Heirloom Vegetable Production Strategies to Improve Family Farm Income

Final Report for FNC05-576

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2005: $17,730.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2009
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


My operation is a 3.5 acre family-owned farm in Callaway County, Missouri. We have a greenhouse and raise vegetables for sale through the Columbia and St. Louis markets. Our crop mix is mostly salad greens, tomatoes and peppers with a few other minor vegetables and herbs.

My Callaway County farm is managed sustainably without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. We also use organic inputs on the farm, although we are not certified organic.

The goal of the project was to explore the feasibility of raising heirloom vegetables to increase family farm income. We hoped to accomplish this goal via production of seedlings, high tunnel vegetable systems and through innovative cooperative-marketing arrangements.

Process: Our concept was to explore the feasibility of using heirlooms to improve farm profits. We started with an assumption that yields would be lower for heirloom tomatoes and peppers mostly due to higher perishability and higher numbers of culls. We attempted to accomplish this goal through a two-fold approach of:

1. Raising heirloom tomatoes and peppers under cover in tunnel production systems, and;
2. Making the culls into sauces that could be sold as value-added products.

We had some challenges at first, as the funding took longer to come in than we had thought and it set us back a spring growing season. Also, the other original two partners in the project decided not to participate due to getting out of farming to pursue other opportunities. In addition, the sauce processing space we utilized at the Root Cellar (a local-food grocery store I co-own) was lost as we moved to a smaller location without a certified processing kitchen.

But once we were up and running the project went well. At our farm, we started all of the seedlings and then provided them to our new partners, Margot McMillen and Andy
Read. Each of us raised the heirloom plants both in the fields and under cover in our hoop houses. We also pooled our production each week and distributed the produce through a cooperative marketing approach.

With respect to marketing, we found that the fresh market was by far the best price for our product. The demand was so high and the production so improved under cover that we had very few culls. We focused on restaurant delivery both in Columbia and St. Louis, delivering one fully ripe and one slightly under-ripe box of fruit per week. This approach yielded us good prices, but we had almost no fruit left to make sauce out of.

In addition, we found that our web-based store approach was going to be incredibly more difficult and expensive to create and operate. We did pay for and create a web-page shell. But the operating costs and procurement of server capacity were going to make this option too expensive to sell the few jars of salsa or marinara we would have needed to create due to the lower volume of culls that we produced.

Lewis Jett, University of Missouri Extension helped us by providing a site tour of a University high tunnel project outside of Columbia. He explained their experience with best practices for using this technology.

Mike Denehy, Graphic-Illusions assisted us in understanding the complicated nature of producing and marketing an online storefront for this venture.

Bryce Oates assisted us with record-keeping and reporting for the project. He is also developing the outreach materials for distribution in the fall.

The project had clear challenges in design from the start. We tried to attack the problem of perceived yield with a dual system of tunnel production and making value-added products. The tunnels themselves accomplished the goal, leaving almost no fruit for making sauces. This was a success in one way, but very little work was accomplished on the sauce production side. We did have labels and sauce prototypes developed, but the volume was too low to justify the further expense of producing the sauces and operating an effective online storefront.

With respect to production, the clearest results are that heirloom tomatoes and peppers raised in hoophouses in the project saw a 40-50% increase in yield of marketable fruit over field-grown crops of the same varieties. The closed-loop production systems and more steady watering program decreased insect pressure, decreased disease and increased the season by 6 weeks in the fall. This season extension factor was most important as heirlooms tended to reach their peak production just as the fall frost was looming. We were able to carry tomatoes and peppers in the hoops all the way to Thanksgiving, giving us an even better market for our production.

The best producing varieties of tomatoes for the project in pounds per plant were:
• ‘Aunt Ruby German Green’, ‘Green Zebra’
• ‘Black Prince’
• ‘Green Pineapple’, ‘Mortgage Lifter’, ‘Brandywine’

For marketing results, we found that we could barely keep up with the demand for a mixed-heirloom variety box for restaurants in the Columbia and St. Louis markets. From July through October, we successfully sold between 300 and 800 pounds per week of tomatoes through this market segment. Since we only delivered once per week, providing an equal number of peak ripe fruit and under-ripe fruit that could ripen in the kitchen made the most sense. Restaurants were happy with this to keep up the steady supply of production. This market paid us premiums for these fruit and made the production system profitable. The market would seem to bear even twice as much fruit if it could be produced by a group of producers.

I learned a great deal, as did Andy Read and Margot McMillen, from the project. Key confirmations of heirloom production are:

1. The demand in the high-value market from chefs and farmers markets is very strong, even with premium prices.

2. Consumers seemed to like the varieties when sold together in a group to demonstrate diversity in one “sales package.”

3. Hoop house production increased yields of heirlooms by a large amount and made production more profitable.

4. We found that organic heirloom tomatoes and peppers raised in hoophouses could certainly compete in income for conventionally-grown products in terms of income per year.

The key challenges, though, continue to need to be addressed. The income from this type of enterprise is promising, but it would be difficult to make a full living from this type of production. The marketing costs for reaching higher-end consumers (chefs, more affluent farmers markets) are likely too high for most farmers to bear. This kind of market requires a high degree of personal attention and “relationship building,” something many farmers don't have time to deal with.

Also, the feasibility of operating an online storefront with value-added products seems slow. However, with some relationships with a marketing agent or partner, this approach could also work. Lack of access to high-quality certified processing space is going to continue to be a challenge though.

Direct impacts for the producers were assistance in obtaining hard equipment and tunnels, seeds and inputs. The project increased revenue for participants by approximately $10,000 each over the project life compared to incomes without this enterprise.

I participated in several learning sessions for the project, including the following:
1. Farmer Forum at Small Farm Today Trade Show, Fall 2008, 50 attendees
2. Terra Bella Farm Field Day, July 2008, 75 attendees
3. Missouri Farmers Union Annual Meeting, January 2008, 30 attendees
4. Callaway Food Circle Annual Meeting, February 2009, 20 attendees

In addition to these on-site presentations and discussions, I am working with Bryce Oates to produce a 500-word article with photos that can be distributed to farm media in the fall. The fall distribution angle is to entice farmers to think about heirlooms while they are planning for next year's production systems.


Participation Summary
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.