June 10, 2010
“Don’t Stomp on Innovation!” commanded Karl Kupers, co-founder of Shepherd’s Grain, at a Congressional briefing on June 8th 2010.
Karl’s assertion came at the end of a full day of briefings with USDA officials and Congressional staffers. Karl and other farmers presented innovative marketing strategies and supply network ideas for mid-sized farmers. They emphasized the importance of USDA funding opportunities for producers using innovative techniques to market their products. As Karl explained, opportunities for innovation inspire young, farmer-entrepreneurs and can re-vitalize rural America.
The day’s briefings included four presentations by producers from across the country. The farmers engaged the audience with stories and photos from their family farms while highlighting the crucial role mid-sized farms play for both rural development and the sustainability of regional food systems. Mid-sized farms connected to local and regional marketing chains offer a tremendous engine for economic growth in rural communities.
While the number of very small farms and very large farms and ranches has increased over the last decade, mid–sized farms continue to disappear. Too small to serve global commodity markets at a reasonable profit and too large to rely solely on direct-to-consumer marketing, mid-sized farmers often struggle to find their marketing niche.
However, mid-sized farms are an indispensable component of the U.S. food system. These farmers can produce at a scale and with an agility and flexibility that is attractive to institutional and wholesale markets while maintaining sustainable production practices and fueling their local economy.
The four presenters each employed innovative marketing strategies and channels that allowed them to compete and thrive. Although each approach was unique, common strategies included entering value based supply chains by differentiating their products as local, organic, grass fed or family farm raised, participating farm-to-school programs, and utilizing USDA funding resources such as the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), Value-Added Producer Grants, and Small Business Innovation Research programs.
The presenters included:
Diana Endicott, a Kansas farmer, who more than a decade ago saw the income opportunities of marketing through a local and regional food network. She founded Good Natured Family Farms (GNFF), a cooperative alliance of more than 150 family farms in Kansas and Missouri producing a cornucopia of meats, milk, cheese, eggs, fruits and vegetables using environmentally sustainable farming practices.
GNFF markets their pesticide, hormone and antibiotics free fare to 38 supermarket and institutional customers including Hen House Markets, Balls Price Chopper Supermarkets, and the Community Mercantile in Lawrence, Kansas under the Good Natured Family Farms label.
Gary Pahl, a 5th generation farmer, who participates in retail, wholesale, institutional and direct marketing opportunities, including farm to school. On 1,110 acres in Minnesota, he grows flowers, sweet corn, cabbage, green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, and pumpkins. Although surrounded by urban development, he keeps his farming practices sustainable through integrated pest management, low-till and no-till practices, and planting cover crops. Pahl created his own farmers market to sell his products retail right on his farm, while also marketing directly to local school districts and restaurant chains such as Chipotle and utilizing regional distributors to sell his produce wholesale.
Regina Beidler, a dairy farmer in central Vermont, joined the Organic Valley Cooperative, the largest Organic Cooperative in the U.S. In 1988, Regina and her husband purchased their farmland at agriculture value from the Vermont Land Trust. With assistance from a SARE grant, they immediately began the transition to organic production, and became organic certified in 2000. Now, with 30 to 35 milking cows, the Beidler family produces about 56,000 gallons of milk each year. As a member of Organic Valley, Regina explained, organic dairy producers receive steady raw milk prices set according to regional costs of production. With a cooperative structure that includes farmers in the decision-making process, Organic Valley members are “price makers,” shielding them from the volatile milk prices on the conventional market.
Karl Kupers, who utilizes value-added regional marketing as a means of saving the family farm. The winner of the 2010 Business Leadership Award from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Kupers co-founded Shepherd’s Grain, an alliance of 33 family farms in the Pacific Northwest producing and milling wheat for consumers in their region. Shepherd’s Grain flours are marketed as local and sustainably produced.
Although the producers identified gaps in the federal support system, such as the lack of risk insurance for specialty crops and the need for more USDA funding for the new “bricks and mortar” of the emerging local and regional food system, they each presented inspiring examples of innovation and resourcefulness.
The briefing was co-sponsored by Farm Aid, Organic Valley, and Heifer International US Country Program, and was organized by Jess Daniel, an NSAC policy intern.