Scaling Up to Meet Market Demand for Local, Organic Broccoli

Final Report for FNC10-840

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2010: $16,932.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2013
Grant Recipient: Purple Pitchfork
Region: North Central
State: Minnesota
Project Coordinator:
Co-Coordinators:
Aaron Blyth
Big River Farms
Chris Blanchard
Purple Pitchfork
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Project Information

Summary:

PROJECT BACKGROUND
At Rock Spring Farm, on the Iowa-Minnesota state line, Chris Blanchard raised about fifteen acres of certified organic vegetables and fresh herbs for wholesale customers in the Twin Cities and Decorah in 2012. Started by Chris and his partner in 1999 after he had spent the previous nine years working on large and small organic and conventional vegetable farms around the country, Rock Spring Farm has been recognized as a model for food safety, post-harvest handling, and good business practices. Rock Spring Farm had gross sales of about $150,000 in 2012.

In recent years, Rock Spring Farm has worked hard to systematize and streamline operations, including documentation of systems, evaluation of systems for ease of use by employees, and an effort to determine how to get consistent results without the constant oversight of management.

Rock Spring Farm uses certified organic production techniques throughout the farm operation.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION
GOALS: We sought to increase the supply of local organic broccoli in the Twin Cities marketplace by working with several farms to “scale up” broccoli production to meet the needs of wholesale accounts.
We also sought to provide a model for intensive, farmer-to-farmer transfer of knowledge, and cooperation between producers and produce buyers.

PROCESS
Gardens of Eagan’s Linda Halley met with producers in person and over the phone for crop planning and scheduling. She transported transplants to growers, and supported growers in production and quality issues during harvest by phone and by email.

Producers met with Rick Christensen at Co-op Partners Warehouse in person or by phone to plan logistics.

Gardens of Eagan’s Mike Leck developed a production manual for scaled-up broccoli production, including information about yields, planting dates, fertility methods, and pest control.

Rock Spring Farm staff traveled to Gardens of Eagan for harvest training. Linda Halley, Mike Leck, and other members of the Gardens of Eagan staff provided training and education about harvest techniques, quality parameters, and agronomic issues.

Mike Leck and Linda Halley conducted comparisons of fertility options, comparing fertility plan in the production manual to less-expensive fertilizer options.

Producers sold broccoli to Co-op Partners Warehouse throughout the season when it met quality standards.

Producers used broccoli as part of their CSA share when the quantity or quality of the harvest was not sufficient for Co-op Partners Warehouse.

Grant funds supported manual development, education for growers, labels to identify product as part of the project, seed purchases, and boxes for the broccoli.

PEOPLE
Gardens of Eagan farm manager Linda Halley met with producers in person and over the phone for crop planning and scheduling. She transported transplants to growers, and supported growers in production and quality issues during harvest by phone and by email. She worked with Mike Leck to conduct comparisons of fertility options, comparing fertility plan in the production manual to less-expensive fertilizer options.

Gardens of Eagan’s Mike Leck developed a production manual for scaled-up broccoli production, including information about yields, planting dates, fertility methods, and pest control. He worked with Linda Halley to conduct comparisons of fertility options, comparing fertility plan in the production manual to less-expensive fertilizer options.

Co-op Partners Warehouse’s Rick Christensen worked with growers to plan logistics, purchase broccoli, establish quality standards, and provide feedback about quality.

Rock Spring Farm’s Chris Blanchard oversaw broccoli production at Rock Spring Farm. Farm Manager Ben Kreuter and other members of the Rock Spring Farm staff worked to implement the production plan.

Cala Farms Origenes’ Juan Cala implemented broccoli production plans at his farm.

Aaron Blythe of the Minnesota Food Association’s Big River Farms implemented broccoli production plans at his farm.

RESULTS
2011 was a very challenging production year and the entire region suffered significantly reduced yields due to cold and wet conditions in spring and spikes in temperatures in May and June. Mid-summer through fall were unusually dry; drought conditions persisted into the fall harvest season. 2012 saw extreme drought for all of the producers, after a very wet spring. This is the context for the following results and observations.

Demand for organic broccoli was not met in the Twin Cities even with the addition of three more farms producing broccoli for the wholesale market. All participating farms had reduced yields, however, due to the weather so it remains unclear if a better than average yield by the participating farms will satisfy the demand for organic local broccoli.

Pre-season agreements with buyers work when support is provided growers. It was very helpful for growers to know that if they managed to pick and pack and deliver quality produce they were assured of a market for it.

Because of the very unfavorable weather it’s still uncertain whether scaling up to grow broccoli for wholesale sales is economically viable. In examining income generated by broccoli sales compared to costs to produce, all producers lost money on broccoli production.

Besides weather conditions the following challenges were encountered:

Transportation: In order to assure the quality needed in the wholesale environment broccoli has to be chilled and kept chilled. Two producers lack access to ice or refrigerated transportation and were unable to buy ice machines for an affordable price even with the help of funds provided in the grant. Transportation very early in the day, before temperatures rose, was not always practical.

Training of harvest crew: In order to assure the quality needed for wholesale markets the harvesters had to be trained to pick or sort only the best broccoli for sales to Co-op Partners. It is possible to train inexperienced harvesters but hands-on training was the most successful. Using photos as guides was helpful but not as much as the experiential training by experienced harvesters. Written descriptions are not effective.

Transplanting of broccoli on rolling ground can be problematic (not all transplanters are designed to work on a hillside) so as a producer scales up the option to fill in missing plants by hand, or plant all of the crop by hand is not as viable.

Growing seedlings: In a wet year, the seed-bed method of growing broccoli seedlings, as described in the production manual, is not viable. Seedlings are exposed to over-watering, competing weeds have a significant advantage and result in leggy, fragile broccoli seedlings. The stale bed method of preparing the seed bed is very difficult to do successfully if there are very few dry days in which to prep the seed beds.

Planting schedule: One of the producers had a difficult time interpreting the planting schedule in the training manual so didn’t plant the final fall crops. The fall weather was much more favorable than the spring and summer weather in 2011 (and generally can be counted on to be so.) As a result that producer suffered more economic losses than the others in that he was not able to capture the more advantageous growing conditions of the later part of the season.

DISCUSSION
This grant provided plenty of feedback about the difficulty of scaling up production. Producers encountered conflicting priorities in the production and marketing of their broccoli. Bad weather exacerbated problems that at a smaller scale and with more diverse production were not as serious.

This project was challenged by several factors.

We experienced challenges with training. Much of the training was done at a distance, and growers differed in their ability to travel to Gardens of Eagan for in-person training. In addition, growers differed in their access to and understanding of technology, which challenged the transmission of information.

Although Gardens of Eagan provided a thorough training manual for broccoli production based on their systems, this information did not have a one-to-one correlation with the systems that existed on other farms. For example, each farm had different transplant production systems, and each farm used different transplanting and weed-control technology.

Farms experienced unanticipated challenges with greenhouse space for transplant production. While field space is easy to calculate, bench space occupied in the greenhouse is more difficult to anticipate because the number of flats in the greenhouses is constantly changing.

Farmers experienced difficulty with access to capital and cash that resulted in a failure to invest in the equipment necessary to scaling up, even with the additional support provided by the grant.

One farm experienced a change in their marketing focus between year one and year two that caused them to produce little or no broccoli for wholesale sales in year two.

Weak links in the operations were not always apparent at the outset of the projects, so anticipated investments did not always result in expanded production capacity. For example, one farm felt that post-harvest handling was their weak link, but discovered that the actual weak link was their ability to get transplants set out in the field. Another farm discovered, upon reading the broccoli production manual produced as part of this project, that they lacked the equipment necessary to side-dress with fertilizer to provide optimal production.

OUTREACH
The Satellite Farms Broccoli Production Manual is available online at http://www.flyingrutabagaworks.com/downloads/Broccoli%20Production%20Manual%20-%20Satellite%20Farms.pdf. It is linked from the Flying Rutabaga Works resources page.

Chris Blanchard presented a workshop about the project at the NCR-SARE Farmer Forum at the Midwest Value Added Agriculture Conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in December, 2012.

Linda Halley and Rodrigo Cala presented a workshop on Scaling Up to Meet the Needs of Wholesale Markets at the MOSES Organic Farming Conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin, in February, 2013.

PROGRAM EVALUATION
I found the reporting requirements to be confusing. Joan Benjamin explained that you are in a transition with regards to reporting.

Cooperators

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  • Chris Blanchard

Research

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.