|Farmers serving CSAs, food hubs & farmers markets are evaluating their business plan to work smarter.|
|Farmers are looking for ways to increase their local opportunities.|
|“Local” keeps evolving in terms of its definition and how farmers are meeting demand.|
The room was filled with rows of small rectangular tables. When the clock struck 2:15 p.m., one by one, farmers and ranchers filtered in until it was standing room only. Some sat across the tables from grocers, chefs, restaurant representatives and others interested in buying fresh produce and meats. It was a scene right out of the speed dating handbook, and with similar goals. These farmers and ranchers were looking to form lasting relationships.
Meeting buyers was one of the biggest perks at a day-long event in St. Louis in early March. Growers learned the ins and outs of what is required to meet larger market players’ guidelines for product entry and tips on how to access and work directly with those types of markets.
The farmers in the room had a wide variety of marketing, sales, best practices, sorting, grading, pricing, marketing and distribution experience. They came from a variety of farm sizes and raised organic, natural and conventional food. Some were just beginning a journey into the wholesale arena while others were old hat, but all were looking for new or better ways to sell what they grow.
“It’s a work in progress,” says Todd Geisert, a fifth-generation farmer who raises natural pork in Franklin County, and one of the old hats. “It’s not something that happens overnight.” He works with chefs and grocers to provide natural pork for their customers looking for a naturally raised product. His farm has been raising pork for nearly a century.
For about 12 years, Lee Farms in Warren County has provided produce to farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) participants in St. Louis and the surrounding area. Rusty Lee converted a grain and livestock farm into one that involves about 25 acres of intense vegetable production. “The local movement gets bigger each year,” he says. “When we started several years ago, we recognized that, and each year you wonder if it has peaked. It seems to continue to grow.”
For decades farmers have explored opportunities in local food markets, from farmers’ markets and CSAs to one of the newest approaches, food hubs. Filling that local gap has been a mainstay for farms serving farmers’ markets and CSAs, but many are re-evaluating aspects of their business plan to find ways to work smarter.
In the last five years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has made efforts to grow local markets. Through programs like Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food and the new local food directories, those efforts are paying off as the number of farms that had direct-to-consumer sales increased nationally since the 2007 Census of Agriculture. In Missouri, however, 4,096 farms had direct-to-consumer sales or participated in farmers’ markets, CSAs or food hubs, according to the USDA’s 2012 agriculture census — down 6 percent from 2007.
While the number of farms has decreased, those farmers are looking for ways to increase their local opportunities, but challenges exist that slow a complicated process.
Amber Henry of Henry Family Farms in Jefferson County recognizes the importance of being in touch with the consumer and operates in a one-on-one consumer-direct approach. In that vein, last year Henry says they added a farmers’ market to their business plan, which includes a website and social media marketing effort, to sell their beef, pork and lamb. “I focus on educating the consumer,” she says. “This is how you order. These are the cuts. They feel like they know what they’re getting well before they place their order.”
While Henry’s primary goal is to serve customers in her immediate community, she is laying the groundwork for expansion. At the event in St. Louis, she focused on learning more about direct marketing to grocery stores and restaurants in the metro area.
John and Shari Kopmann of Warren County are dealing with transportation costs. “We would like to get more involved with the chefs in St. Louis. It’s kind of a logistics issue with us right now,” Shari says. “If we could line up multiple customers then it would be worth the trip into St. Louis once or twice a week. Right now, it’s just not feasible because of cost.” Currently, they sell their produce through a farm-to-school program.
“Last year, we had a lot of [produce] go to waste because we had nowhere to go with it,” says Dan Brown of Lincoln County. Brown farms 60 acres in Dunklin County where he raises fruit and vegetables. While his farm has the food safety processes in place for wholesale options, his marketing game fell short.
Farmers like these are good examples of the diversity of marketing outlets Missouri farmers are using. As marketing opportunities have evolved, so, too, have the regulations and skill sets required to enter them. The checklist for farmers to master the wholesale market for local food is long: market-specific food safety laws and regulations, marketing, logistics, billing, distribution and the industry language barrier are just a few.
For each farm, challenges are different, but a prevailing concern is connecting with buyers.
Beyond the farm, farmers looking to serve institutional buyers need to know how to speak their language and understand their needs, says Wayne Sieve, produce specialist at Old Tyme Produce. Farmers should provide information on what they have, when they’re going to harvest and how far they are from the market they intend to serve. Old Tyme Produce is a St. Louis-based local produce company that works with about 15 local suppliers of produce, cheese, eggs, honey and mushrooms. To be successful, Sieve recommends researching trends in the market to plan ahead and bring what chefs, grocers and other buyers are going to be looking for.
Farmers also need to understand the jargon and identification systems buyers use. “One of the biggest hold ups to growing a small farm is communication,” Lee says, “communication between the farmer and the consumer or the chef — that buyer, that end user of your product.” Lee’s presentation at the event focused on best packaging practices and produce size identification.
Until recently, farmers markets and CSAs have fallen into a food hub category, but business models have emerged across the state, and nation, to create a clearer picture of the producer-to-buyer concept.
“The definition of a food hub has been fluid,” says Dr. Arbindra Rimal, agribusiness professor at Missouri State University. “There are so many variations, but the working definition would be more of an aggregation point for the producers and also to connect with the buyers on the other side.” By buyers, he means the wholesale industry, institutions like schools, restaurants, hospitals, grocers and the like. Rimal heads a feasibility study currently underway for a food hub in nine south-central Missouri counties.
As with many new concepts, feasibility studies provide a better idea as to whether or not a hub would be successful. Those studies are necessary as food hubs pop up around the state. The South Central Missouri Food Hub Study is still in the data collection phase, while the KC Food Hub Working Group has decided to move forward. They are creating a business plan they hope will be effective in the highly competitive produce market there, says Katie Nixon, a producer network development specialist with Lincoln University Cooperative Extension and a member of the working group since its inception three years ago.
Seven producers have stepped up to form an LLC and begin the process to develop the KC hub. “From the beginning, we thought if it was producer-owned, then that would make all the difference in the world for the producer because they’re making the decisions,” Nixon says.
In St. Louis, that same logic weighs on Todd Geisert’s mind. “We’re working on a food hub where we’re trying to be a collection point for other smaller people to be able to help get the product out,” he says. “More and more people I talk to have that problem of being able to get their product to the market in an effective way.” Geisert is part of a hybrid food hub effort, which would cater not only to restaurants, schools, grocers and other larger businesses but also sell smaller quantities of products directly to consumers in a store location.
These studies are some of the most recent. The USDA’s most recent statistics show 65 percent growth, nationally, in the number of food hubs in the last five years. Food hubs are already serving Missouri communities. According to the National Good Food Network, more than 300 hubs are operating in the United States, nine in Missouri. Granted, most of those in Missouri fall into the farmers’ market or CSA model more than the hub concepts Rimal and Nixon are involved in developing.
At the end of the day, “local” keeps evolving in terms of how consumers and government are defining it and how farmers are meeting demand. “As more and more Farm Bureau members become involved in the local foods marketing arena, it’s important to provide support and education so they are successful,” says Kelly Smith, Missouri Farm Bureau marketing and commodities director. “It’s important that Farm Bureau be involved in the issues that are important to this growing sector of agriculture.”