NORTH CENTRAL REGION
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|A visitor to the Lange Farm in Fordyce, Neb., tries to entice an Angora goat with some leafy spurge, a noxious weed some are trying to control with goats rather than herbicides. |
Photo courtesy of The Center For Rural Affairs.
In an old section of downtown Omaha, Neb., gardeners wanting to improve their community and beautify the neighborhood took volunteers and planned a garden. After cleaning the weeds, trash and broken glass from a half-corner lot known for drug deals, the group began an outdoor learning center of sorts while permanently changing the character of the area.
To finance the venture, the new community group, City Sprouts, turned to a Nebraska small grants program. Called IMPACT, the statewide program has funded 31 groups primarily made up of farmers to foster learning about sustainable agriculture. IMPACT, run by Nebraska's Center for Rural Affairs, received a 1995 SARE grant to create supportive educational environments where participants learn about sustainable farming techniques based on peer approval and local needs.
Those projects range from City Sprouts to a group of crop producers demonstrating legume cover crops, from vegetable producers seeking to set up an organic certifying chapter to livestock producers attempting to gain a premium price for their meat by forming a marketing cooperative.
What all of the groups have in common, however, is that they initiate and undertake projects that have meaning to them, says IMPACT coordinator Wyatt Fraas.
"The diversity of ideas far exceeds our imaginations," he says. "The fact that they feel project ownership practically ensures successful results because the participants are really interested in their projects."
The City Sprouts project evolved into much more than a garden plot for local residents to grow lettuce and tomatoes. After buying the property, cleaning out the weeds and trash, and amending the soil, the group began teaching interested residents, many of whom had difficulty finding fresh vegetables in their inner-city neighborhood, how to grow produce. Perhaps more important, the residents also learned how to sell what they grew at a city farmers market.
"It used to be a space where people hung out, drank and got violent," says Andrew Jameton, a City Sprouts leader. Concerned about quality of life in the neighborhood, and to fill a void in small-business education and economic development, the group created a program for urban denizens to learn a new trade. They hope residents can learn enough to count on a regular part-time income from their garden work.
"It wasn't just for garden volunteers to get vegetables," Jameton says. "We wanted to teach them about running a small business."
In the first year, the garden grossed $1,000 at the farmers market. Garden volunteers receive regular food bags as payment in addition to their education, and City Sprouts offered free vegetables to city residents, who seemed thrilled to have access to quality collard greens, salad greens, kale, tomatoes, potatoes, beans, greens and herbs.
The garden also functions as a community gathering place. Thus far free of vandalism or theft, the garden draws visitors to its small memorial and a peace pole built to commemorate the violent deaths of neighbors in recent years. City Sprouts hopes to expand the success of its first garden throughout the inner city.
"When lots become vacant, the wonderful stand of old houses in downtown Omaha deteriorate with them," Jameton says. "Vacant lots are dangerous as well as ugly. If we can encourage people to garden in inner-city Omaha, we can help not only them, but the neighborhood as well."
Fraas views City Sprouts as a model of what IMPACT is trying to accomplish with small grants in Nebraska. IMPACT was created to advance sustainable agriculture -- including farm profitability, protection of natural resources and community support -- by showing farmers and community activists they were not alone in their goals.
In 1996 and 1997, IMPACT funded more than 130 group members on about 80,000 acres of farm and ranch land.
"One way of supporting farmers is to get groups together to support each other," Fraas says. "Farmers often say they feel alone" when they try more sustainable farming practices. "Often there is pressure from the community to not do what they're doing.
One way to overcome that is for groups of farmers to work together."
The group process often results in a wider acceptance of sustainable practices, Fraas says. That dynamic counters the skepticism with which farmers and ranchers may greet new ideas.
An IMPACT survey of its group participants found more than half have tried a new, more sustainable practice on their farms. Thirty percent reported improved profitability, 40 percent saw decreased soil erosion, 60 percent increased diversity of commodities grown, and 50 percent reported improved wildlife habitat.
Many IMPACT groups work with Extension educators who not only teach about new practices but also expand the knowledge base among their colleagues. An Extension dairy specialist who worked with one group credits IMPACT with turning him on to the various benefits of management-intensive grazing. He went on to organize the state's first conference on the subject.
Farmers remain the best sources of information for other farmers. The IMPACT-supported Hoofmasters group, a handful of new graziers, holds farm tours that have drawn a number of interested farmers. Ken Kruse, the only Hoofmaster participant who switched to a seasonal milking system -- which takes advantage of the cost savings and lifestyle benefits of drying off cows each winter -- says the group provides needed support as he takes off into unchartered waters.
"I got into rotational grazing in 1995, when the group started," says Kruse, who raises 60 Holsteins and a few dozen replacement heifers. "The rest of the guys in the group are all doing the same thing, so we talk back and forth, work problems out together and get new ideas." -- Valerie Berton
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|Farmers and others in the Northeast are showing an extraordinary interest in bringing food processing- such as canning agricultural products- in-house to add value to their businesses. USDA photo.|
Walk into Side Hill Acres barn, and it's clear Rita Kellogg's 140-plus dairy goats adore her as much as she enjoys them. Goats crowding in around her, Kellogg rattles off the names, ages and personality traits of several individual animals.
Step into Kellogg's small, four-year-old cheese processing plant and her pride in the Candor, N. Y. facility -- and the delectable array of cheeses the family-run operation produces -- is equally obvious.
The Kelloggs launched their cheese-making business after the processor to which they'd been shipping 8,000 pounds of milk per week went belly up. If the family wanted to continue goat farming, there wasn't much choice but to take processing in-house.
Startup wasn't easy, but the on-farm processing operation has proved successful. Side Hill Acres now sells about 360 pounds of hand-made cheese per week to restaurants and supermarkets in the Finger Lakes, Syracuse and Western New York area. The farm produces a lot less milk than it did four years ago, but makes more money.
"We're doing much better being our own processor," Kellogg says.
Kellogg has been an active participant in a SARE-supported project focusing on commercial small-scale food processing as a way to enhance farm income, rural employment and quality of life. As a farmer-processor member of the project's advisory board, she's helped guide the project so it meets producers' needs.
Coordinated jointly by the Cornell University Farming Alternatives Program and the New York Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (NYSAWG), the project focused on both technical and public policy issues crucial to small-scale food processors. Participants aim to help sustain small and medium-sized farms in the Northeast by building market opportunities.
"We're trying to foster a growing industry which can help farmers revitalize their farms and rural communities," says NYSAWG's Alison Clarke.
Given the region's climate, topography, soils and proximity to urban population centers, competing in the global raw commodity market simply may not be economically viable for many of the region's farms.
"In this century, farmers have lost an enormous share of the consumer food dollar," says Duncan Hilchey of Cornell's Farming Alternatives Program. "We've gone from farmers receiving about 46 percent of the food consumer dollar to about 19 percent today. Some people think an even smaller percentage goes to the farmer."
The Cornell/NYSAWG project was designed to reverse that trend.
Small-scale processing, particularly on-farm, enables farmers to capture more of the consumer food dollar. Research from around the country suggests that whether they are located on farms or elsewhere in the community, small-scale processing operations also create rural jobs and help keep money circulating in their communities.
"The more we looked at these issues, the more we felt we needed to do something to help farmers market their products more effectively," says Cornell's Gilbert Gillespie.
Project organizers began by collecting and analyzing information about the status of small-scale food processing in New York. Through a survey of 600 of the state's small-scale food processors, participants learned much about the opportunities for and challenges to small-scale food processing.
Based on preliminary, anecdotal information, Gillespie and Hilchey suspected that regulation, particularly associated with food safety, was a significant burden. They were wrong.
"We have a much better understanding of what the barriers really are," Gillespie says, explaining that they found far fewer obstacles in the food safety inspection arena than anticipated. "Ag & Markets inspectors are not necessarily the bad guys. In some cases, they can be phenomenally helpful."
The more significant challenges to small-scale processors, says Hilchey, are the more ordinary issues all small businesses share.
"It's just the cost of doing business: marketing , especially advertising; the cost of having employees; paying taxes; buying insurance," Hilchey explains.
Following the survey, the project organized a major conference offering round-table discussions about those issues. The conference drew strong interest.
"The phone was ringing off the wall with potential and established processors wanting to register," says NYSAWG's Clarke. Regulators, inspectors and economic and community development specialists also attended. Of the more than 230 people present at the conference, 95 percent voted to continue working together. Twenty-seven of them volunteered to explore the possibility of a small-scale processors' organization.
In 1998, nearing completion of the three-year effort, the formation of a statewide food processors' organization is well on its way. Strong regional chapters will promote networking and cooperation among processors. Three chapters have officially formed; six others are in the works.
The chapters will provide educational services to members about start-up, food technology and food safety issues. Chapters also plan to build the marketing infrastructure to promote their region. Initial steps include developing logos and labels that will help to promote a regional identity.
Other plans include: developing a mentoring program through which an experienced processor would assist a start-up company; investigating possible ways to negotiate group insurance rates; providing assistance to comply with state and local regulations; and cooperative purchasing of basic processing supplies.
Organizers say the project has developed far beyond their expectations.
"We had anticipated a simple state-wide organization that would promote the interests of small-scale producers in Albany and publish a newsletter," Gillespie says. "We had not imagined local chapters promoting collaborative marketing efforts, a mentoring program and all of the other initiatives."
Getting formerly isolated individual producer-processors together has supported their growth, and bringing inspectors and processors together has promoted mutual understanding.
"I think the project is going to have some very positive and long-lasting effects," Hilchey says. -- Beth Holtzman
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|Northampton County, Va., grower Phyllis Smith hopes her venture into the dried flower market will pay off. |
Photo by Curtis Badger.
In the 1970s, Virginia Beach was a quiet farming community that happened to front on a scenic stretch of ocean. Ten years later, it was booming as a beachfront playground that catered to tourists from all over the mid-Atlantic.
Like so many agricultural communities turned commercial, little of the farming life survives in Virginia Beach. Today, Virginia Beach tourists dine on fruit and vegetables trucked in from other areas, and the local community long ago lost its small-town feel.
Observers across the Chesapeake Bay want their community to avoid Virginia Beach's evolution at all costs. In Northampton County, Va., a coalition of conservationists, farmers, business people and government representatives formed to preserve the character of their community. The county runs down the skinny peninsula between the bay and the Atlantic Ocean that constitutes Virginia's Eastern Shore. The coalition's main strategy: to add value to agriculture.
"We've started to look at sustainable development as a real possible future for the community, and sustainable agriculture is a logical link," says Terry Thompson, director of research for The Nature Conservancy (TNC), who leads a SARE project that seeks to improve community through enhancing agriculture. "We want to preserve the environment, the economy and a viable rural quality of life, realizing many here have a low quality of life."
Thompson works with researchers from Virginia Tech, Virginia State University and Old Dominion University, as well as the state Department of Agriculture, Extension and business contacts on the Eastern Shore to improve profits for about a dozen farmers in Northampton County. The projects range from marketing a special variety of sweet potato to gaining a premium for organic, seedless watermelons.
Thompson and her group are banking on the spinoff effect of better marketing Eastern Shore products to raise the level of community awareness about the importance of agriculture -- sustainable agriculture in particular. Each enterprise includes plans to minimize impacts on the Shore's fragile ecosystem.
"This is a great place to grow a lot of vegetables, but diversity and marketing are the big barriers," Thompson says.
The Hayman sweet potato, a historic Eastern Shore staple that packs a powerful flavor, fell out of favor with growers because of low yields. Its white, almost greenish flesh and a variable size and shape made the Hayman tough to move in the marketplace, despite what locals swear is an uncommonly good taste. Its soil and climate make the Eastern Shore one of the few places the Hayman thrives.
Vegetable farmer Butch Nottingham grows Hayman potatoes as a hobby crop, an indulgence on a small section of his 600-acre operation. With the help of SARE, TNC and a TNC-backed local business development corporation, Nottingham has embarked on an aggressive marketing campaign to promote Hayman potatoes as a premium product. With the Hayman, Nottingham finds himself in the rare position of growing a product he can't keep stocked.
"Now the Hayman has become more popular, it's easier to sell than to grow," says Nottingham, whose phone rings steadily with would-be Hayman customers. "I'm hoping to sell the small quantity I have for more money, making the experience of eating part of the price of the product."
Associating a popular product such as the Hayman with Northampton County could create an increased demand for local growers to fill not only in the mid-Atlantic region, but all over the nation. If his extra effort succeeds, Nottingham plans to sell seed potatoes to other county growers so they too can increase profits.
"The SARE project gives us an opportunity to go into a different direction, to find out if the product and the technology will come together and actually turn the Hayman into a business rather than a hobby," says Nottingham, who plans to market the Hayman on the World Wide Web for mail order sales.
The SARE project may answer the same question for Phyllis Smith, a Northampton County farmworker who has gained years of horticultural experience working at a local nursery. Aided by researchers from the University of Virginia and the Eastern Shore Research and Extension Center, Smith grew a large plot of ornamentals to sell as dried cut flowers. She hopes to sell them to artisans in the community who currently buy their craft supplies out of the region. In fall 1997, she sold more than half of her flower yield at one local craft demo.
"It's the first time I've done something like this," says Smith, a soft-spoken woman whose green thumb and deceptively strong back supports her family. "I really liked doing it compared to my usual work."
Smith's straw flowers, artemesium and globe amaranth grow in eye-popping colors. In fall, dried, they lose little of their luster. Thompson, TNC's representative, hopes business planning assistance may help Smith start her own part-time business to provide a model for other farm laborers who earn low wages.
A beef producer got the impetus from the SARE project to begin growing seedless watermelons for extra profit. Greg Turner certified his plot as organic, then grew a seedless variety of watermelons.
"I wanted to try something different without a lot of overhead," Turner says. His successful season brought him 16 cents a pound, a significant increase over the 5 cents a pound conventional varieties normally bring.
Turner's growing methods coincide with a deeply rooted belief that farmers should work in harmony with natural resources. His watermelon patch is a stone's throw from a creek that empties into estuarine waters, so he eliminated herbicides he once used to control the Johnson grass that plagues many coastal farmers.
"My land is surrounded by marsh, and I want my son to enjoy things as I had them as a kid," he says. "Many of those resources are not there anymore." -- Valerie Berton
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|At the Taos County Economic Development Center's new commercial kitchen, Leslie Pedlar whips up some dessert "delights" for sale at local venues. |
Photo by Jeff Caven.
The people of northern New Mexico remain deeply linked to the dramatic landscapes and histories of their lands. Amid the Sangre de Cristo mountain range and in the path of the Rio Grande lie communities with firm ties to the cultures of ancient Native Americans and 16th-century Spanish settlers, both of which highly value agriculture.
Even so, the influences of modern life and competing economic development now greatly challenge the health of the rural area. The pull of such boom-or-bust industries as mining and tourism lured a generation of people away from their land and agrarian way of life. As in other areas, the newer industries have proven to be less stable and lucrative for many local inhabitants.
Now, with the help of a strong partnership of northern New Mexico producers, community development leaders and agricultural professionals, a promising mix of small-scale farming and value-added enterprises is emerging and reconnecting the community to its agricultural resources.
"This year we expect to bring in $100,000 of agricultural income to this part of New Mexico, where there was essentially none a year ago," says Craig Mapel, a marketing specialist from the New Mexico Department of Agriculture, NMDA.
Mapel leads a SARE-funded project to revive agricultural production in the region. He and a team from New Mexico State University Extension and the Taos County Economic Development Center are leveraging SARE funds with other public and private assistance to make a significant change in the quality of rural life for Hispanics, Native Pueblo Indians and other families on limited incomes.
Mapel's six-figure estimate refers to the market value of a recent harvest of organic wheat made by a farmer cooperative in Costilla, N.M. It's the inaugural crop for the growers after a generation of local people stopped farming in the area.
The small grain production project in Costilla is one of three hands-on efforts to re-teach Hispanic and Native Pueblo farmer cooperatives how to grow and market their products to boost their annual incomes and improve their quality of life.
Other initiatives to enhance sustainable agriculture in the region include a community garden project and food processing and marketing assistance at the Taos County Economic Development Center, both of which intend to jumpstart value-added agribusinesses.
"This revitalization project got started because the local people came to us and asked for help to make it happen," says Rey Torres of Taos County Extension. "It's been successful because we've combined the grassroots desires and interests of the community with a leadership team that emphasizes the strengths of its players."
The technical expertise of Extension linked with the marketing know-how of NMDA and the community activism of development center directors Terrie Bad Hand and Pati Martinson have combined to create diverse, de-centralized "incubators" for long-term economic success in the region, says Torres.
Lonnie Roybal, a Costilla landowner and first-time wheat grower, says farming is the only thing he and his neighbors can rely on.
His friend and cooperator Juan Montes agrees. "We're after a strong sustainable community that's not de-pendent on tourism or other up-and-down economies," he says.
Del Jimenez, sustainable agriculture specialist, expects far-reaching effects from the agricultural production efforts. "This work benefits more than just a few small towns. The organic wheat produced by the growers fuels niche markets for local mills and bakers, and launches a state product of organic flour that can be labeled as made and milled in New Mexico."
In another part of northern New Mexico, in the commercial kitchen at the Taos County Economic Development Center, "High Desert Delights" pastry chef Leslie Pedlar has fashioned a business out of baking brownies, cakes, cookies and other sweets for local restaurants and shops.
"I probably would have quit by now if this kitchen was not available," Pedlar says. "It's very difficult to find a restaurant kitchen that will accommodate a small operation like mine."
The kitchen Pedlar cooks in is part of a gleaming, up-to-code food processing center housed at the Taos Economic Development Center. Pedlar says combining reasonably-priced, accessible work space with the legal and financial services offered at the business park is a great way to give small enterprises like hers a fighting chance to succeed.
The dynamic team behind the development center business park are co-directors Bad Hand and Martinson. They carved out a strategy for community action in Taos County by investigating the desires and strengths of its citizens.
"You have to go to the people," says Bad Hand. "In this area, we learned that agriculture could be a seed of change because of its link to the people's heritages."
Looking to the future, Bad Hand and Martinson say they aim to get the development center's commercial kitchen functioning 24 hours a day with locally produced goods. They also plan to have its companion community garden act as an catalyst for more food business opportunities for limited-income women and others, as well as an entry point for healthy eating and nutritional education.
On the wheat production front, Mapel says he foresees a time when the farmer cooperatives in Costilla, Questa and Taos Pueblo will come to him and ask for help in marketing their grain, having planted it, tended it and harvested it on their own.
"By then, perhaps in the year 2000, they'll be producing a million pounds of organic wheat for the local economy," he says. -- Kristen Kelleher