In 2009, a two-day workshop series, titled the Virginia Agriculture; Food Entrepreneurship Program, was held in order to help farmers and food producers navigate the food processing and safety regulations in the state of Virginia. The sold-out status of the event provided evidence of a burgeoning interest in food entrepreneurship and fulfilled the need for educational support relevant to food regulations and marketing. These well-attended events also demonstrated the concern food entrepreneurs have for creating sustainable, safe and legal models of doing business.
The VAFEP is a relevant and valuable project because in order to create and maintain a viable and resilient regional food system, we need to provide the necessary infrastructure. Helping our farmers and food producers in navigating the food processing and safety regulations will help entrepreneurs get their products to the ever-expanding market for fresh, local food and farm products. In turn, we become more food self-sufficient and we become one step closer to creating community food security.
Growing Food & Community is a volunteer initiative dedicated to creating, supporting and uniting community food programs and sustainable agriculture projects as a pathway toward resilient, viable and equitable food systems in the Virginia Piedmont. Our goal is to partner those that produce, distribute and market our food locally with those that consume these foods locally and, thus, galvanize our community, protect the environment, strengthen our local economy and secure our food future.
In 2009, Growing Food & Community (GF&C) was awarded a Sustainable Community Innovation USDA SARE Grant and collaborated with several other community partners to create the Virginia Agriculture & Food Entrepreneurship Program (VAFEP). The project was manifested through the collaboration of a highly motivated committee of organizers that includes GF&C plus Virginia Cooperative Extension, Charlottesville-area farmers market managers, some of our local farmers and an economic development agent. Recognizing the need to disseminate food processing, food safety and local food marketing information, the VAFEP handily enlisted the support of several sponsors and presenters, including Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Virginia Tech, VA FAIRS/Farm Bureau, Piedmont Environmental Council, Meet The Farmer TV and Flavor Magazine.
The purpose of the VAFEP was to support new and existing value-added food processors and food producers in the Virginia Piedmont region through a series of educational workshops and through an informative website. In doing so, the VAFEP intends to foster the exchange of locally produced food with those who consume it locally. This is an excellent strategy for immediately and positively impacting the resiliency of our region’s food shed because the impacts of these efforts can be felt far and wide throughout a community.
INCREASE PROFITABILITY & VIABILITY OF SMALL FARMS
For one, providing this infrastructure helps to make our local, small farms more profitable and viable. In the instance of value-added agriculture, for example, when a farmer is using raw materials to the fullest, they are able to close the loop in the production system, eliminating waste and, thus, making the most efficient use of resources while increasing the economic viability of their farm.
UNITE & GALVANIZE SEGMENTS OF A COMMUNITY
Small farms were once the cornerstone of communities. Prior to the “industrial agricultural” revolution, most families were involved in growing and processing their own food. Now we no longer know who grows our food nor the methods used to grow it. Local food systems strengthen communities through building relationships and trust; they create bridges between those that produce our food and those who consume it, between rural residents and urban dwellers, between farmland and non-farming land, between humanity and nature.
GROW MORE FARMERS
Providing infrastructure and education is crucial to filling our growing need to incubate more farmers. Right now, the average age of the average farmer is approaching 60 years old. And right now, less than 2% of the population even knows how to grow food. In order to feed a growing population amidst a declining population of farmers, we’d be wise to return to what Thomas Jefferson referred to as a “Nation of Farmers.”
BOOST THE LOCAL ECONOMY
Supporting local production of food and farm products also strengthens the local economy. It reduces the amount of economic leakage experienced as a result of non-Virginia produced food being purchased and consumed by Virginians (estimated to be about 60% or 8.9 million dollars). But when people have access to and purchase food from local producers, that revenue is retained within our community. In fact, if each household in Albemarle County spent only $10 per week of the food budget on fresh, local food and farm products, it would equal about $20 million dollars in revenue.
HELP ENSURE EQUITABLE FOOD DISTRIBUTION
Local food systems can play an important role in ensuring equitable and adequate distribution of food to all members of a community. Achieving social justice through food justice and community food programs is an excellent strategy to reducing “food deserts” and for increasing health, well-being and vibrancy of residents within regional foodsheds.
IMPROVE HEALTH & CONNECTION TO LAND & NATURE
Consuming foods grown regionally and within season is the diet that nature intended and is designed to supply us with many of the nutrients we need for health and well-being. These most auspicious foods allow us to take in the “terroir” – or essence – of the land from which they are grown, deepening our connection to the natural systems and cycles of our regional foodshed.
REDUCE POLLUTION & ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION
It also means a healthier environment and a more sustainable planet. As the distance between farm to fork is reduced, so are the greenhouse gases that are emitted into the atmosphere as a result of a food system that relies on transporting food great distances from producer to consumer (our industrial agricultural system produces over 30% of the GGE that are the cause of global climate destabilization). Our globalized, industrialized and centralized agricultural system is wreaking havoc on our planet and a return to regionalized, sustainable food systems is the solution.
REDUCE DEPENDENCE ON NON-RENEWABLE FOSSIL FUELS
Buying locally also reduces our dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels like gas and oil, something to give serious consideration to as our global supply of these precious resources is becoming less abundant, harder to extract and more expensive. Fossil fuels are currently so integrated into our food production and distribution systems that it makes folks like Richard Heinburg ask, “What will we eat when the oil runs out?”
Supporting the creative entrepreneurial efforts of our farmers, such as with value-added production, is one of the best ways to achieve sustainable community innovation and long term viability. “Economic viability today demands value-adding, which means on-farm infrastructure,” says Joel Salatin (Flavor Magazine, Dec/Jan 2009).
Supporting the viability of our regional food-based businesses is also an excellent strategy for immediately and positively impacting local sustainable agriculture, farm preservation, farmer profits, food production, socio-economic welfare, community integration and a new generation of farmers. This is important because these are all essential elements of “community food security.”
One of the best venues for getting these products to market is via direct-to-consumer markets such as farmers markets. They are catalysts for what is known as “local living economies” whereby basic needs of a community are produced close to home in ways that are sustainable and don’t harm the environment.
Building local food self-sufficiency is important because the data available on local and global food economies and systems demonstrates that our current model is vulnerable and why a project such as this one is crucial to securing it.
Ensuring the security of our food future is a daunting task. Consequently, the VAFEP focused on two objectives that were built around helping farmers realize their fullest potential by creating new jobs, businesses and revenue streams:
1. Increasing the amount and quality of value-added agriculture in the Virginia Piedmont region.
Assisting farmers in navigating the difficult process of adding value to their farm-grown products has a direct impact on promoting sustainable agriculture. Farmers need to be supported in their efforts to move from crop production agriculture to value-added enterprises. They need hands-on leadership and guidance to walk them through feasibility studies, marketing research, business plan development and in getting their products to market for a fair price. That is why the VAFEP was committed to partnering and networking with those having expertise in these specialized tasks through the informative workshops and a resourceful website.
2. Strengthening direct producer-to-consumer partnerships as a primary vehicle for sales.
Farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer selling venues are one of the most successful modes of food distribution because of the far-reaching effects they have on a community. Local economies are strengthened, local farmers are supported and local communities are galvanized all as a result of them.
The growth in farmers markets has been fueled by increased public interest in knowing where their food is grown, who grew it and how. They want food that has been grown without damaging the environment and are willing to pay a higher price for it.
“We need to get small farmers into the distribution system,” says Rick Schnieders, chief executive of food distributor Sysco. Considering the many obstacles to getting local, healthy foods onto the shelves of supermarket chains, direct-to-consumer sales and farmers markets present a viable solution for ensuring access to healthy food for all members of the community.
The 2009 objectives listed above were accomplished through the implementation of the Virginia Agriculture & Food Entrepreneurship Program utilizing the following approaches and methods:
1. A two-day workshops series focusing on food processing and safety regulations, business strategies and marketing opportunities.
GF&C and collaborators developed a workshop series that provided training on how to start a food processing business, how to comply with Virginia food processing regulations, how to market value-added products, how to find support for business plans for sustainable and organic products and how to tactfully enforce these regulations as a market manager.
“Day One” of the workshop series focused on food processing and safety regulations as they pertain to Virginia. About 20 of our government officials and local food experts were on hand to answer the questions and concerns of a growing base of Cville-area agricultural entrepreneurs looking to meet the supply for a growing demand for locally produced food and farm products.
Day Two of the workshop series focused on the business and financial aspects of food-based businesses, as well as marketing opportunities for getting local food product into the hands of local consumers.
This was achieved via collaboration between GF&C and the following individuals and experts in the field:
2. The Virginia Agriculture & Food Entrepreneurship Program Website, www.vafep.org
A website is a valuable communication tool that is a necessity in today’s information-dependent world. Consistent with other advocacy efforts, the website has become an integral resource to food producers and sellers by making available free downloads of information relevant to food processing and safety regulations, marketing opportunities and resources, contacts for all of the VAFEP speakers and sponsors, Power Point presentations given by the speakers, website links, and DVDs available for purchase of the entire two day event.
The collaborative efforts of the website’s design and content, as well as its maintenance, are reflective of the following individuals: Leslie Jenkins, Michael Clark, Frank Melli, Michelle Maggiore and Dawn Story.
Collectively, the two-day workshop drew 28 speakers and 106 attendees, including a waiting list. This clearly demonstrates a high level of interest in both those in need of training and educational support in the areas of food processing and safety regulations and also those eager to disseminate the information in a collaborative manner.
Over 97% of survey respondents cited that the VAFEP workshops increased their understanding and knowledge of starting a food-based business in Virginia. When asked about why – or why not – the workshops were helpful, some of the comments were as follows:
- Because I had no previous knowledge of the regulations other than they are onerous. Today, they were presented and explained as fair and carefully thought out.
It gave me the info needed.
Better understanding of food regulations.
Informed me of all the government rules & regulations.
I learned quite a bit about all of the help/advice offered by Joell Eiffert/VT to promote and develop new food products. GAP/GHP talk was very informative as well.
I found out more about regulations and look forward to hearing more inspiration.
A lot of good information on to process.
I didn’t really have a good understanding of sustainability.
Gave me contacts and websites for more information.
How to market my produce. Good contacts.
Every workshop today had info that applied directly to the producer.
Raised many possibilities/negativities new to me. Much to think about!
The first part of the workshop (3/30) was a lot more useful to me. But definitely worth it for somebody with little business background. (I have a business background.)
Fairly comprehensive overview of marketing local food products from a reasonably broad range of experts.
Ideas, web links, contacts.
Want to develop a business plan.
The combination of both days was very helpful.
Regulation and inspiration.
Picked up previously unknown contacts.
Great speakers who spoke honestly about success & failure.
I have virtually no background in this area and this was an incredibly good primer for me. Thank you!
One hundred percent of survey respondents stated that they would recommend the workshop to others for the following reasons:
Excellently planned and interestingly presented.
Good value wide variety of speakers & lots of different regulations- good opportunity to network.
Good information & representation of the laws & regulations.
Excellent slate of speakers, great opportunity to network with other farmers, chefs, and speakers. However, I’d appreciate a little less rules & regulations after lunch. The panel was very good.
For exposure of the food business- rules vegetables.
Full of information and a great forum for sharing.
I already did. Nora Wilson came today because of my exhortations.
4/6 workshop I would recommend with somebody with little business background.
Provided exposure to a broad range of resources for planning and executing a food business.
Very much needed by all producers.
Much useful information.
Covered food safety, production, marketing, and so much more. Again great speakers!
Highly skilled, informed presenters- relevant topics.
To increase their knowledge of starting a food business.
It’s a comprehensive overview of the regulatory and business environment in which VA food entrepreneurs will operate.
Overall, organizers of the VAFEP feel strongly that the workshops and website satisfied an unfilled niche of training and educational support for new and existing food entrepreneurs and small farmers. An important and ongoing dialogue has been created between food processing and safety regulators, local food retailers and wholesalers, marketing agents, farmers and food processors that will likely spar a resurgence of local food production enterprises. The website has been created as a living document and will be continually updated as information changes and as funding allows.
Educational & Outreach Activities
A website was developed to capture the information imparted during the Spring 2009 VAFEP and may be viewed at www.vafep.org. A wealth of information may be downloaded and viewed on this site including Home Operations Packets from VDACs, Power Point presentations given by all of the workshop speakers and a DVD of the entire two-day event.
As a result of the VAFEP workshops, over one hundred regional new and existing food growers and value-added producers are well on their way to producing more food to meet the rising demand for local food in the Piedmont region. Additionally, they are now able to do so with an understanding of how to create safe, legal and sustainable models of food entrepreneurship.
The VAFEP website (www.vafep.org) was created to be a living document that will continue to be edited as regulations change and new information becomes available as long as funding is available. Currently, website viewers may download everything from a Home Food Operations packet (as required by VDACS), the Virginia Food Inspection Law and Cornell University’s Good Agricultural Practices guidelines and more.
Full length DVDs are available for purchase that include the entire two-day workshop series filmed live, thanks to a generous donation from Meet the Farmer TV. Or, should a viewer be interested in a specific topic, Power Point presentations given by individual speakers are available for download from the website for review.
Because of the overwhelming interest in the VAFEP workshops in the Charlottesville-Albemarle region, an additional two-day series was planned and implemented in November 2009. Matt Benson, Virginia Cooperative Extension Community Viability Agent, approached Growing Food & Community with the idea of creating a similar event in the Northern Piedmont area shortly after the launch of the inaugural event. GF&C then encouraged Mr. Benson to collaborate directly with Piedmont Environmental Council (PEC), a non-profit with a long history in protecting open space and farmland, so that the project would have longevity after grant funding had been depleted. The Airlie Foundation’s Local Food Project was then enlisted as another primary collaborator and provided a stunning setting for this Fall 2009 workshop. Future workshops and ongoing website maintenance are currently underway, as well as explorations into additional funding sources.
Based on feedback from VAFEP participants (including organizers, presenters and attendees), the following recommendations are in place for future programming:
- Include a “Glossary” of terms on the website that are useful for food entrepreneurs and small farmers
Create a flow chart of the most commonly grown/processed foods/food products that clearly outlines the necessary steps for specific foods (for example: applesauce, tomato sauce, salad dressing, sausage, pickles, etc).
Create separate tracks for folks interested in specific food categories such as vegetables, dairy or meat.
Provide more clarity regarding the roles of federal, state and local food regulators and regulations.
Provide more information on food products that carry the most risk.
Provide updated information regarding the current and pending food safety legislation in Congress.
Strive to keep information more specific to small farmers/entrepreneurs.
Set up a product showing (or tasting) to allow VAFEP participants to get direct and immediate feedback from governmental food authorities as well as fellow producers.
Provide more resource information on packaging, graphic design, website development, raw materials, etc.
Provide more information on land use taxes.
Provide more information on product pricing.