Our farming operation is small by most standards in the farming community. It consisted of a few heads of beef cattle, a small hog operation and burley tobacco. We are situated in the rolling hills of southern Indiana and this type of enterprise has been typically for my area in the past. Not having large open fields; the Farm Service Agency has us listed having 7 tillable acres, tobacco has been the most important cash crop that farmers could always count upon to help meet expenses. Concerns for agricultural stability along with maintaining sustainable resources had been high priority given the limited resources. Some of our past practices include crop rotations, manure management and composting. With the current farming industry we were forced to close our hog operation, reduce our head of cattle and now we are faced with the tobacco industry changes. It was time to look for another farm related enterprise that was not depended upon the driving force of the market.
PROEJCT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
My project goal was to find an alternative for our small tobacco acreage and to use many the assets that we currently had available and to convert them to the use in another crop. My goal is to gradually reduce our tobacco base while building our new enterprise, eventually replacing it altogether. The tobacco industry is under a lot of pressure and so are a lot of producers. Our idea was to be proactive instead of reactive to these and future changes.
In looking at alternatives, one of the first challenges we faced was the fact we would have to look for our own markets. In this decision we realized if we grow everything else that is typically grown in our region we may be faced once again with over abundance and low prices. Therefore, we spent several months exploring options. We began by looking at the local grocery produce aisles. What I found was that to the most part everything is being shipped in from somewhere except for some local produce during the summer months. What could we grow that was in the produce section and very few people were raising? Part of the decision for our alternative was to look at the labor (ourselves) we currently had, what equipment and supplies did we own, and what could be converted to use as something else.
We decided to look outside of the box: being when most farmers think of growing produce for markets they tend to look at warm season crops, tomatoes, green beans, corn etc. We decided to grow asparagus, lettuces, greens and cut flowers.
I utilized help from our local Jefferson County Extension service, Lonny Mason. Roy Ballard, Floyd County CES. David Swaim and Jim Casper both from the “Ways to Grow” program.
We are now marketing to upscale restaurants in Louisville, KY and Columbus, Indiana areas. I now deliver fresh greens and lettuce twice a week. What we have found 30% of those restaurants we approach with our produce are buying on a steady basis. That is not many but it is 30% more than I had one year ago. At the present time and with winter coming I think we are in the trust development stage. Will I, can I provide them with the same quality during the winter months I did earlier in the season? I am concerned with the same things. Marketing as always seems to be the key, most of my referrals for have come from the chefs themselves, and if I can supply them the same throughout the winter then I expect an increase next spring.
This new venture has affected our farm. We get lots of people just wanting to know how we got started, how do we market and in general how we do things. It seems strange to think a couple of years ago this was an idea and now to actually seem to be moving ahead. What we have found out is the most difficult part of any farm venture is the marketing. We know how to grow, we like to grow and we are good at it, but finding the market is the hardest part. I have found any time there is a chance to market you better take it. It maybe giving a presentation, talking to a chef or going to a market training session, because you never know where or who they may be talking with next, it maybe about you.
It is difficult to provide data on the economic and social impacts of this project on the community. The only thought I have when I look at the faces of all the other farmers in a crowd and each one is there because they too are looking for answers and I am one of them. We will each need to find our own answer because no one expects yourself is going to do it.
In my proposal I outlined my ideas for sharing my project with other producers. Over the past few months I have had the opportunity to do this many times. “Ways to Grow”, is a program that was developed in partnership with Indiana Commissioner of Agriculture and Historic Hoosier Hills RC&D, as an active participant I have been able to disseminate information about my project to others within this same program. The goal of “Ways to Grow” is to help small scale farmers look at alternatives and give them support as they develop the new enterprise. The program coordinator along with field coordinator has visited our operation and has seen first hand some of our efforts, they are then able to use this information to help others.
I have also had the chance to help two other producers who have called me asking for information about starting a new venture. While speaking with them I have been able to give them some guidance on where I looked for information, and some of my marketing tips.
During the month of November I was asked to provide a display at a seven county business farm day in the Venture Out Business Center in Madison, Indiana. This gave me the opportunity to network with over 100 people on what we were doing and some of the problems and successes we are having. I also gave a presentation at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana at the P-CARET state conference. During this presentation I was able to discuss how we got started, what we are doing, marketing and some of our concerns. A crowd of 40 people was able to ask questions about my project.
Part of my outreach efforts was to use the internet. In developing my home page, I told about receiving the North Central Region, SARE grant and provided information about the struggles, failures, and successes in our new adventure. I was also listed on the agricultural section of the televillage network that has been developed for southeast Indiana. This has also given me the opportunity to relay information. From this effort I have had a couple of people email me questions.
As our project further develops I expect more opportunities to address others. Especially since the Ohio River valley farmers are impacted even more and many are looking for alternatives.