Small Farms and Big Market Barriers

Progress report for LS21-358

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2021: $400,000.00
Projected End Date: 03/31/2024
Grant Recipients: Fort Valley State University; West Georgia Farmers' Cooperative; STAG Vets; Cooper Agricultural Services LLC; AgriUnity, LLC
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Niki Whitley
Fort Valley State University
Co-Investigators:
Dr. James Brown
Fort Valley State University
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Project Information

Abstract:

The nationwide COVID-19 tragedy has highlighted the need for a safe, sustainable, local food supply. A growing interest in buying local and supporting farmers has expanded not only to individuals, but also to institutions and organizations. Recently, a group of individuals representing rural hospitals, Colleges/Universities, and the State of Georgia (including Gary Black, Commissioner, Georgia Department of Agriculture, Terry England, Georgia House of Representatives/House Appropriations Committee and David Bridges, Center for Rural Prosperity and Innovation) came together to pair the interest in local, sustainable, Georgia Grown foods by hospitals with the need to market agricultural products from small farms at a price and scale that would support farm sustainability. The goal of this Hospital Collaborative is to provide a larger market through rural hospitals (and potentially additional institutions in the future). During Hospital Collaborative discussions, there seemed to be a question of issues small farms may face in being able to access this potentially large market. The PD, Extension Specialist at Fort Valley State University, an 1890-Land Grant HBCU, and a member of the Hospital Collaborative group then made contact with a representative of the West Georgia Farmers’ Cooperative (WGFC; a minority organization of natural/organic production focused farmers) and additional independent producers marketing into several outlets with the outcome of those discussions being a need to investigate further the barriers to small-scale farmers accessing these and other potential large markets. Therefore, in collaboration with the WGFC, the existing Hospital Collaborative group, Jon Jackson/STAG Vets (minority veterans farm group), AgriUnity (a minority cooperative), other farmers, and meat animal processors, the project plan is to conduct surveys and focus groups to research/identify barriers, conduct feasibility studies for addressing barriers, and provide education, demonstrations and resources related to overcoming those barriers in order to increase the number of sustainably focused, small-scale farmers and producers marketing into larger markets. The research surveys and focus groups will be developed in collaboration with farmers/producers as well as meat animal processors who will also help identify sustainable small-scale farmers with interest in larger-scale marketing and additional processors interested in animal-welfare friendly processing for small-scale producers. Information gathered on barriers/issues related to marketing on a larger scale, into hospitals and other institutions, will be analyzed statistically with major issues identified. For those issues, feasibility studies will be conducted to determine which may be addressed for successful incorporation of small-scale farmers into larger markets. Based on results of data collection and feasibility studies, educational programming/resources will be developed, including demonstrations on farms and in processing facilities as relevant to the issues/barriers identified. The research and outreach will be conducted at a distance if needed, following governmental guidelines for COVID-19 risk management.  Outreach will include publication of results in impact reports, Extension newsletters, research journals and Extension fact sheets that will be provided on many websites and presented at regional and national agriculture meetings. This information can then be used to expand the impact of the project region- and nation-wide.

Project Objectives:

These objectives were developed during discussions with farmers, meat processers and potential markets (rural hospital CEOs and food buyers for hospitals/nursing homes).

  1. Research and identify barriers for small-scale farmers to market sustainable food products (meat, veggies, fruits) into large markets using surveys (multiple implementation methods), focus groups and personal interviews.
  2. Investigate/determine the feasibility (for farmers/farm cooperatives/groups) of methods for overcoming those barriers and entering into larger markets (conduct feasibility studies).
  3. Provide education, demonstrations and resources for methods/processes to overcome barriers and enter into larger markets, sustaining and expanding the number of small-scale farmers marketing into larger markets and increasing available local, sustainable foods.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Robin Rau - Technical Advisor - Producer
  • Eric Simpson - Technical Advisor - Producer

Research

Materials and methods:

Proposed:

Objective 1: Research and identify barriers for small-scale farmers to market sustainable food products (meat, veggies, fruits) into large markets using surveys (multiple implementation methods), focus groups and personal interviews. Working with Agricultural Marketing Specialist, Donn Cooper, surveys will be designed by PDs Whitley and Brown with input and review by collaborators (including Eric Simpson, West Georgia Farmers ‘Cooperative, and Jon Jackson, STAG Vets, Handy Kennedy, AgriUnity), and farmer cooperators. Extension agents (including FVSU agents Stefan Price, Leon Porter, Ricky Waters, Bobby Solomon and Stinson Troutman) and Dr. Ralph Noble, Dean, FVSU College of Agriculture, Family Sciences and Technology will also be offered the opportunity to review the surveys and will help to recruit farmers to participate.

Collaborators and cooperators and Extension staff will assist with identifying farmers/processors to participate in the survey/focus groups and help with personal interviews coordinated by the PDs and collaborators. Multiple methods of collecting information from the survey will be employed, including phone calls, in-person interviews and focus groups, polling and online survey software. Post office mailings may also be used as requested. All data will be anonymous unless participants request further information and then their information/data will be protected in locked offices/computers.

Data input will be conducted by temporary and/or student workers. Statistical analysis will be conducted by PD Whitley. Results will be shared with farmer/processor cooperators, the co-PD and collaborators, and Extension staff who will all work together to identify specific barriers to further address. Possible methods/procedures will be proposed by this group for overcoming those barriers and will be researched in Objective 2.

Objective 2: Investigate/determine the feasibility (for farmers/farm cooperatives/groups) of methods for overcoming those barriers and entering into larger markets (conduct feasibility studies). Donn Cooper, Cooper Agricultural Services, LLC will coordinate and conduct feasibility studies (with outside assistance as needed) for methods proposed (Objective 1) to overcome the selected common barriers (Objective 1), working with the project cooperators/collaborators and PDs. Farmers interested in expanding into larger markets but not sure it’s possible will be targeted for feasibility study and resource support but will include those within the West Georgia Farmers’ Cooperative, AgriUnity and STAG Vets among others. Based on feasibility studies, implementation will also be supported through Objective 3. Information will be shared with Extension agents/staff and through reports and scientific and Extension meetings.

At least two minority farmers from each collaborating group (AgriUnity, STAG, West GA) with be recruited to demonstrate the implementation of strategies that can help overcome barriers to larger markets as identified in Objective 1 (i.e. likely GAP certification, BQA or AWA certified animal production systems as noted by farmers in the planning of this project, among others).  Materials and supplies and technical services/support will be provided through the grant and by FVSU (alternative funding). Depending on the resources farmers demonstration farmers already have, additional demo sites may be implemented using demonstration site funds to increase the impact/outreach of the project. The demo farmers will host trainings/workshops in Objective 3 modeled after trainings/workshops hosted by FVSU and other cooperative members they would attend prior to their demonstration site development, and the PDs and other FVSU personnel will assist them.

Objective 3: Provide education, demonstrations and resources for methods/processes to overcome barriers and enter into larger markets, sustaining and expanding the number of small-scale farmers marketing into larger markets and increasing available local, sustainable foods.  The PDs, farmer cooperators and NGO collaborators will coordinate/conduct educational programming which will include developing demonstrations/demonstration sites including provision of tools/supplies, showing implementation of processes (i.e. GAP certification, Georgia Verified Program requirements for cattle, AWA certification requirements, etc.) that support entry into larger/more profitable markets with farmer/processors and collaborators.  Webinars, videos and in-person presentations including field days/site tours (Year 2 and 3, hopefully COVID impacts will be limited then) will be used.

Dr. Whitley, farmer cooperators and NGO collaborators will develop training materials/resources including written fact sheets and infographics and impact reports, videos, online newsletters/blogs and others as appropriate. Publications will also include at least one peer-reviewed research paper with results presented at national or regional meetings.

Research results and discussion:

As part of researching market barriers, for year one, we have primarily used short surveys and discussion groups (with FVSU as well as individual Cooperative producer meetings) to determine farmer knowledge of markets, needs for expanding markets and barriers to meeting the needs for expanding their markets.  We have planned an additional survey. We have not yet been able to start feasibility studies. We have identified areas in which assistance is needed for producers (i.e. training and support for working with animals, equipment needed for produce safety training) and provided training and hands-on assistance and equipment, primarily through the collaborating cooperatives, AgriUnity, LLC and West Georgia Farmers Cooperative.  

As a result of cooperative discussions on marketing/sales and SARE funding, the West Georgia Farmers Cooperative (a minority farmer organization) has begun work on a food hub site for expanding market reach.  The Cool Bot/walk in cooler for the demonstration site and future working food hub.  The group also worked together to expand their future fruit markets through planting some Aronia berry bushes on their farms as a group with the goal of a collective value-added enterprise with these berries. Future plans include a Small Farm and Community Conference with FVSU collaborating, improvements/equipment additions to the Food Hub site, a Commercial Shared Kitchen and continuing technical assistance/training of farmers/producers in preparation for food hub/retail operation.
 
We were not able to work with one of our proposed collaborating Cooperatives/organizations due to challenges the group faced.
 
See educational activities section for more information, especially for the AgriUnity group which has been very active/interested in the project and getting producers to expand their marketing efforts.
 
Participation Summary
40 Farmers participating in research

Education

Educational approach:

For Year one, a partial COVID impacted year, multiple educational methods have been used, including virtual webinars, hands-on seminars and workshops/demonstrations.  Cooperatives organized educational activities (including offering funding for participation in outside professional development events) and provided education through group events as well as one-on-one training (producers helping producers) which would allow for products more suitable for markets paying higher prices.  Buyers and Hospital Food Collaborative representatives presented information on what is needed for larger-scale or higher value marketing efforts. Surveys and discussion groups were used for needs assessments, evaluation of educational events as well as overall impact.

Educational & Outreach Activities

10 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
3 On-farm demonstrations
3 Webinars / talks / presentations
10 Workshop field days

Participation Summary:

40 Farmers
7 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

Year one:

A series of webinars/online trainings/presentations were provided related to cattle production focused on preparing for value-added marketing through proper production practices. Three were provided during the reporting period.  Attendee number ranged from 17 to 45. The webinars were videoed and are available as educational materials online at: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCNKayUAr6DfBXnKdqQrv3Dw.  One webinar that was not videoed included livestock producers and buyers who could provide information on what is needed to sell large lots of value-added/low risk cattle. 

Working with AgriUnity, LLC Cattle Division (a minority producer group), a survey of interest in different types of marketing, animal numbers and farm locations was conducted by online survey. There were 20 respondents, of which 18 (90%) were interested in marketing with others/as a group (primarily selling 'truckloads' of weaned cattle as an alternative market to the traditional sale barn), the other two said maybe in the future. The majority of those answering this early survey were contacted to participate in preparation/training for future group marketing. Others were interested in backgrounding, stocker or finishing/sales of retail meat.  An additional survey will be conducted (has been started) to follow-up with this and additional producers who have since been attending meetings, workshops and webinars or who have expressed interest.

At least 22 individual events were reported that were related to project efforts.  Hands-on consulting was conducted (included helping work cattle) on at least 10 producer farms, at least 10 workshop/training/demonstrations were organized at different sites, many on producer farms (including one BQA training), three at Fort Valley State University (AI/BQA/carcass evaluation), and one at Florida A&M State University (AI). The BQA (Beef Quality Assurance) training with University of Georgia at Fort Valley State University and on HKJ Ranch provides producers with recommendations for quality beef/cattle production. This training considers animal health and welfare and is required or recommended by some markets which helps producers expand their opportunities.  Artificial insemination (AI) allows for use of genetics not accessible otherwise and allows for breeding to similar bulls across farms which allows for a more uniform groups of cattle for marketing as a group on a larger scale. Since this may not be an option for smaller producers, workshops/trainings (2) related to bull selection were provided with a similar goal of having consistent genetics for marketing quality calves.

Most of the producer trainings were also demonstrations related to vaccination and deworming - initially FVSU (or Tuskegee University for one farm) would provide training and demonstration on what vaccines and dewormers to use and how to do these procedures (and more like castration, tagging, frame score measurement, etc.). Then trained leader-producers would work with others to train them and get the cattle vaccinated and dewormed.  Equipment for demonstrations/workshops was acquired through AgriUnity grant funds to assist with these on-farm and other collaborative workshops, farm consultations and more. In total, at least 23 different farms (not including University farms) hosted trainings, consultations, workshops, demonstrations, etc.  These farms had a total of 1634 cattle.

Meetings among producers, FVSU personnel and UGA vets and Extension Specialists helped AgriUnity to develop plans for management of cattle for more sustainable production and consistent calves for group marketing.  The Hospital Food Collaborative (a non-profit organization) purchased the cattle processing facility (formerly MSM meats) from former Technical Advisors, the Pickles (now replaced with Robin Rau, producer and Hospital Food Collaborative member working extensively with the 'new' facility, Georgia Premium Meats.  The collaborative has expanded it's service of locally grown foods into at least 4 rural hospitals, including produce and meat.  Robin met with the AgriUnity group and their collaborators (including producers/organizations in FL, MS, TX and AL) to discuss future opportunities and requirements to market into the Hospital Food Collaborative.

Though not counted in above numbers, three in-person trainings related to goat production were hosted at FVSU, extending the impact of other shared funding, and included impacts on carcass quality and carcass breakdown/processing for future retail meat sales ideas among other production related topics. Current goat demand/prices do not indicate a need for market support. However, demand is high in part to difficulties in goat production due to producers not understanding the breath of the issue of internal parasites and proper nutrition management, both issues which negatively impact animal welfare. Therefore, fewer goats are getting to market, so there are opportunities to help farmers be more sustainable and profitable.

 

Proposed: 

The target audience for this project is primarily small-scale minority farmers/producers but will be open to small and mid-size farmers/producers and interested youth or urban agriculture enthusiasts. Our goal is to reach at least 300 individuals over the 3-year period and to increase marketing opportunities for at least 100 across the Southeast Region with at least 25 planning to use new markets. Because some important certification programs (i.e. GAP, GA Verified) and production practice implementation (i.e. switching to a controlled breeding season for livestock without prohibitive financial strain) may take 2 years or more for actual implementation for some farmers, so the goal for actual implementation is at least 10 farmers/producers.  We feel that our goals are reachable as our collaborators include three cooperatives/NGOs focused on minority (and many are also veteran) farmer populations in Georgia and have connections with several others in Georgia as well as in Mississippi and Alabama.

AgriUnity, West Georgia Farmers’ Cooperative and STAG Vets will host training and events at their farm/cooperative sites and/or will recruit farmers to participate in surveys, focus groups and individual meetings/phone calls for information (Obj 1) as well as identifying farmers for feasibility studies (Obj 2) and hosting/developing their farms as potential demonstration sites for training/workshops (Obj 3).  Processor collaborators will host demonstrations as well (Obj. 3). This type of hands-on training and demonstrations were among the top methods of learning preferred by farmers in a 2010 survey by Franz et. al.  (99% and 96% preferred respectively). Results from each Objective will be provided to the groups for distribution and will be provided at PD/collaborator meetings and trainings/workshops provided by Extension and collaborators.

If COVID-19 were to restrict gathering in large groups, we already have a system in place to provide virtual training and meetings.  FVSU has provided regular online training/meetings via ZOOM® through Extension since April 2020 and has developed videos that are posted on YouTube and linked from related websites/University Facebook pages. AgriUnity has participated regularly in their own virtual meetings and in FVSU-hosted workshops.  ZOOM® meetings/workshops have poll capabilities in which survey information for Objective 1 can be obtained or focus groups can be conducted virtually or through phone or video conference calls.

It is not expected that individual farm and processor visits (Objectives 1-3), feasibility study travel and other small group events (i.e. PD/collaborator meetings, workshops under 10 people) would be restricted. However, if this is the case, conference calls and phone video conferences (when visual appraisals are needed) will be implemented.

Learning Outcomes

30 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation

Project Outcomes

6 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
1 Grant received that built upon this project
1 New working collaboration
Project outcomes:

This is the first year of the project, but we have had cattle producers who have started to/have expanded and improved their pastures, improved stocking rates, had more timely culling and/or improved genetics and management for more efficient calf growth. These factors have been shown to increase soil carbon sequestration and/or reduce overall GHG emission from ruminant operations which contributes to current and future sustainability. In addition, improved production practices improves economic benefits and working together as a group to support each other provides social benefits and increased lifestyle satisfaction. 

 

Recommendations:

Again, though it is only the first year, future work (maybe incorporated in the next two years of the project if possible, or through additional/other grants) could include providing additional education and support for climate-smart cattle production and perhaps marketing/branding beef from these animals for higher market prices and looking at climate smart vegetable/fruit production and specialized marketing?  

 

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.