95% of all perishable product is pre-sold.

Screen Shot 2015-07-15 at 6.33.50 AMThey see advantages to technology but they also see the advantages to human interaction. Their buyers are able to gauge producers’ and distributors’ issues and concerns as they negotiate deals. Their truck drivers get to know both the farmers and the buyers so that they can monitor and build relationships.

A point that Haile came back to numerous times is that “Relationships are paramount across the food chain!”  That was a notion that resonated with attendees.

 

 

 

 

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Beginning farmer scales up sustainably, buying and leasing equipment

oneacrefourBy Priscilla Wentworth and Greg Bowen

The new generation of farmers are resourceful. Our latest case in point is Michael Protas of One Acre Farm in Montgomery County. We learned of his operation because of a farm tour arranged by Future Harvest CASA about Scaling Up Sustainably.

Like most beginning farmers today, Michael started with a desire to farm, but no farm background and no land. Mike started by volunteering on a farm near College Station, Pennsylvania, where he developed a passion for farming. He later apprenticed on One Straw Farm, a large organic farm in Baltimore County. During his apprenticeship, he lived in a house with 25 migrant workers, an experience he said “was life changing for the better.” Hard work and a lifestyle out of his previous realm of existence (film production) did not dampen his enthusiasm for farming.

Despite the farm’s name, Mike is currently farming on close to 5 acres. The story Mike told us about how he scaled up quickly from one acre, is rather creative. In his search for a place to farm, he was able to lease some land in Montgomery County, raising vegetables for markets. In 2011, he was fortunate to come upon 30 acres of land owned by Adventist hospital, which leased the land to him for ten years. The hospital has additionally been a great partnership for Mike, one that he never expected. The farm hosts an educational component as well, a summer camp for kids in partnership with the hospital each year; not something he originally planned for but he says it is what allowed him to ramp up and be so successful to date. “The educational component helped to diversify the farm,” he said.

Scaling Up

Michael’s farm did indeed begin as a one-acre farm, a wise move for someone with his level of experience as a farm operator. Farming successfully is much more than learning how to grow food. Michael latched onto one of the most successful ways of farming that the local food movement has utilized, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). Mike also quickly realized he couldn’t farm alone and grow, so in 2013 after recruiting another laborer, he was able to double production the following year. And as he has been farming, he has been focusing on sustainable methods of farming that let the soil’s microorganisms do the work, exploring techniques such as zone tillage, modified no-till, and cover cropping for vegetable production.

Equipment

Farmers usually want to scale up but they need equipment to do it. Not everyone grew up oneacretwoon a farm or knows how to fix equipment.

About halfway through the tour, we stopped in the field near Mike’s equipment. He mentioned to the group about tractordata.com. He owns a Case III 50 horsepower tractor that he said was worth the money. He also purchased a manure spreader for $1,500, and a waterwheel he bought in year two which was inexpensive and has been a lifesaver on efficiency. He didn’t buy everything upfront, instead purchasing equipment overtime as the farm grew. He is not a mechanic so he won’t purchase anything complicated like a seed drill, he said, preferring to stick with basic equipment. Mike also participated in Kiva Zip to obtain a loan to purchase a $4,000 piece of new equipment.

Sarah Miller runs the New Farmer Project for Montgomery County Economic Development. She was on the tour to mention that a seed drill and other equipment can be rented from Montgomery county’s low-cost farm rental program.

Sarah was joined by Chuck Schuster, an Extension agent in Montgomery County. They noted that to rent the equipment you must live in Montgomery County, sign a contract, do a quick training, and pay a small fee to rent the equipment, which includes a grain drill, plastic mulch lifter, manure spreader, and walk behind tiller. To reserve the Montgomery County equipment, contact Karen Walker, 301-590-2855,  Karen.walker@montgomerycountymd.gov.

Equipment rental options in other Maryland counties are listed on the Maryland FarmLINK website at Equipment for Rent.

Successful farms rarely follow the same path as they scale up. They identify needs, rent when practical and look for opportunities and/or collaborations to keep out-of-pocket costs as low as possible.

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Charles County Schools to bring local produce into the cafeteria

By Cia Morey, Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission

Last week, between thunderstorms here in Southern Maryland, I attended a meeting the
Charles County Public Schools (CCPS) hosted for local farmers. This was a pre-bid meeting to learn about an opportunity to sell local fresh produce to Charles County schools. CCPS has prepared an Invitation to Bid (ITB) for the 2015-2016 school year.

Maryland’s Farm to School Week this year is September 14-18, 2015. During this week, farmtoschool.2schools try and serve something local every day for a week. Charles County is taking steps to truly bring farms into the schools throughout the school year.

William Kreuter, Supervisor of Food Service understands that farmers in Southern Maryland cannot serve the entire school system for the whole school year. A majority of the school year takes place when most local farms are not producing as much.What’s unique about the bid is the school locations are bundled in a total of nine zones. This allows a bidder to only bid on a zone they feel they can fulfill when they have product available. Also, in the bid “local” is defined as 100 miles from La Plata, Maryland. That allows farms from all over the state of Maryland to participate in the bid if they want.

Kreuter said, “Through the bid process we look forward to developing an ongoing business vege4relationship with the local farming business community that will benefit local farmers and bring healthy food to our students.” Questions on the bid are due July 7, 2015 and final bids are due by July 23, 2013, 2 p.m. For bid information please visit the link.

We are thrilled to see a local school system create an innovative, flexible approach from which farmers of all sizes can participate. Farmers can win and so will students who will get the freshest food on their plates.

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Pollinating the local economy to grow jobs and prosperity

Consumer demand is changing the U.S. food industry and local economies can take advantage of consumer demandpollinating for less processed fresh and local foods. A National Good Food Network webinar last week highlighted some ways to grow the local economy.

Rather than simply attracting another region’s businesses and retaining the ones you have, Michael Shuman, author of The Local Economy Solution, suggests that local governments and nonprofits should:

(1) Maximize local ownership. (2) Maximize local self-reliance. (3) Spread models of Triple Bottom Line  success.(4) Create an entrepreneurial ecosystem.

the PsHe noted that the first instinct of many pollinators (i.e. those seeking to grow local food businesses) is to turn to outside funders. A better approach is to work with local businesses and investors to build the local economy. Main Street Genome is an example of how pollinators can help to level the playing field for local business development by providing expert advice. Another is the Union Kitchen in Washington, D.C. (mentioned here previously) that helps to create food businesses by handling all the tough regulatory and infrastucture issues of food business development.

Local Money matters

A final point that Shuman makes is that a local bank is three times more likely to reinvest in the local community than a national bank. That is one way to ‘plug the leaks’ and boost the local economy.

Linda Best, founding member of FarmWorks in Nova Scotia, was the other speaker on the webinar. She talked about how the Canada province had been losing food production for 50 years, but was making a comeback with FarmWorks, whose mission is to “Promote, and provide, strategic and responsible community investment in food production and distribution in order to help increase access to a sustainable local food supply for all Nova Scotians.” In brief, FarmWorks links local investors with emerging companies.

We all know that in nature pollinators do magical work to turn flowers into food. Pollinating local economies can make the farm-to-table connections to grow jobs and prosperity.

 

Posted in Community Supported Agriculture, Farm to Table, Food incubators, local food movement, locally sourced food, New Ideas in Farming, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Comments Off

Walking-the-walk for Buy Local Challenge Week!

When Buy Local Challenge Week began 7 years ago, it was a challenge to find enough blc.imagelocally sourced food to feed yourself. No more. Aside from a few condiments, consumers can find a well-rounded diet. A locavore in Maryland can find a wide selection of meats and dairy year around. We can find a broad selection of seasonally grown fruits and vegetables, though it is next to impossible find locally sourced strawberries in the winter months!

To extend variety and supply beyond the growing seasons, some chefs, most notably Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen, have been canning and/or freezing seasonal foods to use year around.

For farmers and those who support them, it is important to “walk-the-walk,” and sometimes “talk-the-walk” for locally sourced food, whenever we can, especially during a time when local vegetable and fruit farms absolutely depend on markets to survive. By walking the walk, I mean visiting local markets, retail establishments and restaurants that publicly advertise that they purchase from Maryland farms.

By talk-the-talk, I am suggesting that we all ask for locally-sourced food at facilities that don’t advertise local-sourced food. If they have it to offer, encourage them to advertise. If not, be persistent in asking. Talk-the-talk can also include inviting your friends to events that locally-source food and encouraging our member organizations to use locally-sourced food when they hold events.

Many people can intellectually accept the advantages of eating locally-sourced food, without practicing it, so I have some other reasons to tell them to help you close the deal:

  • A healthy ag economy is the best form of land preservation. Over 92% of all Marylanders support land preservation according a a 2010 survey by the Schaefer Center for Public Policy.
  • LocallyScreen Shot 2015-06-18 at 5.52.55 AM-sourced food builds the local economy, creating jobs and local investment.
  • Farms that can feed Maryland residents increase our food security and our ability to feed those in need.
  • Local foods promote food safety. In today’s global markets, contamination outbreaks tend to be hard to pin down and notifications are slow to consumers. It is great when you know where your food comes from and can ask about how the food is produced.
  • Local foods taste better! Fruits and tomatoes do not have to be ripened with gas. The varieties can be selected by farmers for taste rather than shelf life.

The Buy Local Challenge begins on July 18th. We only have one month to line up our local sources and encourage our family, friends, and groups to do the same!!

 

 

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Working to expand opportunities for Maryland farmers

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 7.47.16 AM

Tracy Ward presenting plans for the new Chesapeake Harvest Food Hub

In the past six months, the Maryland Sustainable Growth Commission’s Rural Economies Workgroup has been exploring how Maryland can advance a wide variety of rural business ventures. On June 4th, the focus was on food production, aggregation and distribution.

The hope of many Maryland farmers is to gain more access to institutional, restaurant and retail markets. Members of the Food and Food Production subcommittee, including representatives of state departments, Maryland Farm Bureau, MARBIDCO and others, assembled at the Coastal Sunbelt facility in Savage Maryland to learn more about plans to scale up farm food aggregation and distribution. The discussion revolved around the nuts and bolts needed to turn the dream of a more complete local food movement into a reality.

Tracy Ward was the first speaker and she discussed the new Chesapeake Harvest food hub in development on the Eastern Shore, one of about a half-dozen in development around the state. She indicated that produce farmers wanted to grow food year round and that interested farmers are hoping to build 72 high tunnels to extend production beyond the regular growing season. The Food Hub is interested in contract purchasing to provide assurance that there would be markets for what is grown. Tracy outlined the opportunities and challenges for a local food hub.

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Overlooking a Coastal Sunbelt work area during the tour of the facility in Savage, MD

She was followed by Jason Lambros, Vice President of Purchasing at Coastal Sunbelt Produce. He said that his company aggregates a million cases of food regionally and he believes that there is a market demand for triple that number. He noted that his company runs 200 trucks and most come back empty. Most of their produce still comes from California. He would be happy to work with local food hubs to aggregate and distribute food to larger markets.

The Company is also processing a dozen types of salsa on site and food processing will be a  significant part of the new expanded facility to open next year.

Participants left with a clearer picture of the opportunities and challenges to increase food aggregation and distribution from local farms in Maryland. The Food and Food Production subcommittee is expected to forward its recommendations to the Rural Economies Workgroup this summer. Ultimately, the Maryland Sustainable Growth Commission will consider recommendations for legislation and policy changes to be forwarded to the General Assembly.

 

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Eroding trust in food safety is fueling the local food movement

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 10.53.41 AMA 2015 survey of American consumers, commissioned by the International Food Information Council Foundation, reveals that only 61% have confidence in the safety of the U.S. food supply, down from 78% in 2012. The top concern about food safety in the 2015 survey was “chemicals in food” (36%), up from 23% in 2014. That eroding confidence is impacting U.S. food corporations and causing more consumers to seek out food from sources they feel are more reliable.

To address these concerns, many big food companies are buying small organic rivals such as a recent Hormel acquisition. But the organic label only goes as far as you trust the implementation and enforcement of the organic rules, particularly with imports of organic products. For example A USDA report issued in 2009 raised concerns about China’s weak enforcement of food safety standards, its heavy use of agricultural chemicals, and its considerable environmental pollution. As to its organic foods, the report noted “recurring problems with “filth,” unsafe additives, labeling (typically introduced in food processing and handling), and veterinary drug residues in fish and shellfish (introduced at the farm).” Because of a shortage of organically produced food in the U.S., a large percentage of it is imported and about 1% is inspected by the Food and Drug Administration.

Last year, National Public Radio reported on a new book, Organic: A Journalist’s Quest to Discover the Truth Behind Food Labeling by Peter Laufer, a writer and professor of journalism at the University of Oregon. His research left him suspicious. The NPR story noted that the USDA has been trying to increase its enforcement of organic standards in the U.S. and they observe that there is little evidence of widespread fraud.

The organic certification process is a good standard. However, the further that you Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 8.14.05 AMseparate food production from the consumer, the more likely that it will not be grown in a way that meets the ecological, fair labor and food safety standards of the consumer.

As my favorite ag philosopher Wendell Berry is quoted as saying “An economy genuinely local and neighborly offers to localities a measure of security they cannot derive from a national or a global economy controlled by people who, by principle, have no local commitment.” Organic certification is an important tool. Eating local can be an even better way to learn about your food.

 

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Do farms have to be profitable?

To many, farming is a rejection of urban lifestyles, of being chained to a desk. Farming is a lifestyle of independence and a connection to nature. But do farms have to be profitable?

Recently, I was in a conversation with Ginger Myers, Extension Marketing Specialist, and eggs for salea beginning farmer. We were discussing to what extent she wished to be profitable. She replied that she wants to sell her free-range, naturally raised eggs at a low price so that families of all income levels can afford them. Even when faced with feed, carton and hen replacement costs that would eliminate all of her profitability, she was firm in her commitment to be of help to the community by keeping her price very low.

Her motivations are noble and she is not alone. There are farmers and non-profits raising food and selling it at or below market value for the same reason — to help local residents be healthier with fresh local food. Why is food different from any other product? Can’t farming be meaningful and be profitable too? And does pricing one’s product below market value push out farmers who set their prices in order to earn a living wage?

Screen Shot 2015-05-28 at 6.45.00 AMAll of these are complicated issues. Consumers have said time and again that they want to support farmers, however they don’t have a good understanding of what it costs to get a tomato to market, or that fruits and vegetables are already priced so low because of competition with imported food from countries with low wages.

A farmer who has been in the business for over a dozen years noted  a couple of weeks ago that the farmers who seemed to succeed were ones that started with a spouse or partner with an off-farm job. However, a beginning farmer without such backup is particularly vulnerable to any miscalculation, loss of crop, or loss of market share –either by a legitimate competitor or one subsidized by other sources. It’s complicated.

The only answer that I have is that we should support farmers who have to make a living wage and that we, as consumers, be should sure that we are paying a fair price. To those who grow food just to help others in need, thank you.

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