Increasing late winter/early spring sales for market gardeners through season extension and improved storage options

Final Report for ONE14-213

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2014: $12,497.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Monika Roth
Cornell Cooperative Extension Tompkins County
Expand All

Project Information

Summary:

This project focused on improving the quality and quantity of fresh local produce available for sale through direct markets in late winter/early spring in South Central NYS. Year round farmers markets and increased demand for local produce by consumers, retailers and restaurants provide additional marketing opportunities for growers. Farmers are working to meet the demand but many lack infrastructure to extend the season and store produce for longer season sales. Infrastructure needs include hoop houses and proper cold storage facilities. For the past 2 seasons, growers have found that off-farm storage facilities are filled by October. Some growers have constructed coolers, which still do not meet their entire winter needs. Because of this, product quality suffers and producers are missing out on sales on both ends of the growing season. We have concluded that a well coordinated off farm produce storage facility is still needed in the region.

This project included 3 parts: survey producer capacity to meet local demand at either end of the season through season extension and access to storage facilities; provide training in hoop house production and crop management for cold storage; and to link farmers with new buyers to expand year round sales and income.  A survey conducted at the outset of the grant showed that 65% of growers utilized some type of hoop house structure but only 28% had sufficient cold storage.  A season long hands on workshop was planned to focus on improving crop management in hoop houses during 2015.  In winter 2016, we held a day long workshop focused on production and post harvest handling of crops and proper storage.  These efforts both focused on improving crop quality.  A final part of the project was to provide farmer buyer networking opportunities to increase demand and sales of locally produced seasonal vegetables. 

Our performance target results from this program were better than expected:

Goal: 10 farmers conduct extended season sales – Actual: 9 existing farmers plus 4 new farmers with sales

Goal: 5 farmers use on- and off farm storage for winter sales – Actual: 6 farms utilized new on farm storage spaces; at least 6 others are renting space from storage operators. 

Goal: 6 buyers will discuss produce needs and requirements – Actual: 16 buyers

Goal: 5 farms will initiate sales to buyers – Actual: 5 farmers with sales; plus one taking initiative to conduct sales

Estimated total new sales: $14,000

Producers do not have time to cultivate new buyers so this is an effective role for Cooperative Extension to play.  We will continue to identify new opportunities for farmers and plan networking events.  The Farmer and Buyer Facebook page is another place where we can quickly inform farmers of buyers seeking local products.  This effort will help our smaller producers struggling to find markets as well as benefit larger growers who can meet the demand of larger volume customers. 

Introduction:

About 200 small scale specialty produce growers in South Central NY are not meeting demand for out of season crops as a means for increasing revenue and income.  In season, there is intense competition among direct marketers.  On either end of the season, there is still strong demand for local produce, but producers lack volume and storage facilities to maintain produce quality crops for extended season sales. 

Many producers have adopted high tunnel technology for early and late season production, but only a few use facilities for year round production.  Only 3 of 15 area CSA farms offer winter or spring shares.  Additionally demand for winter greens remains strong among are restaurants and retailers but only 2 producers focus on this niche. 

Many area producers grow root crops, cole crops, squash, garlic, onions, and apples, but most lack sufficient and proper storage to maintain crop quality for extended season sales.  It is hard for small produce farmers to provide proper storage conditions required by a diverse mix of crops.  A few rent cold storage space from area wholesalers, but have found that space availability and handling in these facilities is problematic. 

It is critical that farmers consider shared infrastructure, collaborative marketing and more wholesaling as direct marketing options are increasingly saturated. Producers report that in-season sales at farmers’ markets and CSA sign ups have flattened, hence demonstrating a stronger need for production and marketing focused on meeting wholesale customer needs (restaurants, retailers and distributors).  To increase production targeted at season extension, this project engaged producers in farmer-led, hands-on training and tours of high tunnel greenhouses and cold storage facilities; we hosted a winter crop workshop focused on post harvest handling and cold storage; arranged farmer-buyer networking meetings; and worked with storage facility operators to identify space rental options. Through this assessment, we identified the need for shared infrastructure to meet area specialty crop producer needs for  extended season wholesale and retail sales.

Farm produce sales range from $5,000/season at smaller farmers markets to $500,000 for larger multi-channel marketers. Small farmers are lagging and need to expand into unfilled niches. Within the 30-mile radius of Ithaca, total produce sales amount to approximately $10 million. Season extension and improved storage options could benefit 50 producers selling for 3 additional months by $12,000/farm. For the region, this could result in additional produce sales of $600,000.  By having more locally food available year round, the sustainability of our local food system will improve along with the economic viability of area small farmers.

Project Objectives:

This project had 3 objectives/performance targets:

1) Survey approximately 200 farmers to assess capacity and interest in season extension through high tunnels and extended season storage; identify farmer storage needs and capacity of area off-farm storage facility operators to meet farmer needs;

2) Host workshops and provide technical assistance to expand use of high tunnels and CoolBot technology; host a winter workshop that will inform and educate farmers about proper cold storage conditions for high-quality produce;

To encourage adoption of high tunnels for season extension and winter sales, 30 farmers will attend a high tunnel workshop series; 10 will use high tunnels for expanded season sales

To improve on farm cold storage, crop quality and marketing, 50 farmers will attend a winter crop storage workshop.

To educate farmers about Coolbot technology, Aaron Munzer, sales representative, will provide technical assistance to interested farms.   15 farmers will use on and off-farm storage for winter crops. 

3) Host a farmer-buyer networking meeting to increase farmer awareness of wholesale marketing opportunities.

50 farmers will attend farmer-buyer networking to learn about wholesale marketing opportunities available to them.

6 buyers will discuss produce needs and requirements at networking events.  

At least 5 farms will initiate sales to buyers. 

 

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Stephen Belyea
  • Jenny Caldwell
  • Steve Holzbaur
  • Dean Koyanagi
  • Matt LeRoux
  • Tony Mazolino
  • Avi Miner
  • Aaron Munzer
  • Doug Newman
  • Dana Stafford
  • Sharon Tregaskis

Research

Materials and methods:
  1. SURVEYS/INTERVIEWS

a) Farmer Survey:  A  survey was developed to assess farmer use of season extension technology (high tunnels and cold storage); the survey was sent electronically to our farmer lists (using Qualtrix) – emailed link 9/3/14 – final reminder sent in early October, 2014.  Farmers, who do not have e-mail, were mailed the survey questions.

SARE Season Extension survey

b) Cold Storage facility in person interviews/site visits were conducted with operators of various cold storage facilities (Regional, Greenstar, Cornell, Cortland Produce, Finger Lakes Fresh Food Hub, and a small food processor – That Indian Drink) to  get baseline information on space availability and costs.

    2.  WORKSHOPS/TRAINING/TECHNICAL ASSISTANCE

a) High Tunnel Workshops and On-Farm training series

In Fall 2014, CCE assembled a farmer team (Munzer, Rimmel, Koyanagi, Jackman, Madden) to plan a season long series of classes focused on high tunnel construction and crop management in high tunnels. 

We kicked off the series with an introductory workshop – Introduction to High Tunnels for Extended Season Crop Production – in February 22, 2015.  The workshop was held at Stick and Stone Farm just north of Ithaca.  Instructors included Cornell High Tunnel Extension Educator, Elizabeth Buck, along with 4 farmers who discussed specific aspects of high tunnel farming (Munzer, Sarat, Madden, and Chang).  Topics covered included:  types of tunnels, site preparation and construction, soils, operation, and crop production in tunnels.  Farmers shared their experiences related to these various topics.  After the workshop, the audience was able to see crops growing in 2 hoop houses at Stick and Stone farm and ask further questions.  A USDA NRCS conservationist discussed funding available for tunnel construction.  The Cornell High tunnel resources available to growers were also shared via:  http://hightunnels.cals.cornell.edu/

In addition to the introductory workshop, we planned a season long series of on-farm workshops focused on  facility and crop management practices. The on-farm sessions were held monthly and generally included the host farm as the instructor along with a technical content expert from Cornell.   Topics included:  Soil Fertility Management (March 8, 2015); Tomato Grafting and Growing tomatoes & cucurbits in hoop houses (April 12); Berry Crops  (June 14); Pest identification and management (July 12); Specialty crops: ginger, microgreens, aquaponics (Sept. 13); Fall/winter greens (Oct. 11); and Finance and Marketing (Nov. 8). 

A follow up survey was sent to class participants in 2016 to determine what actions were taken as a result of attending the workshop series. 

b) Cold Storage Workshop

Our intention when writing the grant was to host a workshop focused on Coolbot technology, but for a number of reasons, we were never able to arrange this.  Several producers were already been in touch with the local Coolbot representative, Aaron Munzer, who provided one-one assistance.  We were also hoping to work with the Groundswell Incubator Farm manager to host a cooler construction workshop, but this also did not materialize as it became too late in the season. Additionally, we were never able to contact Steve Beylea from Maine to arrange to have him speak on crop management in cold storage . 

Having run into the above roadblocks, we turned our attention to planning a winter Produce Farm Workshop for Feb. 23, 2016 at Silver Queen Farm in Trumansburg.  The workshop was organized to meet our grant goal of promoting season extension for year round marketing including high tunnel usage, post-harvest handling and cold storage.  Silver Queen farm where the workshop was held had recently invested in a large cold storage room in their barn.  Guest speakers include Paul & Sandy Arnold, from Pleasant Valley Farm in Argyle NY,  and Crystal Stewart, Vegetable Specialist with Cornell’s Eastern NY Vegetable team.

Program agenda:

10:30 Paul & Sandy Arnold: Using High Tunnels for Season Extension

FINAL PVF 2016 Winter Production in High Tunnels

11:30 Cold Storage at Silver Queen Farm with Gordie Gallup

1:00 Crystal Stewart: Post-Harvest Handling

2:00 Paul & Sandy Arnold: Cold Storage & Off-Season Marketing

Final PVF Post Harvest, Storage & Marketing 2016

3) FARMER & BUYER NETWORKING 

Given the intent of this project to increase year-round direct and wholesale sales, we focused on linking farmers with buyers seeking supplies of local produce.  To this end, we arranged a Farmer and Buyer Networking Event to take place at the end of the Feb. 23, 2016 Produce workshop.  Local and regional wholesale buyers  seeking products from our area farmers were identified and invited to attend (follow-up phone calls were  made to encourage attendance). Each buyer and farmer provided a brief introduction to their business discussing product needs and purchasing arrangements along with farmers talking about available supplies and after introductions, participants were invited to mingle.

To encourage continuing communication and connections, we set up a new Facebook group, the Farmer & Buyer Networking group to connect with farms, post what you are searching for and keep up on networking opportunities.  https://www.facebook.com/groups/430102140521429/

Research results and discussion:
  1.  FARMER SURVEY RESULTS – Cold Storage/High Tunnel survey summary (2)

    A total of 23 farms responded to the survey including vegetable, berry and tree crop producers.  While the survey response was lower than hoped for (23 responses out of 120 surveys sent), the farmers that replied were generally those with high tunnels and some cold storage and they expressed interest in the project because they had particular needs related to these technologies.  The survey revealed that 65% of the respondents were using some high tunnels for crop production; the most popular crops were greens, nightshades, and cucurbits. A lower number, only 28% indicated they had sufficient cold storage facilities.  The survey results helped direct the topics season-long high tunnel production class series and reinforced the need for more on farm and off farm storage.

    INTERVIEWS WITH COLD STORAGE FACILITY OPERATORS –  A total of 7 storage locations were identified including:  two on farms, two distributors, two food processors, and one retail food store. Six of these facilities were providing storage space for area farms on an informal basis (i.e. they were not promoting use of space but making it available if farmers asked).  Space is generally available by the pallet and combined the facilities can accommodate from 10-40 pallets each season.  Our intention was to determine if we could coordinate facility scheduling but given the informal nature of facility scheduling, operators were reluctant to get involved in a more formal scheduling system.  4 out of the 7 facilities were generally full, however, we did identify the 3 others that had capacity. We were able to link 3 producers looking for storage space with 2 of these operators.  Unfortunately, we also found that some producers had bad experiences at a couple of the facilities.  This leads us to the conclusion that a well coordinated off farm produce storage facility is still needed in the region.

  2. SEASON EXTENSION  TECHNOLOGIES

a) High Tunnel Workshop and on farm training series –

Key insights from workshop participants on high tunnel use: (19 responses)
58% respondents were using high or low tunnels -most had limited experience producing a variety of crops including greens, summer vegetables, and berry crops.
Strong interest in high tunnel use was evident based on 15 of 19 people who indicated they were planning to set-up high tunnels in 2015.  63% felt they had a mid-level of understanding of tunnels. 
Topics of interest/concern:
-construction details/types of tunnels, site/drainage, snow load
-crop management:  soil mixes, irrigation, controlling pests, year round growing
-tunnel operation: managing crops during fall temperature fluctuations; managing humidity
A key insight was that most of the respondents were new to high tunnels or were still experimenting with what crops to grow. None felt they were using tunnels to their fullest potential.  

A total of 56 people registered for the Introduction to High Tunnels Class and received the class handouts and follow up consultation if requested.  Bad weather forced us to reschedule the workshop so that only 22 of the folks originally signed up were able to attend.  The workshop provided an introduction to all of the topics of interest listed above including construction and management, as well as some insights into economics and marketing. 
The monthly on-farm workshops attracted a smaller group of attendees than the Intro class and as the season progressed, the numbers attending started to drop, starting with 21 and dropping to 8 for some sessions.  In total, 38 new and established farmers participated in either the Introductory workshop or the on-farm series. 

b) Winter Farm Produce Workshop focused on High Tunnels and Cold Storage – Feb. 23, 2016

Our keynote speakers, Paul and Sandy Arnold, from Pleasant Valley Farm in Argyle NY are excellent at providing detailed descriptions of farming practices along with the cost associated with each practice.  They offered practical information in the two PowerPoint talks they gave: 1)high tunnels and 2) cold storage and marketing for an extended season (presentations were shared with farmers).  This was complemented by the presentation given by CCE regional vegetable extension specialist, Crystal Stewart, on post-harvest handling and the tour of the cold storage facility at Silver Queen Farm. 

A total of 24 farmers attended the production portion of this workshop including some of our most experienced farmers as well as some that were just starting out who really needed the information that was shared.  Of the farms attending, 9 had high tunnels, and 8 had sufficient storage for winter crops. 

3)  FARMER AND BUYER NETWORKING

16 wholesale buyers and  40 farms (15 of which are “beginning farmers”) attended the networking event on Feb. 23, 2016. Once people arrived we had introductions around the circle with buyers lined up on one side and farmers on the others. Color-coded name tags made buyer/farmer group members easy to identify during mingling. After the introductions we broke into mingling, with reminders to switch and meet new people every 8-10 minutes. Farms and buyers both reported enjoying the event and noted that they: 1) met new potential partners, 2) re-affirmed existing partnerships, 3) put faces to the partners with whom they already did business but hadn’t personally met. Initial follow-up reveals that some participating farms received orders.

Summary of Farmer Buyer Networking 

Research conclusions:

HIGH TUNNEL WORKSHOP AND ON-FARM TRAINING

A total of 38 participants were reached during the 2015 High Tunnel training program.  These included both experienced and new farmers.  Key insights from monthly workshops at farms – hearing both the farmer and Cornell specialist at the monthly workshops provided invaluable insight for attendees.  For most of the workshops we included a hands-on component so people could learn soil testing, grafting, seeding, scouting, etc.  All workshops were highly rated.  Most people stated they felt much more comfortable with all aspects of high tunnel management as a result of the workshop series.  Several applied for the NRCS High Tunnel Grant funding. 

A follow up survey in 2016, included 20 responses (some in person, others by email) out of 38 surveyed.  Program participants were asked if they had taken any action to seek USDA NRCS tunnel funding or if they build a tunnel at their farm.  Three people applied for USDA NRCS grants.  Of those 3, only one actually constructed a hoop house.  The other was approved but did not yet build, and the third did not qualify according to USDA siting criteria, however built a structure on her own without grant funds. Two others built hoop houses but not with USDA funding.  9 workshop attendees that already had hoop houses indicated they benefited from production information and made changes to how they managed specific crops during the growing season (specific practices were not given). Some farmers sent their employees to the on-farm training so they could gain more experience in tunnel crop management. One new producer grew double rows of tomatoes and had good sales to Ithaca area restaurants; another grew crops that were sold at a small community farmers market, a third sold crops in the Geneva area and another said she had a fantastic season of sales of flowers and herbs grown in her tunnel.

We estimate that additional 2400 SF growing space was added after the workshop series and sales from these new structures totaled to approximately $20,000 in their first season. 

COLD STORAGE -Given this workshop was held in Feb. 2016, two months before the end of the project, we have not had enough time to adequately evaluate impact.  However, we have learned that at least 2 larger producers have expanded storage significantly and a third was awarded a NYS grant to expand their storage facility in 2017.  At least 3 smaller farmers also added storage capacity.  This has increased on-farm storage by approximately 5,000 SF.  The two larger farms are able to offer a small amount of cold storage to nearby farmers.  Farmer experiences with off-farm storages continue to be less than perfect.  Often product is moved from one area to another meaning that the temperature and airflow is variable, therefore product quality suffers.  One farmer had a bad experience with apples when stored with cabbage.  Clearly off-farm storage remains as imperfect means of temporarily holding crops for sales to wholesalers, retailers, and at winter markets and CSA’s.  A storage, sectioned off by crop and temperature/humidity requirements would be ideal but is costly to construct and manage. 

FARMER BUYER NETWORKS

This has proven to be an effective means of connecting farmers to new buyers.  Farmers do not have the time to research new buyers seeking local product and buyers are often frustrated by not being able to find local farmers.  CCE has been able to remedy this situation by bringing the two groups together.  Buyers often will contact us seeking product.  Additionally, we find there is a lot of turnover with buyers especially at restaurants but also with retail stores and wholesale distributors.  New buyers such as the Finger Lakes Fresh Food Hub and Lucky Dog distribution company mean new opportunities for farmers to pursue. 

Direct outcomes from this event included: 

Lucky Dog began ordering from 2 area mushroom producers.

One producer reported having an immediate sale of $6000 as a result of the event. 

Two small farmers were able to hook up with a small retail outlet and each with about $1000 in sales for the summer.

A larger producer connected with a NYC Kim Chi maker who bought nearly $3000 of Napa cabbage and radishes. 

As a follow up to this event (post-grant period), on June 22, 2016, we escorted Sonia J. from the Lucky Dog Local Food Hub around to farms that she was interested in meeting and sourcing from. These farms included: Crooked Carrot, Farmer Ground Flour, The Piggery, Plowbreak Farm, Stick & Stone Farm (where we also met with Nathaniel from Remembrance Farm), and Crosswinds Creamery. We also dropped in at GreenStar to have a look around.  

Greenstar Farmer Meeting held on Sept. 6, 2016 – this meeting was held as a result of farmer concern that Greenstar was not selling any local tomatoes during the height of the production season.  As a result, 12 farmers and 6 buyers from Greenstar met to discuss ways to increase sales to Greenstar. Farmers learned that there are 4 Greenstar department heads that buy produce and that these individuals could be contacted directly for sales.  Given staff changes, GS has agreed to provide contact information for buyers to all growers attending the meeting (still waiting on this). 

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

Outreach has primarily been via social media. 

Both Workshops (High Tunnel and Feb. 23 Winter Produce Workshop) were promoted via the Cornell Small Farms program website and calendar, via the CCE regional ag team website, via a Farmer to Farmer Facebook page maintained by Matt LeRoux, and via the Groundswell beginning farmer network and website. 

In addition many farmers and buyers were reached through direct email communication.

At the Feb. 23, 2016 Produce Workshop, there was a reporter (Helen Griffiths) present from Lancaster Farming wrote 3 articles that appeared in that publication in March 2016.   (Link to articles was no longer active).

A key outcome of the Farmer and Buyer networking events has been to establish a “new” Farmer and Buyer Facebook page that is being promoted to both groups.   https://www.facebook.com/groups/430102140521429/

Additionally the information we have gathered as educators through this project is being shared as we advise producers in particular as we help producers make decisions related to high tunnel construction, cold storage options, and buyer contacts.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

No specific economic analyses conducted. 

Sales projections were made based on data provided  by farmers. 

Farmer Adoption

High Tunnels: 

Workshop – 38 total attendance at the Introductory workshop and in the on-farm training that followed.

Three people applied for USDA NRCS high tunnel funding, one awarded and constructed; one on hold; one was not awarded.

9 farmers attending on farm training at other farms learned ways to improve their own tunnel crop management. 

2 farms sent employees for training.

Estimated new tunnel SF – 2400 SF

4 new businesses launched with sales estimated at $20,000 (tomatoes, flowers, herbs, greens)

Performance Target Summary: 

30 farmers attend workshops –  Actual 38

10 farmers conduct extended season sales – Actual 9 existing farmers plus 4 new farmers with sales

Cold Storage:

7 cold storage operators interviewed, 3 were new locations, 2 were utilized by farmers in 2015/16. 

On farm cold storage is increasing, 4 larger produce farms have added cold storage, one is able to rent space to other farmers.  At least 2 smaller farms have built small 8×10 cold rooms at their farms. 

Performance Target Summary:

50 farmers attend winter workshop -Actual 24

15 farmers use on- and off farm storage for winter sales – Actual 6 farms utilized new on farm storage spaces; at least 6 others are renting space from storage operators. 

New Buyers:

A total of 40 different farms and 16 buyers participated in our networking events. 

Two smaller farms conducted sales with a small retail outlet (eggs, honey, garlic, herbs) (approx. $1000 each)

One distributor, Lucky Dog, followed up with farm visited and ended up buying mushrooms from 2 producers (approx. $2000).

One larger farm was connected with a Kim Chi maker in NYC and provided radish and Napa cabbage. (approx. $3000)

One farmer reported having an order of $6000 immediately after the event. 

One farmer took initiative to send weekly email updates to a large local retailer, but unfortunately did not make any sales. 

Estimated total new sales: $14,000

Performance Target Summary

50 farmers attend farmer-buyer networking – Actual 40 farmers

6 buyers will discuss produce needs and requirements – actual 16 buyers

5 farms will initiate sales to buyers – Actual 5 farmers with sales; plus one taking initiative to conduct sales

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

High Tunnels:  workshop participants cited the need for more construction details – an on site construction workshop might be the best means of teaching this; additionally, one producer was looking for information on growing raspberries in tunnels.  This input will factor into our workshop planning.  We also feel that repeating the Introduction to High Tunnels workshop is a good idea given that bad weather in 2015 meant that out of 56 people that registered, only 22 were able to attend.  We also plan to follow up with all attendees to assess progress with tunnel construction, several folks we surveyed said they still planned to construct tunnels but had not done so when we sent our survey.

Cold Storage: While there has been some expansion of on farm storage space and additional space has been found at area commercial storage, we feel there is still need for a central, well-managed, crop specific cold storage facility shared by farmers.  However, this is an expensive proposition, therefore would require farmer buy in as well as significant grant funding.  We are certain that such a facility would result in more late season crop production if producers know they can store more winter crops for year round sales.  Currently some only plan to produce what they can store.  But this is a bigger project for another time!

Farmer and Buyer Networking:  Producers do not have time to cultivate new buyers so this is an effective role for Cooperative Extension to play.  We will continue to identify new opportunities for farmers and plan networking events.  The Farmer and Buyer Facebook page is another place where we can quickly inform farmers of buyers seeking local products.  This effort will help our smaller producers struggling to find markets as well as benefit larger growers who can meet the demand of larger volume customers.

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.