NORTH CENTRAL REGION
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|Rancher and co-op business manager Annie Wilson tells people she raises "healthy animals on healthy land" . |
Photo by Vada Snider.
As beef prices spiraled downward like a Kansas twister throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, ranchers in the Great Plains began selling their spreads to agricultural corporations and housing developers. Watching some of the best grassland in the world be subdivided for second homes, a group of Kansas ranchers decided to take action.
Thus was born the Tallgrass Prairie Producers Co-op, ranchers who figured a collective strategy had a better chance of weathering the storm.
"Ranchers are very independent -- we're not used to working together," says Annie Wilson, a co-founder of the Kansas beef cooperative and its fledgling effort to obtain better prices for sustainably raised beef. But when struggling ranchers heard about preliminary meetings of the group, "They kept showing up."
Today, Tallgrass Prairie Producers Co-op consists of nine ranching families throughout the state who produce beef on grass and market it accordingly. They are banking on the willingness of consumers to pay for beef raised on a protein-rich grass that has been the envy of other ranchers for generations. Until the 1940s, in fact, Texas ranchers used to truck their cattle north to finish them on Kansas grass.
Aided by a SARE grant, the co-op worked with the Kansas Rural Center to hire staff to create labels, coordinate production and, above all, market beef. They now sell beef to a hospital, restaurants, small groceries and directly to individuals. At the 'Buy Kansas' Expo 1997, Tallgrass Beef was voted best Kansas product.
"It's a great effort by people trying to live by their principles and have their product reflect that," says Dan Nagengast of the Kansas Rural Center. "There's a big striving in this country for 'real' things. Pepperidge Farms will never be a farm, but here's a product that is what they say it is."
Most U.S. beef comes from cattle finished in feedlots, where they eat large amounts of grain. By finishing beef on pasture, co-op members cut out the extra, energy-intensive process of planting, harvesting and shipping grain. Instead, their production model keeps land in grass, conserving soil and water quality. Their animals are raised without hormone implants or antibiotics.
The resulting leaner cut of beef has yielded impressive nutritional test results, and, Tallgrass Beef producers boast, tastes better. An average cut of Tallgrass beef breaks down to 116 calories, 1.5 grams of fat and 0.7 grams of saturated fat. Co-op members feel sure once that information gets out, their product will bring a better price in the marketplace than conventionally raised beef.
"We're trying to break out of the corporate-industrial mold," says Pete Ferrell, a local rancher and the co-op's secretary-treasurer. "We want to capture the value of what we're doing, to be price-makers rather than price-takers" in the fluctuating beef market.
The key, they say, is spreading the word, finding the niches where they can sell their different brand of beef. They attend conferences, workshops and trade shows, land stories in the local press, write for newsletters and talk up their product to whoever will hear them.
Their first customer was a local hospital, where the staff dietician was wowed by the lower fat content of co-op beef. A restaurant in Wichita specializing in low-fat food soon followed.
More recently, the co-op landed its first out-of-state customer. A Baltimore trade show brought co-op representatives in contact with a Hudson Valley, N.Y., distributor that supplies food clubs and natural food stores in New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
"They called us as soon as we got home and said they were ready to go," says Wilson, the co-op's business manager. The co-op began shipping frozen beef from Kansas in late 1997.
The effort was not without tough initial challenges. A severe drought plagued Kansas just as the co-op got underway, and cutting through what seemed like yards of bureaucratic red tape to establish a logo, business plan and marketing strategy tried their patience.
Yet, co-op members are heartened by the potential of Tallgrass Prairie Producers to reach consumers all over the country. They hope the extra profit will help preserve a way of life they see rapidly disappearing on the prairie.
"Though our community life may be fulfilling and supportive, it belies the underlying economic crisis in this area, where young ranchers are rare as thunderstorms in winter," Wilson wrote for The Land Report, a Land Institute publication, in 1995. "The best that most young people wanting to stay on the land can hope for is to find a job as a manager or hand for one of the absentee 'mega-ranchers.' I grieve for their loss of a personal, long-term stake in the land -- the bonding and commitment that comes from knowing the hills and grasses they manage are truly their home[s] and must be preserved for their children." -- Valerie Berton
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|Community-supported agriculture provides farmers with a market that doesn't send back a less-than-perfectly round tomato. |
Photo by Jerry Dewitt
Like farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms continue to multiply as consumers seek local alternatives for fresh food raised without excessive use of agri-chemicals. Observers estimate close to 650 CSA farms operate throughout the United States, with the largest concentration in the Northeast.
The growth of CSA, with its huge diversity of farms and farm offerings, makes it difficult to characterize and determine the success of what some dub a new movement in agriculture. To determine whether CSA farms in the Northeast are economically sustainable and to gain and distribute knowledge about CSA, a group of SARE-funded researchers in Massachusetts and New York are trying to reach the approximately 250 CSA farmers in the region through surveys, peer mentoring sessions, a region-wide CSA conference and an annual CSA directory.
The typical CSA farm offers pre-paying customers a quantity of fresh produce weekly throughout the growing season. Growers gain by having a guaranteed market for their products; consumers enjoy fresh, usually organically raised, and often unusual produce, as well as the knowledge that they are supporting the viability of a particular farm in the community. Often, consumers volunteer on the farm or participate in CSA farm events.
"There is really not much available on the economics of CSA, so we wanted to acquire data characterizing an average CSA [farm], its issues, and its costs and returns," says Dan Lass, a University of Massachusetts economist who coordinates the SARE project. "This is the beginning in a quest to build our stock of knowledge on CSA [farms]."
Lass accumulated information on CSA share prices, CSA expenses and CSA income. He found the average price of a CSA share to be about $460 in 1996, based on a full share equalling about 400 pounds of produce for the season.
With Jack Cooley, then pursuing a master's degree in nutrition at the university, Lass calculated retail values for several CSA shares. Based on their findings, consumers buying an equivalent amount of organic produce in a store could expect to pay $1,000. If they bought conventionally raised produce in a supermarket, they would pay between $680 and $780, translating to a $200 to $540 savings for CSA members.
While that may be good news for CSA members, who usually have to shell out a few hundred dollars in the spring for their farm shares, Lass says low member prices may come at the expense of the farmers. He found few cases where farmers specified a salary for themselves. Most planned to pay themselves from income remaining after reckoning the season's bills.
However, many of those farms had little left over to pay the operator any wage.
The farmers calculate what it costs to produce the food, then set share costs accordingly. "An important part of that cost should be a wage for the operator," Lass says. "Because some farmers are not paying themselves enough wage, they really are losing money. It's unlikely these CSA operations can exist very long without paying the operator a fair wage."
He suggests that, on average, CSA owners adjust the prices they charge up to about $120 more per share per season. The substantial savings over store prices can absorb -- and, in fact warrants -- such an increase, Lass says
."While CSA owners seem nervous about paying themselves a fair wage, they deserve it," he says. "It's important for long-term viability."
Those savings do not consider the many other benefits of CSA not included in shareholder prices, such as the environmental pluses from produce raised without agri-chemicals and the community rewards from involving a group of consumers in a local farm operation. Most CSA farmers offer an educational experience of sorts for their members by hosting them at events at key times during the season or encouraging them to volunteer in planting, harvesting or distributing shares.
"People who join CSAs are not just buying produce, they're supporting agriculture," Lass says. "You're voting with your money to support a particular farm, and you need to be willing to pay to include other benefits, not just the value of the produce. The monetary benefits of less-expensive produce is just gravy on the reasons you've joined."
CSA farmers harbor strong feelings about their impact on natural resources and their responsibility to their communities. Farmers seek to create environments where beneficial insects thrive. They build their soils with cover crops and organic matter. And they thrive on their relationships with CSA members whose goals for fresh, sustainably produced food mirror their own.
CSA also provides farmers with a market for their produce that doesn't send back a less-than-perfectly-round tomato or pay them widely varying prices from season to season. The mutual benefits have made CSA a true partnership between food producers and consumers.
"One hundred years ago, the majority of people in our society were directly connected to agriculture," says Steve Gilman, in one of the annual CSA Farm Network publications he has produced as a cooperator on the SARE project. "While the ties have been liberated, the connections to the land, to community, to producing one's food, to a supportive and caring culture, are prominent needs. CSA originated where people strongly value their connections to local farms and food."
Gilman's Farm Network directory lists CSAs throughout the Northeast, as well as information about CSA decision-making structures and inspirational essays from farmers. The publication is just one of the project's outreach tools; the CSA regional conference drew 320 participants in November 1997 -- with more than 200 turned away.
The conference, which featured CSA farmers from each Northeast state, received "incredible feedback" in participant evaluations, says Elizabeth Keen, acting director of CSA North America, conference organizer and another coordinator in the SARE project. "The idea was to bring in both experienced and non-experienced folks to talk about production practices, the core specifics of growing and the CSA as a working entity in addition to just farm work." -- Valerie Berton
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|The South Georgia Farmer's Co-Op harvests and delivers produce within 24 hours to a popular Atlanta market. |
Photo by Freddie Payton.
Back when Harry's first opened in 1987, there would be a line of pickup trucks loaded down and waiting for us every morning," recalls Dana Peters, produce buyer for Harry's Farmers Market of Atlanta. Perhaps it was no surprise that Harry's would grow to become a chain of four super stores where city customers now buy premium quality Georgia produce and other specialty items, from stoneground grits to muscadine jelly.
Ironically, as Harry's was whetting Atlanta appetites for fresh local products, farmers all over the state were washing the red dirt from their hands for the last time.
"So many small farms have gone out of business since then, it's a challenge to find enough to supply us," says Peters. "What's so frustrating is that we have good farmers out there who know how to grow vegetables. I've never understood why buyers go to Mexico for produce when we have farmers who can grow it in our back yards."
While Peters was looking for farmers, a group of south Georgia farmers desperately sought a market. The African-American family farmers in Brooks, Thomas, Grady and Decatur counties have been stewards of the land for generations -- they know how to grow the finest southern peas, beans, watermelons and greens.
Getting a decent price for such regional staples was another matter. At the only farm auction in the area, a handful of large brokers bid on all the produce. When a farm community shows up at auction with snap beans harvesting 300 to 400 bushels per acre, they have no leverage for negotiation. In fact, the more they grow, the less their crops bring at market.
To improve their returns, a group of farmers established the South Georgia Vegetable Producers Cooperative. "Working alone, we farmers practically have to give away our crops to wholesalers," says co-op President Jones O. Thomas, who farms the 500 acres where he grew up. "But by getting together in a co-op to make big shipments, we have more bargaining power."
The co-op, however, did not solve their problems. Grocery chains like Publix and Krogers wanted all vegetables to conform to a particular size, which was too difficult to coordinate.
It was obvious their grassroots effort needed help. In 1995, The Federation of Southern Cooperatives assisted them in reactivating the South Georgia Vegetable Producers Cooperative. Another partner came in the form of the Southeast Regional Alternative Agriculture Project (SERAAP), a multi-institutional initiative that links farm communities, agribusinesses, research institutions and service agencies to promote sustainable farming systems. Finally, the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and The University of Georgia (two SERAAP collaborators) teamed with Harry's Farmers Market and The South Georgia Vegetable Producers Cooperative to propose a SARE project to design a production and marketing system for limited-resource farmers.
The collaborators designed a rapid post-harvest grading and packing system that allows the South Georgia Vegetable Producers Cooperative to deliver a truck-load of high quality, field-graded vegetables to Harry's in Atlanta within 24 hours of harvest. The schedule calls for harvesting and grading by day, then trucking overnight to travel the seven hours to Atlanta and stock Harry's shelves within 24 hours of picking
.The farmers receive a premium price for their crops, while Harry's customers get fresher food free of the post-harvest chemicals often used to retard decay on long deliveries. The short transport also saves thousands of gallons of fossil fuel each year.
As part of the market-driven system, the farmers are learning to stagger their plantings and to raise more kinds of vegetables instead of the three or four staples they have grown for generations. Dana Peters tells them which crops bring top dollar and tend to be in short supply, such as radishes, beets, green onions and carrots. In coming seasons, they may diversify by growing exotic eggplant, white sweet potatoes, red sugar cane, guava beans, napa cabbage and bok choy.
"Georgia has climate and soil similar to California," says Peters. "Much of what is shipped across the continent could be grown right here. It doesn't make sense to haul those foods 2,000 miles at tremendous cost to our air quality."
Pete Spencer was one of the first farmers to plant the non-traditional crops. On a golden October day, three co-op members visit to check out his green onions, radishes and carrot seed-lings peeking out of the soil. There's some rib-punching and snorting about "sissy" crops until Peters points out that not only are they high-value crops, but the $3-per-box savings in shipping costs equals more profit that can be passed along to the farmers. The teasing changes to serious talk about scheduling their own plantings of carrots and radishes.
Diversifying crops, staggering harvests and coordinating packing and transportation is only a starting point for the farmers. They also are learning marketing savvy, such as the importance of a distinctive label for co-op products and the necessity to provide steady shipments year round. Mastering sustainable production practices will help cut costs and build soil health.
"In this project, everyone learns together," says Freddie Payton, an assistant professor at the Institute of Community and Area Development at the University of Georgia and the project leader. "We are encouraging other researchers and service personnel from the public and private sector to partner with farmers and retailers in developing and evaluating systems. When all stakeholders have a voice, there's more assurance that the product or process developed will serve the needs of everyone involved." -- Gwen Roland
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|A restaurant chef who receives fresh vegetables from a new Idaho grower's cooperative says, "This is what produce is supposed to look like." |
Photo by T.L. Gettings/Rodale Institute.
Even in potato-proud Idaho, it can be hard to find fresh, locally grown vegetables, especially organic ones. Grocery stores in metropolitan Boise carry them, of course, and some of that produce may have come from the region's rich, volcanic soil.
But, often, shoppers buy Idaho-raised vegetables that have made a detour to produce brokers in California before being shipped back home.
That irony was not lost on Janie Burns of Nampa. Ten years ago, Burns decided to grow vegetables as a sideline to her work as a sheriff's dispatcher. "I felt I could offer a better product than what was in the supermarket, something people would buy," she says.
Though she was a long-time buyer of organic produce and advocate of sustainable agriculture, Burns had no prior experience but lots of enthusiasm. In the first year, she says she planted "everything I liked" -- lettuce, carrots, beets, broccoli and onions.
She soon found a strong demand for local, sustainably and organically grown produce that exceeded what her quarter-acre market garden could supply. She squeezed in extra shifts in her garden before cutting back to part-time hours on her day job. After four years, the "sideline" became her full-time job.
She struggled to offer enough variety, build repeat business and keep up with deliveries and billing. "I started small, and it got out of control," she says.
Burns and other growers in the Treasure and Magic valleys outside Boise started talking about teaming up. A SARE producer grant offered them a trial year to find out whether a growers' cooperative that would market their produce to area restaurants, caterers and natural foods stores was the answer.
The growers hoped a cooperative approach would be more efficient and profitable, while offering their community access to fresh, sustainably grown vegetables.
"The grant allowed us to run for a year without worrying about overhead or legal issues," says Paul Sharratt, co-op president.
Working with the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides and advisers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Idaho growers initially surveyed potential markets, from restaurants to grocers. Results supported Burns' belief that a co-op could find a niche selling high-quality, sustainably grown produce. From a group of 10 to 15 growers, six committed to the idea and sought organic certification from the state.
While some growers work garden-sized plots, others have hundreds of acres. Despite the variability in size, all of the growers wanted to lay the groundwork for what was for most, a sideline enterprise. "Most of us have day jobs," says Sharratt, an engineer.
With technical assistance from the Rural Business and Cooperative Development Service in Washington state, the group pulled together the paperwork to become a nonprofit corporation: Idaho Organics Cooperative Inc.
In 1997, the co-op did about $10,000 worth of business, Burns says. Customers included a health food store, a caterer and restaurants of various sizes and price ranges. In all, about a dozen clients bought from the co-op, with five placing consistent orders.
"We're appealing because we offer a variety of products with one contact, one order and one billing," she says.
For participating growers, the co-op opened up more profitable alternatives to selling at farmers markets. Working together allowed them to share the workload and offer a greater variety of products.
With Idaho's short growing season, growers really hustle through the summer. The co-op starts selling around late April, with the peak of business occurring between June and mid-October. In the future, some of the larger producers hope to offer storage crops through mid-February.
Last summer, the co-op's "fresh sheet" listed three pages of produce for sale, including tomatoes, lettuces, peppers, watermelons, cantaloupes, herbs and flowers. The co-op also offers staples such as potatoes, onions, squash and dry beans.
Orders are delivered within hours -- not weeks -- of picking. Usually it's Burns, who lives farthest from Boise, who loads her small pickup and makes the deliveries for Treasure Valley growers.
She says she knew the co-op would succeed one morning when she was dropping off an order at an upscale Boise restaurant. "As the chef was unpacking the box, he called each one of his assistants over and told them, 'This is what produce is supposed to look like.'"
Customers praise the produce's freshness and shelf life. Unfortunately for the co-op, some buyers place smaller orders because they have less spoilage and wasted produce than vegetables and fruit trucked long distances.
If clients want custom-grown produce, the co-op delivers. One chef wanted his food to literally stand tall at his restaurant. "He likes vertical or 'tall' food," Burns explains. "He's into art."
For his plate sculptures, the chef wanted chives that wouldn't go limp when they were stabbed and artfully curled over garlic ginger mashed potatoes under a slender sliver of arching carrot. The co-op's main herb growers obliged by letting their chives grow longer and stronger.
In 1998, the co-op is making expansion plans, having reached the limit of once-weekly pickup deliveries. The group is considering more members, along with expanded volume and variety to meet the growing demand from the community.
Burns sees encouraging national trends for ventures like the co-op: an aging, health-conscious population, a growing interest in organic foods and increased spending on food away from home. The only barrier to doing more business, she says, is the investment needed to develop and open more markets.
"To move growers into organic production," she says, "there has to be a market they can access at the other end." -- D'Lyn Ford