A two year education, training and marketing project focused on transitioning tobacco farmers to organic produce and free range eggs led to a near doubling in the number of farmers raising these products commercially, increased the involvement of Cooperative Extension in organic research and training activities, and substantially expanded sales to supermarkets, small grocers and restaurants and college dining services. The project focused on farmers in the Appalachian region of Virginia and Tennessee, particularly limited resource farmers.
This grant in the amount of $40,000 which supports the Value Added Sustainable Agriculture Initiative will come to a close in 2009. We have enjoyed working with Wright Equipment, various chapters of Farm Bureau. Cooperative Extension, Virginia and Tennessee Departments of Agriculture, Virginia Tech, East Coast Fresh Cuts Food City and the Virginia Highlands Community College on this project. The Principal investigators, Anthony Flaccavento and Kathlyn Terry can be reached at 310 West Valley Street, Abingdon, VA or (276) 623-1121.
1. Increase the number of organic and sustainable farmers from 40 to 60 in 2007, and 75 in 2008 including those selling certified organic produce and free range eggs through the Appalachian Harvest network. Building the base of growers and adequately preparing and supporting them for the transition to organic is at the heart of this project.
2. Expand income opportunities for 40 existing AH farmers, leading to an overall increase in organic farm sales to at least $550,000 in 2007, and $750,000 in 2008. With current demand more than double our supply, existing organic growers will be encouraged to expand acreage and diversify their crops.
3. Strengthen existing ancillary businesses – organic greenhouses, organic inputs – and add 2-4 additional enterprises built around local sustainable agriculture. As the acreage under production increases, so too will the demand for certified organic plants and, potentially, seeds from local producers.
4. Solidify partnership with existing buyers, by increasing sales and the consistency and quality of supply of organic produce and free range eggs. The major partners include: Food City (Abingdon), Ukrops (Richmond), Earth Fare (Asheville, NC), Ingles (Asheville, NC), Whole Foods, South (Duluth, GA), Lancaster (Landover, MD) and Kroger (Roanoke, VA). These buyers represent nearly 500 individual stores and are the key to continued expansion of markets for high value farm products.
5. Develop partnerships with East Coast Fresh Cuts and possibly other food companies to produce fresh salsas from local, organic produce. This partnership was begun in 2006, leading to $7,300 sales of AH produce, most of it the “seconds” that are difficult to market. We project a tripling in this business in 2007, and continued increase in 2008, improving income for many of the farmers in AH. Unlike a previous attempt at a “salsa partnership”, this venture is simpler and lower risk for ASD, as East Coast is already in the salsa business and is expanding and transitioning to more local and organic ingredients.
In spite of a fire that destroyed Appalachian Sustainable Development’s packing and grading facility in May, 2007, ASD was able to achieve most of the objectives set forth in our proposal and generally improve market opportunities and training and technical support for farmers over the past two years. A brief summary of the major accomplishments during the life of the grant include the following:
1. Funds were secured for a new packing and grading facility which was built and became operational in June, 2008. The new packing facility is more centrally located than the prior one, is 15,000 square feet (double the size of the earlier packing facility) and is both better equipped and better designed to function efficiently as a produce grading and packing house. Funds for the facility came from a combination of insurance settlement money, the Virginia Tobacco Commission, and numerous donations from individuals and businesses.
2. Sales of Appalachian Harvest organic produce and free range eggs increased to $515,000 in 2008 and are projected to reach between $700,000 and $750,000 in 2009. While this is approximately one year behind the projected schedule, we are satisfied with the progress, given the fire and resulting problems.
3. The number of producers in the Appalachian Harvest network nearly doubled during the two years, from 37 to about 70 in 2009.
4. In addition to the approximately 70 producers in the Appalachian Harvest network, ASD has assisted well over 100 additional farmers, many of whom are now involved in successful farm enterprises through local farmers markets, CSA’s and direct sales to consumers.
5. Additionally, a restaurant marketing network was spawned in the summer of 2008 which now includes ten farmers and about a dozen restaurants purchasing a wide range of organic produce, along with free range eggs and grass finished meats.
6. ASD’s training and technical assistance program for farmers expanded and improved significantly during the two years, adding results of new research undertaken for organic farming, along with extensive training and information about Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs).
7. All of the buyers involved with Appalachian Harvest have continued during the two years and several new buyers have been added, bringing the total number of supermarket customers to nearly 600. Additionally, at least one college (Washington & Lee University) is purchasing from the network and others are interested.
8. Markets for organic produce seconds also expanded substantially during the project year and now include a manufacturer of organic salsa; in-store dining services to our supermarket customers; several CSA projects in other parts of the state; and the Healthy Families, Family Farms project, which provides organic produce for free to the Second Harvest Food Bank. During 2007 and 2008 seasons, over 110,000 lbs. of local organic produce was provided to low income families through Healthy Families, Family Farms, with funds directed to farmers participating in the program.
Benefits to producers:
• Increased farm income and improved stewardship practices for approximately 100 farmers directly participating in both training and markets provided by ASD;
• Improved understanding and skill in high value organic and sustainable production among another 40 – 50 farmers who participated in training and farm tours
• Increase in local capacity for research, training and TA, including county extension agents, local farmers and “farmer mentors”, all of whom enhanced their understanding of commercial organic farming
• Strengthening and “testing” of the network model of production and marketing, both for organic produce and free range egg production. This is a simplified, market-driven strategy that effectively elicits cooperation and coordinated, planned production among producers, without creating a cooperative per se. The flexibility of this model encourages people to enter and try new and crops and products. It also has evolved to be a very effective peer learning and extension system.
• Access to large and high value markets, particularly supermarkets, for small and limited resource farmers who would be unable to meet the requirements of these buyers on their own (large, steady volume, cooling and grading, packaging, product liability insurance, etc).
• Creation of other rural enterprise opportunities, including greenhouses, organic materials and supply businesses, as well as jobs in the aggregation and shipping of the product (approximately 20 such jobs, seasonally, for this project).
There is now very widespread interest in the Appalachian Harvest “field to table” model that ASD has developed and which this project helped support, in many parts of the southern region. Requests for information and/or consultation to learn more about this strategy have come from farmers, extension personnel and local leaders in Alabama, North and South Carolina, middle Tennessee, Georgia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Kentucky and several other communities in Virginia. While responding to all of these requests has been difficult, we have provided at least a basic outline of the approach and hosted numerous tours of our facilities, along with extensive phone consultations. ASD’s director, Anthony Flaccavento is currently writing a “toolkit” to help provide the more detailed, step by step guidance such communities seem to need.
Progress on Specific Goals and Objectives
1. Expand the Appalachian Harvest growers network to 70-75 farmers by 2008, and provide the research, education and technical support they need to become economically viable.
• The total number of farmers in the Appalachian Harvest growers network has reached 68, slightly below the projected 70-75 farmers that we had sought. The vast majority of these are raising certified organic produce, while a smaller number – 10 – are raising free range eggs. Some are doing both.
• In addition to Appalachian Harvest growers, a number of farmers who received training and technical assistance from ASD have gone on to develop successful sustainable farm enterprises at farmers markets, to restaurants, or in other ways. We estimate the total number of these farmers at 50 – 70.
• Training and technical support was provided to approximately 150 current and potential farmers during the two years of the project, through more than a dozen workshops, farm tours and training events. These workshops and training events were led by ASD staff, but frequently involved local farmers as trainers as well. Additionally, Cooperative Extension worked with ASD to host two training conferences (one each year) through the Appalachian Regional Horticulture Conference held in both years.
• Cooperative Extension conducted a trial on control of powdery and downy mildew in cucurbits during the 2007 season. Staff from Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech and the University of Tennessee worked with ASD in 2008 to plan and design an experiment on trap crop research (focused on trapping cucumber beetles) which will be conducted during the 2009 season. Additional support from the EPA was secured for this trap crop research.
• ASD trained and employed (on a part-time contract basis) two “farmer mentors” during the project period. These two farmers enabled us to expand our capacity to reach farmers on their farm and assist them in identifying insects and diseases, and taking appropriate steps to solve problems. These farmer mentors will continue during 2009.
• ASD’s training program, and the training materials that accompany it were steadily expanded throughout the project period to include results of new research, both research we had undertaken and other research on organic farming and free range egg production. A new area of concern – food safety and sanitation – led us to include GAP training for farmers beginning in the 2008 season. This training has been expanded and a GAP protocol developed in anticipation of buyers’ possible demand for GAP certification in the future.
• Training in free range egg production also was developed, refined and expanded during this project period. A specific set of standards for free range egg production were developed, based on research and experiences from other free range egg producers around the region. Training and technical assistance was provided to the ten free range egg producers in the network, along with approximately ten more who are currently considering free range egg production.
2. Expand economic opportunities for organic produce and free range egg producers, by diversifying and increasing the market for their products. Sales are projected at $550,000 in 2007 and $750,000 in 2008 through the Appalachian Harvest network.
• Sales in 2008 reached $515,000 for Appalachian Harvest. Projected sales for 2009 are between $700,000 and $750,000 (this is where we had hoped to be in 2008, but the combination of the packing house fire, and our inability during the 2007 season to provide much outreach to farmers, given the fire recovery, delayed our progress by about a year).
• Market demand for Appalachian Harvest produce and free range eggs remains far beyond the current supply. In spite of the economic downturn, we have been able to generally expand the sales with current customers, while gradually bringing new customers on board for ample future demand.
• In addition to Appalachian Harvest sales, a small restaurant marketing cooperative, called Farm Fresh Connection, was developed in 2008 with four farmers and six restaurants. It has been expanded and the 2009 season will include ten farmers and about twelve restaurants with projected sales of $1,000 to $2,000 per week. For the most part, these are non certified organic farmers who have participated in ASD’s training and technical assistance.
• Additionally, many of the growers who have attended ASD training or farm tours have gone on to sell at one of several farmers markets in the region or to participate in ASD’s local food directory. Farmers markets have grown dramatically in the region over the past two years, with considerable assistance from ASD staff. The Abingdon Farmers Market, for instance has grown to include 48 full-time, season long vendors along with another nearly 50 periodic vendors. Although farmers market development was not a direct part of this proposal, it has proven to be a very important complement to our work with retailers and other outlets, providing additional market opportunities for Appalachian Harvest farmers, and as primary market opportunities for small and newer growers. Consumer interest in local and organic foods is also greatly expanded by the presence of an increasing number of robust farmers markets.
3. Strengthen ancillary businesses, such as organic greenhouse production, and assist 2-3 new businesses to start each year.
• Eight individuals own and operate organic greenhouses, providing certified organic transplants for themselves and for some of their neighbors who must use certified transplants as part of their organic operation.
• Two composting businesses are now operational in the region, both providing high quality compost that has been approved for organic operations by Quality Certification Services, our certifying agency.
• In addition to the compost operations, two local farm supply stores, which historically had only carried conventional supplies, now carry various organic supplies, ranging from organic potting soil to organic fertilizers and pest and disease control products.
4. Solidify current market partnerships, increases sales, and improve both the consistency of supply and the placement of Appalachian Harvest products in these stores.
• As stated in Goal 2, the number of market partners has grown steadily throughout the project period. We have been careful not to overextend our marketing efforts, since supply has been the limiting factor. At present, the following supermarkets are committed purchasers of Appalachian Harvest produce and or eggs: Earthfare (Hendersonville, NC), Ingles (Asheville, NC) Food City (Abingdon, VA), Whole Foods (Atlanta, GA), Whole Foods (Landover, MD), Lancaster Foods (Jessup, MD), Coastal Sunbelt (Savage, MD),Ukrops (Richmond, VA), and more. In addition to the supermarket partners, ASD added three CSA customers based in Lynchburg, Richmond and Charlottesville, VA. Each of the CSA’s produces their own organic produce, but frequently uses Appalachian Harvest to supplement and expand the offerings to their customers.
5. Expand and develop markets for salsa and other products, in partnership with an existing salsa producer, in order to utilize produce “seconds”, thereby improving farmer income.
• In 2008, ASD sold organic produce seconds to Washington & Lee University in Lexington, VA. This will continue in 2009 and we hope to add a second college or university dining services in the future (Note: selling produce seconds is an excellent way to improve income for farmers, while providing a price competitive local product to dining services. We are able to secure a price for the seconds that allows the farmers to make a small profit on things they might otherwise have to discard, while being competitive with large food suppliers).
• ASD’s Healthy Families, Family Farms program shrunk during the 2007 season as the packing house fire made it impossible to do the necessary outreach. Nonetheless, over 30,000 lbs. of organic produce were purchased through Healthy Families, Family Farms and distributed to the Second Harvest Food Bank for free in 2007. In 2008, Healthy Families, Family Farms rebounded and nearly 88,000 lbs. of organic produce were distributed to needy families during that year. (Healthy Families, Family Farms raises funds from churches, small businesses, civic groups and individuals, 100% of which is then used to purchase good quality organic produce seconds from local farmers at a discount price of approximately $.30 to $.35 cents per lb. This is a breakeven price for farmers, which prevents them from having a loss on the item. The produce is then delivered to the Second Harvest Regional Food Bank and distributed for free to thousands of families through the food bank).
• The partnership with East Coast Fresh Cuts expanded during 2008 to approximately $17,000 in sales. East Coast Fresh Cuts buys produce seconds from Appalachian Harvest which it utilizes in a line of organic salsas and other products. They are committed to expanding this partnership steadily as the Appalachian Harvest production capacity grows.
Benefits to consumers:
The primary benefit to consumers has been a dramatic expansion in the availability and affordability of healthy, locally raised foods, particularly organic produce and free range eggs, but also including grass-finished meats (as an outgrowth of some of our market development efforts). The availability of such foods, at farmers markets, local grocers and health food stores, restaurants and mainstream supermarkets, has increased at an extraordinary pace over the two years of the project. This is quite important, given the very rural nature of our communities, and the general assumption that areas such as Central Appalachia do not have “the proper demographics” to support sustainable and organic farmers. I believe we have largely proved that to be wrong.