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Selling local farm products through food hubs- new national report

Selling local farm products through food hubs- new national report

msu

This blog is the first in a two-part series on selling local farm products through outside distribution channels like food hubs. This week, MSU Center for Regional Food Systems, along with The Wallace Center, released the 2015 National Food Hub Survey findings, which indicates that the food hub model can be financially successful across a variety of legal structures and geographic or customer markets.national_food_hub_survey_2015

Food hubs are businesses that aggregate and distribute source-identified food products, i.e. food that carries it’s farm name through the supply chain. As consumer interest in local and regional foods grows, the market for food hub services also grows. The findings of this report, together with the 2013 National Food Hub Survey, are the beginning of a data set that tracks what food hubs look like and what impacts they are having across the United States. What I found of most importance in the findings is that, 90% of food hubs who responded are increasing market access for small and medium farms as part of their daily operations. With many small farms judgling off-farm jobs and limited budgets, this is good news for those who are trying to be a farmer, a marketer, and a distributor.

National Food Hub Findings
Snapshot of key findings. Click to expand text.

“Food hubs bring great opportunity, but they face unique challenges that will require investment and innovation to overcome,” said Dr. John Fisk, Director of the Wallace Center at Winrock International. Some challenges food hubs face include: 1) securing capital, 2) securing more products, and 3) responding to opportunity to grow. More than 50% of hubs are concerned about securing more supply – and growth could be a liability for at least 40% of hubs because of barriers to adequate capital and limited delivery, warehouse and staff capacity. The full report is available online, as well as a webinar recording of key findings.

We will cover the challenges and opportunities specific to the Maryland region (based on a second new report!) in the next two posts for this series.

If you’re interested in learning more about food hubs and how they are operating in Maryland, I encourage you to join us next week at Friends and Farms in Columbia, Maryland for a tour of their food hub, and a short discussion with the Wallace Center. Email me at pwentworth@smadc.com to learn more.

Beginning farmer scales up sustainably, buying and leasing equipment

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.

Presentations on “scaling up” highlighted the Annual Mentor Match Meeting

Presentations on “scaling up” highlighted the Annual Mentor Match Meeting

We are delighted to be part of the Maryland Collaborative for Beginning Farmer Success that received a grant from the USDA’s Beginning FarScreen Shot 2014-12-03 at 9.33.05 AMmer and Rancher Development Program. SMADC supports the effort with enhanced resources on the Maryland FarmLINK website and managing the Mentor Match Program for beginning farmers.

On November 20th, we held the first annual meeting to discuss accomplishments and how we can improve the program. However, prior to the meeting, I had asked mentors and mentees what they might want to learn more about. Learning more about “scaling up” was the the most requested item, so two of our partners in the Collaborative, Shannon Dill and Paul Goeringer, stepped up to provide great information on the use of social media for marketing, dealing with farm labor issues and expanded crop insurance for vegetable and fruit operations under the new Farm Bill.luke2

However, the most attention was centered around Luke Howard’s presentation “Experiences in Scaling Up: Successes and Failures.” Luke and Alison Howard own and operate Homestead Farms, Inc. located in Millington, MD. Luke said that their initial goals for the 77 acre farm when they purchased it in 2002 were to “live the farm life, grow some vegetables and have a few animals for fun.” My sense is that neither would be satisfied with that for long. They seem to love a challenge. Both were familiar with farming, but neither had operated an organic vegetable farm.

LukeHoward
Photo by Luke Howard

Luke balanced humor and honesty in his talk in a way that kept attendees riveted as he described both successes and failures as their operation grew. In a short 11-year span, they scaled up from a 10-member Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operation with some sales at a farmers market and a restaurant, to a 250 member CSA with 60 acres of vegetables and 400 acres of grains (on rented land) and a number of wholesale contracts to popular retail stores and restaurants.

Luke and Alison have focused on diversifying as they scaled up and they are careful, prudent business planners. Luke’s Take Home Message:

  1. Talk to buyers and get an understanding of the market
  2. Be fiscally conservative. Don’t risk it all.
  3. Make sure you have the experience to grow and package.
  4. Make sure labor is in place.
  5. Don’t be in a rush. Take it in steps.
  6. Write out your plan and review with other experts.

As we wrapped up a successful first year in the Mentor Match Program, attendees had lots of good suggestions to ponder. For more information on the Collaborative’s beginning farmer program led by University of Maryland Extension, and our other partners University of Maryland Eastern Shore and Future Harvest CASA,  go to the Beginning Farmer Success website. To apply to be a part of our Mentor Match Program, click here.

 

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