Farmers Cari and Thayne Tagge, along with their daughter Laci, have accomplished much in the past 25 years. Tagge’s Famous Fruit and Vegetable Farms grows raspberries, blackberries, cherries, tomatoes, and peaches; operates eight fruit stands; sells produce, jams, and salsa at 11 regional farmers markets; and has 500 subscribers to their Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. Over 100 part-time workers help with their busy summer market.
Yet, even with all of their success, the Tagges were open to feedback from Extension educators to learn more. So they took time from their busy schedule to meet a group of ten county agents from across the country and go through the process of “Reading the Farm.” From this process, the Tagges received a comprehensive analysis of their operation. At the same time, the Extension educators learned to evaluate sustainability and provide feedback to owners.
The day-long event was part of the SARE/National Association of County Ag Agents (NACAA) Sustainable Agriculture Fellows Program’s Super Seminar held at the 2017 NACAA conference in Salt Lake City, UT in July 2017. The SARE/NACAA Sustainable Agriculture Fellows program enhances understanding of sustainable agriculture through broad-based training and hands-on exposure to successful and unique sustainable agriculture programs. A series of seminars exposes the Fellows to sustainable farming and ranching systems, with a focus on basic sustainable agriculture strategies and how they work in the field. Fellows also visit selected farms and ranches to view firsthand the sustainable agriculture principles studied in the classroom.
The “Reading the Farm” professional development program was designed to bring together agricultural service providers from different backgrounds to explore whole-farm interactions and sustainability through hands-on, case-study learning with farm families. The primary goal of the “Reading the Farm” program is to enhance the ability of agriculture service providers to understand farms as holistic systems so they can help farmers improve the sustainability of their farms.
The tour participants took careful notes and asked many questions throughout the tour. Then the work began!
A SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) approach was used to analyze the Tagges’ operation. The participants broke into several small groups, and then convened to develop a comprehensive analysis of their operation. Later that afternoon, the Tagge family returned for the “Reading the Farm” presentation.
The SWOT analysis was very complementary of the business end of the Tagges’ operation. The identified strengths were their business structure, marketing skills (including branding, use of social media, communication with customers, and involvement with the Chamber of Commerce), labor management, employee training, and caring of customers and employees. Their water rights and farm location are very favorable in terms of frost protection. The Tagges’ are ecologically minded, with the use of hybrid delivery cars and reusable containers.
The Extension team provided feedback on challenges in this large and complex operation. They mentioned management aspects of several crops that could use improvement, with a recommendation of working with Certified Crop Advisors to help refine the crop production systems. With such a busy operation, a consultant with expertise in the various crops and irrigation could provide excellent value to the farm operation. The group also identified some safety issues, and they provided suggestions on how to find assistance to address the heavy workload on the key managers.
To learn enough about the operation to provide feedback, the group met at the farmstand near the original peach orchard. Although it was too early to taste their fresh peaches, cherries and blackberries were available, as well as jam and many flavors of salsa. The tour bus driver followed Thayne Tagge along farm roads as he showed the Fellows his fields of tomatoes and blackberries, peaches, and cherries. One of his goals is to use only organic practices and become organically certified. At this point, he uses as many organic practices and products as possible, but he still uses some pest control products that are not organic.
The tour bus also visited the Tagges’ headquarters for distribution in Salt Lake City. This busy warehouse has cold storage and washing facilities as well as areas for packing. Early each morning, Laci fills out a whiteboard listing the amount of fruit going to each stand or farmers market for that day. She provides a large plastic tote for each stand or market with a detailed manual and all of the equipment for each site. They pride themselves on the training they provide to their employees. It is obvious that they really care about their help, and they are rewarded with high retention of their employees; mainly college students from year to year.
The Tagges’ willingness to participate in a Reading the Farm exercise with this team of Extension educators shows an admirable openness to positive criticism and education, yet another example of the Tagges’ passion for excellence.