Resorts and high-end restaurants in West Virginia spend millions of dollars each year importing gourmet food items and meats from other states, as well as from outside the US. Our expectation was that some West Virginia farmers would be interested in raising and selling specialty items directly to these resorts, if they knew how to make the connection, what to raise, when and how to cultivate and harvest it, and then how to present it.
The purpose of this grant was first: to demonstrate the financial value to the farmer of customized growing for chefs and then: to make the connection by using the chefs themselves in dialogue sessions with farmers. Also, funding from this grant was quire important because it provided for a set of “mirror” activities for West Virginia’s non-distressed counties that were parallel to a similar Appalachian Regional Commission/Benedum Foundation Grant serving the distressed counties.
This program has turned out to be a significant success as the specific details, impact and prospect for sustainability presented below demonstrate.
Clarify through a series of visioning dialogue sessions that bring together chefs with farmers the quality of product (and also quite frequently the value added component) necessary to sell to a high end restaurant.
Demonstrate the financial value to the farmer of this customized growing for chefs.
Make the connection by using the chefs themselves in dialogue sessions with farmers
Create a network that allows farmers to sell their products to high end restaurants.
Elicit from the individual sessions with farmers any training educational needs and put an educational plan in place to address them so that interested farmers could learn what to grow, when and how to harvest, how to present it.
The method employed throughout was Grass Roots Visioning Sessions between chefs and farmers.
The first of the SARE grant activities was a presentation to a statewide meeting of the WVU Agricultural Extension Agents in Wheeling. This meeting allowed for all of the agents statewide to hear exactly what the content of the visioning sessions to be held with farmers was to be and to recruit those with a particular interest in the initiatives promoted by this grant.
Next, the first actual visioning session was held in Monroe County at Morgan’s Orchard. The number in attendance (18) was respectable, but of greater importance was the fact that all were interested in the topic and evaluations described that they found the presentations, which adhered to the description in the grant, either helpful or very helpful.
Publicity for this first session was good–provided by the local radio station and the county Agricultural Extension Agent who sent letters out to perspective participants. Colleen Anderson of Public Radio, various newspapers, and Goldseal magazine attended and took notes for a follow-up broadcast.
The session evaluations also provided insights for refinements to future sessions. In addition, it led us to re-think the final summative meeting so that we saw the value of having a larger group, including a farmer participant from each of the individual sessions in the Summit which was held at Fairmont State in August.
The next session was held in Romney at Gourmet Central a value added processing facility and because so many of the local farmers have relationships with this facility, pulled a slightly larger audience (approximately 22). It also had support from the Extension Agent. A distribution list spread sheet (attached) was created from the people who attended which allows for on-going information to be shared with interested farmers. This list includes the products the farmers have available (or will have in growing season) for distribution to chefs.
The final session was held in Parkersburg. The attendance was a little smaller with 12 people but an important discussion took place on the concept of value added.
Next, the Summit Session was held in early August at Fairmont State Community and Technical College and the following people participated in a day long workshop.
Dr. Allen Arnold, the Collaborative for the 21st Century Appalachia (formerly Institute for Regional Cuisine); Greg Atkinson, Director, WV State Department of Education, HEAT (Hospitality) Program; James Beatty, agriculture teacher Elkins High School; Brian Floyd, FSCTC—Director, Culinary Program; Elaine Ferry, farmer; Ray Freeman, agriculture teacher Buckhannon Upshur High School; Dale Hawkins, Executive Chef Stonewall Resort; Elizabeth Lee, Career and Technical Coordinator Buckhannon Upshur Technical High School; Rich McCormick, FSCTC—Provost and Agri-Business faculty; Dot Montgillion, farmer, and President of Farmers, Artisans, Inc; Dr. Beth Newcome, FSCTC—Department Head Health and Human Service; Tammy Perrine, farmer; Annie Seay, farmer and technology expert; Jon Seay, farmer.
The purpose of this event was to collate and assemble all of the information from the focus groups prior including baseline data and feedback from the chef-farmer dialogue sessions, and have this panel process it. By adding stakeholders (farmers) to the group of professional educators, we intended to first formulate and then also “vet” a plan to bridge any gap in knowledge that might exist for current and also future farmers interested in implementing this concept.
There were three significant results of the Summit meeting:
1. The production of a statewide plan for providing the educational component needed to implement this program (attached),
2. The creation of a technology program/strategic plan that will provide support for this initiative as well as provide the functional specifications for a web bulletin board market place for chefs and farmers to meet (see draft attached),
3. The reshaping of our thinking because of a realization that we were not doing enough to impact the “demand side” of the market place equation and determined we should contract with a consultant to begin shaping that approach. We submitted an email and phone call modification request for that change and you responded quickly and positively—thank you for your support of our efforts).
Another important result occurred after Frances Meadows and her family members from Spring Creek Farm attended the first of the Collaborative’s chef-farmer dialogues session. In the discussion about heirloom seeds, Frances alluded to the fact that her family raised Bloody Butcher corn. From that discussion and their following up with the chef presenters, she has since experienced some extraordinary results in terms of a marketing break-through.
Bloody Butcher Corn has always been used by the Meadows family for personal consumption as grits, and what was left over as fodder for animals. This past spring, they had ten bushels of unused corn worth maybe ten dollars each as a commodity, a total of a hundred dollars worth of corn.
The Collaborative worked with the family to show them the value added of stone-grinding it as polenta at historic Jackson’s Mill. The resulting 500 12-ounce containers of polenta–with one of the Collaborative chef’s grandmother’s recipe on the label–sold for three dollars wholesale to customers such as Stonewall Resort and The Greenbrier and four dollars retail, increasing the families revenues by between $1,500-$2,000.
Before the Meadows family attended the Collaborative dialogue sessions, they did not know what polenta was, or that such a market existed. In the next planting season (this past summer 2006), they increased production to between 300 and 400 bushels with the expectation of increasing their revenues to $45,000 for a product that had previously been fed to the hogs. We anticipate similar results for a number of other participating farmers.
The Meadows family is representative of the group of approximately sixty small farm owner/operators who have already expressed interest in this initiative at one of the chef-farmer dialogue sessions. This group of small farms, those with 99 or fewer acres, represents 9,940 of 20,000 of the family farms in West Virginia. With this kind of specialized-custom-growing, this sized plot is large enough to produce sufficient quantities of micro-products to actually provide a living wage. This is a direct contrast to their average annual farming revenue of $5,000.
Evaluations in our first dialogue session provided insights for refinements to future sessions. In addition, it led us to re-think the final summative meetings so that we saw the value of having a larger group and including farmers representing each of the sessions at the Summit. This turned out to be an excellent way of doing it.
Feedback at the Summit brought to our attention (as described above in some detail) the need to deal with both sides of the market equation—the demand as well as the supply side.
49 farmers (of the 62) who attended the sessions signed up to be on our mailing list indicating their potential interest.
Over 90% of all attendees indicated via the evaluation form that through the session they had gained a better understanding of the financial advantage of customized growing for high-end restaurants.
Over 65% of all attendees indicated via the evaluation form that they see this customized growing initiative as realistic and doable.
27 (list is provided) farmers have already started participating in forming an informal co-op to provide products for some of our partner chefs and as a result of this initiative over $365,000 that was being shipped out of West Virginia to buy produce and vegetables stayed in state.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
The curriculum and certificate that are produced as a result of the CSREES grant will provide for significant outreach.
The development of the website (now funded by the Dept of Agriculture and the Benedum Foundation) should provide for literally tens of thousands of connections a year.
The accumulation of research and the Summit participants’ response to it, provided for the production of a statewide plan for providing the educational component needed to implement this program (attached).
SARE’s permission to contract with consultants who can assist us in increasing the demand side has provided seed money for bringing Rod Stoner retired Food and Beverage Manager at the world famous Greenbrier Resort into this initiative in that capacity. And funding from this up-coming year’s round of ARC FLEX-E grants will allow us to build on your SARE dollars and continue that work.
The research from this SARE grant and the indication that we would be producing a Statewide Educational Plan formed the basis for a $50 thousand US Department of Agriculture CSREES (Cooperative State Research, Education, And Extension Service) proposal which would begin to build the formal educational secondary and post-secondary materials suggested as being needed by this grant’s findings. That has been funded.
The technology strategic plan that provides the functional specifications for a web bulletin board market place for chefs and farmers to meet was submitted to the West Virginia Department of Agriculture with positive results. The Department has awarded the Collaborative (nee Institute for regional Cuisine) $10,000 to build the web carcass.
Funding from the Benedum Foundation was sought and based on the foundational work of this SARE and its predecessor ARC FLEX-E monies, the Benedum was funded for the next two years. That grant (along with the new FLEX-E) will provide for:
Expanding the current group of chefs, organizing them into a network focused on the buy local concept thereby employing the concepts developed by Rod Stoner described above to increase the demand side.
Creating a Farm Fresh Bulletin Board to act as a broker to maintain a reliable farmer to chef communication loop that fosters this shift without substantially increasing their workload or increasing transportation costs.
Perform a detailed analysis to establish a logistics plan for distribution that includes the full range of technical issues to ensure prompt and reliable delivery.
Develop a web-presence and publicize this site among farmers and chefs. Work through colleges, small business groups, the Department of Agriculture and other related associations to provide web access to farmers.
The level of success of these efforts demonstrates the value and effectiveness of this approach and the importance of continuing it. One important aspect that has not yet received sufficient attention is the “value added”. We will be writing for the next round SARE funding to concentrate on this area.