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Programs in Action: Building Viable Speciality Industries with SARE

May 18, 2015

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of blog posts highlighting Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) projects that support women and beginning farmers.

The SARE program is a farmer driven research, education and extension grants program designed to help advance sustainable agriculture across the country. Over the past 25 years, SARE has been on the cutting edge, supporting on-farm research that has allowed farmers of all kinds to experiment and innovate on their farms in order to solve pressing challenges facing their farm businesses.

SARE research targets funding to explore solutions and find ways to increase the value, profitability, and environmental benefits associated with sustainable and organic farming systems.  Specifically, SARE research has helped countless farmers and ranchers across the country, including beginning and women farmers, increase their bottom line and develop financially sound and environmentally sustainable farm businesses.

With an increased national focus on finding ways to better support the next generation of farmers, including women-owned and operated farms, we are highlighting two SARE success stories featuring female farmers, whose research grants helped to launch new farm-based industries in their regions!

Rita Pelczar inspecting her organic hops

Rita Pelczar and her husband, John Wright, are the owners of Blue Ridge Hops, a small family operation in Western North Carolina that grows organic hops on a half acre of mountainous land. New to farming, Pelczar and Wright wanted to fill a niche market in their region, and were inspired by the establishment of and interest in local microbreweries. Growing hops organically and selling the product fresh were the keystones of their business plan, though organic hops rhizomes were hard to find.

“Before our project, there was such a small amount of information available about growing hops in the Southeast, so it seemed like a high risk. After our initial small-scale trial in 2008, we determined it was worth the risk, so we applied for a SARE grant to expand our effort. The 2009 [Southern] SARE grant allowed us to experiment with our topography, hops varieties, and equipment, to find a system that works.  Some of the best things we’ve learned is what hasn’t worked.” —Rita Pelczar, Blue Ridge Hops

The SARE grant allowed them to design a hop yard suitable to the sloping topography and provided the flexibility to experiment with variations on traditional trellis systems and hops varieties. Blue Ridge Hops has continually expanded their business. Due to the difficulty in finding organic rhizomes, they decided to sell theirs to other growers, becoming one of the very few producers of organic rhizomes in the Eastern US. They sell their fresh hops to local breweries and dry hops to home brewers, home brewing supply stores, and medicinal herb shops.

The SARE program allowed Pelczar to contribute to the organic hops industry in the Southeast, and establish a viable family operation.

“Hop growing in the Southeast has gone from 0 to 60 pretty fast. Though the jury is still out about the economical viability of the crop as a solitary source of farm income, I believe hops growing can be a complementary part of diversified agriculture for small farms in the Southeast.” — Rita Pelczar

Another SARE success story, Abbe Turner owns and operates Lucky Penny Farm, a family dairy and creamery operation in Northeast Ohio that produces goat, sheep and cow milk cheeses and speciality products. Committed to ecological sustainability and community development, Abbe and Lucky Penny Farm have successfully been awarded three North Central SARE grants for innovative farm-based research projects. The farm also received a Value Added Producer Grant for a market feasibility study for caramel sauce known as Cajeta.

Abbe Turner with goat

Abbe Turner with Goat

In 2009, Lucky Penny was awarded a SARE grant to fund a feasibility study to evaluate the collaborative Ohio Sheep Milk and Cheese Initiative. This project involved education and surveys for local chefs and farmers, which yielded over 220 positive responses in support of developing a local sheep milk industry.

“In 2009 there were no sheep dairy initiatives or available products in Ohio, and now there are five— so we really created an industry in our region. We could never have launched the industry without the SARE grant…it provided the initial investment that small operations often require.”—Abbe Turner, Lucky Penny Farm

Lucky Penny’s most recent SARE grant builds upon the success of the Ohio Sheep Milk and Cheese Initiative. As the operator of a small artisan creamery, Turner struggled for years with sustainably managing the large amounts of whey that cheese processing yields. Turner started feeding the whey to the hogs on her farm, which inspired the idea for her most recently awarded SARE grant. This project, titled Food Waste for Farms, connects nutrient-rich commercial waste with small diversified farms which raise pigs, poultry, and small ruminants such as goats.

“The farmer benefits by accessing a lower feed cost and the community collectively benefits from less food waste ending up in landfills. Food waste that does not end up as animal feed can be composted, contributing to local soil health.”—Abbe Turner

Additionally, Turner notes that SARE funding is critical for supporting small farm business expansion and experimentation:

“The SARE and VAPG grants are small grants that provide critical seed funding for small operations.  This is significant for exploring new products and networks, improving the diversity of local foods— what is more boring than a homogenized food world?”

Lucky Penny Creamery cheese wheel

Lucky Penny Creamery Cheese Wheel

For more information about the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program and its regional councils, access NSAC’s Grassroots Guide to Federal Farm and Food Programs.

Stay tuned for our next blog in this series on how SARE is helping new farmers get started!

Categories: Beginning and Minority Farmers, Grants and Programs, Research, Education & Extension

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