The Farm Micro-Enterprise Development Program in the mid-Ohio Valley: Can extended season high tunnel production increase agricultural self-employment?

Final Report for ONE14-211

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2014: $14,996.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: Northeast
State: West Virginia
Project Leader:
Lauren Kemp
Unlimited Future Inc
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Project Information

Summary:

In 2014, Unlimited Future was awarded a Northeast Sustainable Research and Education grant to investigate the use of high tunnels to address the consistency of local produce available at the Wild Ramp. This report summarizes our research project and integrates basic values based business decision making that is taught through our business startup course, Planning for Profit. Since 2014, Unlimited Future has increased the partnerships and connections with agriculture services providers and internally increased capacity to help farmers grow their businesses. During the project Unlimited Future sent a local accountant to the WVU Extension Small Farm Center for a workshop about farm specific tax benefits and returns. Unlimited Future offered a farmer focused Planning for Profit in two locations in 2016. The course discussed developing a company identity, financial statements, incorporation and tax considerations, and niche market opportunities. Unlimited Future has also gotten involved in projects that create new markets for farmers and address systematic challenges to accessing markets and processing. The Local Food Movement continues to grow in the Mid-Ohio River Valley bolstered by strong partnerships between farmers, service providers, markets, and consumers.

Introduction:

Although local buying gained momentum in metropolitan areas across the country as early as 2005, local food in West Virginia is just blooming as a trend in eating and economics. Unlimited Future, Inc. a business incubator and resource center for small businesses; seeks to help farmers capitalize on this economic opportunity. With over one billion dollars in yearly food sales in the Mid-Ohio Valley, even a small percentage of dollars redirected to local farmers could make a significant impact.

Farming in the Mid-Ohio Valley is practiced for self-sufficiency, nostalgia and recreation rather than as a primary career path. Demand for consistently available local produce from individual consumers and volume buyers is creating opportunities for self-employment in agriculture. Like many industries, farming is a type of job that is best taught by experience and apprenticeship. Unlimited Future, Inc. has partnered with Coalfield Development to launch a farm enterprise training program called Refresh Appalachia. This on the job training program trains high school graduates and former coal miners how to grow food and manage a farm business. The trainees are hired to work in crews close to where they live and also attend community college for general education credit. Their work for the agriculture enterprises they manage counts toward their associate’s degree. This program was launched in 2015 and now employs 12 low resource beginner farmers.

The typical West Virginia farm is 150 acres or less and has an average income of $25,000, with the greatest share of farms reporting less than $1,000 of income. The median income in West Virginia is $39,500 annually and 60% farm workers must have an additional income to support their families. Rugged topography limits the productivity of WV farmers but this challenge could be overcome with a more intensive cropping method and the use of high tunnels.

The average age of farm operators in West Virginia is 58 years; this age indicates that many farmers are getting closer to a retirement age. New and younger farmers are needed to meet the demand for local foods. However, aspiring farmers without a family farming legacy have difficultly breaking into agricultural markets. An intensive year round cropping system could also aid new farmers with limited resources to increase new farm profitability through the use of high tunnels.

In 2012, a group of consumers came together to launch an innovative year round market for farmers. The store located in Downtown Huntington is called The Wild Ramp and appears at first glance to be a small specialty grocery store. However all products found at The Wild Ramp are from growers and value-added food producers within a 250 mile radius of Huntington, WV. This market space has generated a year round direct consumer market for local farmers and returned over $1.2 million to local farmers. The market now entering its fifth year has seen a steady increase in winter season produce. However market demand still outpaces supply and more year-round growers will be important for the markets continued success.

Project Objectives:

The main objective of the research project was to create a model that would incentivize farmers to extend the growing season and even create a growing season in winter. During the course of the project conversations with growers made it clear that a single model was not feasible. Farmers discussed the uniqueness of their high tunnels based on their location, orientation for sunlight, crops selected, moisture, and season and target markets. Farmers also relayed that field and high tunnel growing were very different and that there is a steep learning curve associated with the high tunnel. Even with these new challenges, the benefits were worth the extra effort because high tunnels provide a real advantage for marketing produce.

 

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Zachary Call
  • Julie Schaer
  • Sammy Torres

Research

Materials and methods:

For the start of the project farmers who targeted different market channels and were currently growing or interested in growing in a high tunnel were selected for the project. Farmers that met the minimum standards were selected from the Wild Ramp producer base and then asked to participate. Two farmers had experience growing in high tunnels and two farmers did not have any prior experience. The Potager focused on direct marketing at farmer’s markets and Call Farms focused on Farm to School, both had more than two years of experience growing in the high tunnel. Refresh Appalachia focused on small wholesale with restaurants and Adelard Produce grew winter produce for the Wild Ramp, both had less than a year of experience. Each farm is profiled in the next section.

The primary research questions were:

  • How are the available crop yield and planting models affected by variations in environmental conditions and farm infrastructure in the Mid-Ohio Valley?
  • What advantages do High tunnels provide in controlling the supply, quality and consistency of specialty crops?
  • Does an extended season high tunnel system generate enough revenue to meet personal earning goals and create self-sustaining employment?

The Farmer partners provided information about their businesses for the grower profiles and tracked their production. Farmer partners were asked to collect data about temperature and yield, as well as make notes about their production. Adelard Produce managed in the model high tunnel from November 2014 thru October 2015 and successfully collected data. This was under the direct supervision of the project manager. The Model High Tunnel was moved to a new location in November 2015 and has been managed by Refresh Appalachia since. However, other farmer participants were only able to provide summarized reports on their sales and information for their business profiles.

Unlimited Future in partnership with The Wild Ramp and WVU Extension hosted two workshops with Lewis Jett that state horticulture specialist. Dr. Jett spoke to a crowd of producers about using low tunnels to get started with season extension and also gave a workshop about selecting crop varieties for winter hardiness.  Unlimited Future also offered business classes to 35 farmers in the region using the adapted Planning for Profit course. The course covers the basics of creating a company identity, legal incorporation, tax obligations, bookkeeping, financial statements, price setting, marketing, and customer relationships. Finally, Unlimited Future has created a special section of resources for farmers with information about enterprise budgets, articles that profile farmers’ market customers, links to price information, links to season extension information, and a business plan template.

Research results and discussion:

The mild winters in the Mid-Ohio River Valley allow the fall growing season to be expanded, however late snow and overly wet springs have made early marketing opportunities more difficult to capture. Throughout the project it was difficult to collect temperature and climate information that was comparable enough to draw conclusions about the river valley climate. The research questions about the models and relationship to the region’s climate were inconclusive without further study. The results do show that winter growing is possible and that even in below freezing conditions the Model High Tunnel maintained above 40 degrees. The Model High Tunnel collected one season of temperature information, shown in the graph below (figure 1). The Model High Tunnel reach over 100 degrees on several days in the in the fall season with lots of variation due to light frost and warm sunny days. Temperatures were typically taken in the late morning when farmer partners arrived to work. During the winter season the trend starts to be more consistent with a gradual decline in the overall temperature.

During this time period a mix of leafy green crops were grown; including spinach, kale, lettuce, swiss chard, beet and turnip greens, and green onion.  The beet and turnip greens were harvested to add variety to the product mix and the roots were also harvested in late spring. Carrots and snap peas were harvested in the spring and then the tunnel was turned over with summer squash, cucumbers and tomatoes. The yield of these crops in total pounds over the same period of months is shown in the graph below (figure 2). February was the lowest yielding month over all crops, this is most likely due to the low temperatures and low sunlight from the preceding month. During the coldest months the growers also used row covers to provide an added layer of frost protection and heat retention. This practice helped the plants to survive the winter and by March the yields for spinach and kale were the highest recorded during the season. The warmer weather caused a surge in plant growth and by April many plants had bolted and were removed. Figures referenced in text

Gross Sales for Adelard Produce over the one year period from the model tunnel were $10,843. Figure 3 shows the winter and early spring crops with sales totaling $6,966 before June 1st.  The source of this information is The Wild Ramp’s point of sale software and the labels on the crops are slightly different. Spinach and kale were the best sellers especially when picked young and marketed as ‘baby’. Spinach overall was the top selling product out of the season with sales exceeding $2,200. Even when compared to summer crops like tomatoes which sold $1,800 across a longer season, spinach performed the best. Competition was definitely a factor, Adelard Produce had no competition for its winter and spring crops. For the Wild Ramp market, 2015 was the highest gross sales earning more than $400,000 sales across all producers and categories (dairy, meat, value-added, etc.).

As for profitability, if you consider that the average cost to build a high tunnel is $2.00 per square foot, they would have earned their investment within the year. Adelard Produce worked with about 2,880 square feet of the tunnel space, valued at $5,760. While there are costs of growing inputs and labor, the sales cover the building cost in the first year of winter sales. Looking at the potential for marketing produce beyond the Wild Ramp, there is even more opportunity to sell to restaurants and institutions during the winter and spring months.

 

Research conclusions:

Throughout this project Unlimited Future has increased its farm business acumen and built networks for training and developing new markets. The main impact of this SARE project is the development of Refresh Appalachia, a sustainable economic development and workforce training program to increase the success of beginner farmers and ranchers in our region. The program employs 12 low resource young adults and  has created a total of 17 FTE in agriculture. While many other resources have contributed to the development of Refresh Appalachian, SARE’s contribution was instrumental in increasing Unlimited Future’s capacity to build farm businesses and develop local food systems.  

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

The High Tunnel Decision Making guide was published, digital and print, and distributed through Unlimited Future’s networks. Unlimited Future has shared this report with the Wild Ramp Producer List Serve and our own network of food and farm entrepreneurs. The article published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Farmers’ market grows food in winter, features Adelard Produce. The High Tunnel was visited on several tours with local legislators, grant makers, and community members where we talked about the need to extend the season. The High Tunnel Decision Making guide will have a permanent home on Unlimited Future’s Website Farm Business Resources Page along with other useful article and tools for all farm businesses. 

http://www.unlimitedfuture.org/start-up-training/farm-micro-enterprise-development-program/farm-business-resources/

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.