A farmer collaboration initiative

Final report for ONE17-305

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2017: $14,994.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2018
Grant Recipient: Vital Communities
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Beth Roy
Vital Communities
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Project Information

Summary:

At farmers’ request, Vital Communities facilitated discussions and data collection about the need for a collaborative organization and/or space to increase farm product sales, production infrastructure, and community engagement we called a Farm Mart. Six farms were project partners and we engaged with 41 farms and 51 stakeholders at various stages of the project.

The most valuable result of this project was the relationships, conversations, and connections that happened as part of this food hub work. The interest from many stakeholders in growing our food shed directly led to new relationships, conversations, and collaborations as people connected around this idea. We learned that most people were eager to learn about what facilities are already available and who they could collaborate with as they build their farm or business and this conversation led to many new partnerships and general understanding about the Upper Valley’s current assets and needs of our local food shed. We also created a resource page on our website that lists regional assets including commercial kitchens and food hubs.

A major lesson learned from this project is that collaborating with important stakeholders, like the Co-op Food Stores (the Upper Valley’s largest buyer and retailer of local farm products), actively participating in the project means that tangible action steps were possible, which was a morale booster for the participating farmers. Asking farmers to spend their limited time in meeting rehashing challenges typically results in low farmer participation, but focusing on small “wins” and actions steps kept farmer engagement high throughout the project.

Willing Hands, the Upper Valley food recovery organization, has been a key ally in this project and we continue to seek ways to combine the needs of farmers for a storage and distribution facility with the plans of Willing Hands to build a fixed facility for storing and distributing the gleaned products from area farms and markets. This potential collaboration could be an excellent example of how to coordinate the movement of local food from farms to consumers to under-served populations in an efficient way.

Creating a new market channel or developing a food hub that will serve a specific farmer community is a slow process. Connecting with “experts” like Rose Wilson, Peter Allison from Farm to Institution New England, Sarah Waring from Vermont Food Venture Center, and Holly Fowler of Northbound Ventures for this project provided rich data and perspectives. There is no one-size-fits-all model to follow, so using the wisdom of others who have already experienced this process was invaluable.

Outreach to farmers happened throughout this project as we developed resources, convened meetings, organized tours, and hosted a project conclusion farmer mixer. 

This project led to many valuable conversations and significant movement on the original Farm Mart concept. With a farmer partner as champion, the Farm Mart is developing a business plan, scouting potential locations, and talking with potential sources of funding for the project. We are very fortunate to continue this work with grant funding from Working Land Enterprise Initiative for dual feasibility studies for both the Farm Mart idea and aggregation facility in the coming year.

Project Objectives:

The project objective is to support the creation of a new farmer led model of direct to consumer sales channel by facilitating conversations, providing educational opportunities, collecting data, and assisting with the development of a SWOT analysis and next steps for moving this concept forward. The longer term goal is to define and launch a modern “grange-style” farmer collaboration (which we are now calling a Farm Mart due to trademark issues with The Grange). The goal for this grant is to determine feasibility based on a SWOT analysis, assessment of farmer capacity and commitment, and education about what such a project would require. Questions we will answer include: how should Farm Mart stakeholders identify and prioritize function to ensure success at each stage of development; what skills and resources are needed to launch this project; what is the most viable business structure for the Farm Mart; how would the Farm Mart interface with existing farmers markets and farmer commitments; how will stakeholders move from planning to realization.

Introduction:

As the buy-local movement has matured, farmers have expressed a need for new and/or expanded markets that are more consistent, year-round, and preferably direct-to-customer. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the early adopter customer base has reached saturation: CSA sales are extremely competitive, farmers’ market sales have leveled off, and new farmers are struggling to find product outlets.

A 2014 Vital Communities Local Food Market Assessment indicated that additional demand is there if farmers can overcome barriers stated by consumer respondents. Three-quarters of the region’s consumers would like to buy more locally grown vegetables, two-thirds would like more local fruit, and more than 50 percent would like more locally grown meat and cheese. Barriers include a lack of available winter products and sales opportunities, inconvenient market hours, and a desire to purchase locally grown food at grocery stores, which would require greater storage/production than most farmers could ensure independently.

To reach prospective consumers beyond the loyal core, farmers envision a space that could ultimately overcome multiple barriers, beginning with a farmers market that customers could access daily to purchase a broad range of products year-round. Farmers who have approached us about providing support for this project are interested in working cooperatively, and they understand the importance of communicating the farm-to-plate story to consumers along with information about product selection, storage, and preparation.

Beyond the initial collective market opportunity, a Farm Mart could overcome additional barriers by providing a shared space for a variety of functions and services to increase farmer income:

  • A commercial kitchen for value-added processing;
  • A gleaning hub to serve food pantries, schools, and community dinners;
  • Shared winter crop storage;
  • A butcher shop, café, and other consumer services;
  • Bulk aggregation/storage to serve institutional customers such as grocery stores and restaurants.

To make this vision a reality, there must be a reasonable chance of sustainability, farmer commitment, and a plan for implementation. 

 

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand

Research

Materials and methods:

Vital Communities will support the development of a concept proposed by farmers for a retail and education facility in the Upper Valley promoting local farm products and value-added foods. By provided backbone support by performing background research, data collection from farms and food businesses, and convening meetings, the concept of a new sales channel for local farm products with move forward. 

The planned activities adjusted during the project to reflect the shifting goals as new information and data was collected.

2017 Activities:

March/April: Researched farmer-owned retail, co-op, hub models through online searches and by connecting with Vermont and New Hampshire service provider partners and food system allies including Farm to Institution New England, Intervale Center, New Entry Sustainable Farming, and The Co-op Food Stores. Visited Mad River Food Hub with farm partner to meet with hub owner who was in the processes of creating a retail/tasting space to go along with hub facility.
Met with Holly Fowler, Northbound Ventures, with farm partner for advice on project. Learned of creative functions and collaborations for a farmer-owned farm/food facility. Connected with Keisha Luce of Court Street Arts,
May: Met with farm partners to plan review timeline for project, get input for topics to research, and to make a plan for outreach to other farms and food system partners.
Created and disseminated survey for farmers to share the farm/food facility idea and learn about their infrastructure needs and interest in participating in a new direct sales channel. Developed language and blog post describing the farm/food facility concept for farm partners to share to their cohort. Vital Communities spread the word about the project and requested input and participation through the VC e-news (9000 subscribers), Valley Food & Farm e-news (5000 subscribers), discussion list and blog posts, and through an email to farmers in our database.
June: Signed up for consulting services from Cooperative Development Institute and had conference call with Lynda Brushett and a farm partner to learn about co-operative model as potential structure for farm/food facility. Continued outreach and asked farmers and food businesses to gauge interest and to fill out survey.
July: Continued researching other successful models and started planning community listening session. Created outreach list for listening session to include farms, food businesses, partners, allies, and local food system advocates.
August: Worked on event planning with King Arthur Flour. Outreach for farm/food facility meeting included discussion list posts, blog posts, e-news articles, postcards that were distributed via farm partners and to created outreach list, event listing on regional and state-wide farm organization calendars, emails to farmers, and 30 posters at key locations. Attended NOFA Farmer Social in White River Junction to talk with farmers about project and distribute farm/food facility information and invitation to listening session.
September: Farm/Food Facility Meeting drew more than 70 people that included many farmers, food business entrepreneurs, food purchasers, food system organizations, consumers, and more. The lively meeting included several activities to learn about the challenges that are limiting increasing sales for local farm products, and infrastructure needs/wants. The interest in this topic was intense and many participants stayed long after the meeting to continue the conversation and make connections.
The information gleaned from the meeting demonstrated the interest in a retail/educational/commercial kitchen facility and a real need for storage, aggregation, and distribution. In order to address this need, we are now looking for funding to start a separate conversation around storage/aggregation/distribution. The two topics could end up reuniting and be located in the same facility, but we want to keep this grant funding focused on the idea of creating a new direct sales opportunity for farmers. The meeting also resulted in a list of people interested in serving on a Steering Committee.
October: Disseminated meeting notes and information through emails, E-news links, Facebook, farm partners, and our website. Talked with farm partners and planned Steering Committee meeting.
November: Convened farm partners and those interested in being part of the Steering committee and working group. The goal was to narrow the functions/uses of the facility and identify the specific people to be on the Steering Committee and be part of the working group. Created draft calendar for working group and Steering Committee meeting for 2018.
December: Disseminated notes from November meeting. Identified 12 Steering Committee members with a variety of perspectives and skill sets.

        
Attendees at our Fall Farm/Food Facility Meeting at King Arthur in September 2017

 

2018 Activities:

February: Convened two steering committee meetings. First meeting focused on a conversation about the functions a retail and education facility should include (light processing/commercial kitchen/storage), the order of function build out with a meeting goal of a draft SWOT analysis for the concept of a farmer retail and education center. Eight stakeholder, including six farmers, concluded that a retail space would need to have a kitchen or processing capacity to supply value-added and ready-to-eat fare to the retail space and that a processing kitchen would need to have a retail front to provide the direct to consumer income to make this project financially viable. A draft SWOT analysis was developed at this meeting and finalized after stakeholder review and feedback at the August 2018 meeting.

The second steering committee meeting included a presentation by Rose Wilson, a regional farm and food business consultant. Rose shared findings from several recent studies concerning the viability of food hubs in Vermont and the region which show the challenge of creating a sustainable model for a food hub. Rose suggested a more feasible idea would be to find ways to fit into existing systems, especially regarding regional distribution channels. This meeting with Rose led to Vital Communities receiving a small grant from Vermont Housing and Conservation Board to hire Rose to work with operating hub networks in Vermont to expand their routes into the Upper Valley and to include Upper Valley farms on their sales platforms. The result of this work is a pilot project we are collaborating on with Food Connects, a southern Vermont hub, to have Food Connects sales and trucks expand into the Upper Valley and start aggregating Upper Valley farm products. 

The second steering committee meeting also resulted in the Co-op Food Stores, our local consumer co-operative market, hosting a tour of their commissary kitchen to see what a processing kitchen looks like and flows, and a commitment from the Co-op to experiment with creating a special line of grab and go dishes using local farm products.

March-May: Distributed February meeting notes to stakeholders. Interviewed five farmers about capacity and interest in aggregating and distributing with the Food Connects pilot. Met with Food Connects staff to plan implementation of pilot project. Thirteen stakeholders toured Co-op Foodstore commissary kitchen. 

June-August: Interviewed four farmers about capacity and interest in aggregating and distributing with Food Connects pilot. Met with Co-op Foodstore merchandisers and Food Connects to identify Upper Valley farm products that could be sourced though Food Connects. Toured two potential locations for aggregation facility of cross-dock location for Food Connects. Held final steering committee meeting to share project and hub activity updates, finalize SWOT analysis, and plan next steps as we transition from SARE to Working Lands funding.

September-December: Distributed SWOT to all stakeholders and added project results, resources, and information to Vital Communities website. Help farmer mixer to celebrate project completion. The December mixer included dinner and sharing of project results and resources with a crowd of 27 farmers and family.

 

 

Attendees at the farmer project celebration November 2018

Research results and discussion:

During this project we found that there was enormous interest from a variety of stakeholders in the desire for some type of food system-building capacity infrastructure in the Upper Valley. More than 106 people participated in this project by attending a community discussion, meeting, survey, interview, or tour. The variety and sheer numbers of ideas about what type of facility or function people needed or wanted was a challenge to distill into one concept or project, but the energy created from this project is strong and is continuing with several subsequent projects going forward.

An initial community meeting brought many interested parties to the table and was a great event to engage people from different perspectives and interests and identify collaborators and allies. The information gleaned from the community meeting exercises and farmer survey/interview data showed a significant interest in a facility that aggregated, distributed, and had storage, in addition to the Farm Mart. Based on this information, we changed the course of the project slightly by convening separate meetings that focused on the two different ideas – the Farm Mart and a facility for aggregation/distribution/storage as the stakeholders were different and had significantly different needs and interests.

One goal of this project was to identify the pain points hindering the expansion of our food system. The information we collected through meeting activities and farmer and food business interviews show many pain points and include lack of access to a commercial kitchen/processing, storage, and market access. In addition to the pain point survey, we also gathered data from farmers and other stakeholders to identify the level of priority of need and interest for the different potential functions for a farm/food facility. A prioritization chart of potential hub functions shows that commercial kitchen access, aggregation, farmer co-operative, and shared storage are what stakeholders wanted to see most in the Upper Valley.

Pain-Point-results

Food-Hub-Prioritization-chart

This project was supposed to include convening a Farm Mart steering committee, but due to the split interest in functions (retail/education/processing and aggregation/distribution/storage) we didn’t form a strict project steering committee, but formed loose collaboratives of folks interested in the two concepts since they require such different skills, locations, and infrastructure. This change made the conversations much more productive and kept engagement high. Creating these “tracks” helped move the projects along and was an effective alteration from the proposed steering committee plan.

The self-selecting group interested in the Farm Mart developed a SWOT analysis for the retail/education facility. The group was tasked with identifying a business structure, but determined that being constrained by that decision at such an early stage in development would limit the possibilities as the project proceeded. As this project moved along the Farm Mart idea developed into the “The Granary” with a mission to increase demand for locally grown produce in order to provide stability for area farms and opportunity for local food entrepreneurs, through a high traffic destination that inspires, educates, and feeds the community. Farm partner, Peggy Allen is championing “The Granary” concept and is continuing to develop using the information gathered in this project by identifying potential project supporters and site locations.

SWOT-FarmFood-Facility

Granary-2-page-FINAL-1

The aggregation/distribution/storage cohort used the data collected through this project, tours, studies, and  Rose Wilson, to realize the serious challenges of creating a viable hub. Finding ways to integrate into existing distribution systems was the idea we pursued. This pursuit includes initiating a pilot project to expand Food Connects truck route into the Upper Valley and creative endeavors to partner with the Co-op Foodstores to increase the amount of local farm products available through the Co-op prepared food selections. 

Another exciting result from this project is the awarding of funds from Vermont Working Lands Initiative for dual feasibility studies for both a new farmer collaborative retail and education model and a aggregation and distribution facility in the Upper Valley. 

 

Research conclusions:

Gathering information on successful food hub models and retail/education spaces included three tours and more than 20 conversations with those experienced in developing a new model of market access. Determining farmer need and commitment included surveys and interviews from 47 farms that resulted in information about the pain points that are limiting farm business growth and a function prioritization chart to shape the course of this project. The prioritization data showed that aggregation/distribution/storage had strong interest among farm and food businesses which led us to expand the focus of this project to include conversations about an aggregation/distribution/storage facility, in addition to the Farm Mart concept.

For the Farm Mart track we interviewed farmers, food entrepreneurs, and other food system stakeholders and convened two meetings to discuss business structure, and to develop a mission statement and SWOT analysis. Market research and consumer surveying determined there is a strong interest for convenient prepared foods made with local farm product in the Upper Valley. The Farm Mart concept has become “The Granary” with a mission to increase demand for locally grown produce in order to provide stability for area farms and opportunity for local food entrepreneurs through a destination that inspires, educates, and feeds the community. With a farmer partner as champion, “The Granary” is developing a business plan, scouting potential locations, and talking with potential sources of funding for the project.

The aggregation and distribution facility group met twice and learned that creating a new, viable distribution system would be a challenge. We engaged other regional food hubs about expansion in to the Upper Valley and we have just started a pilot project that will expand a southern Vermont food hub’s territory into the Upper Valley. This group included farmers and representatives from the large area co-operative grocer and food recovery nonprofit. The relationships and partnerships built during this project will continue with the goal to increase the amount of local products the co-op purchases through farmer aggregation and that a single facility in the Upper Valley can be shared by farmers and the food recovery nonprofit.

During this project we explore the possibility of identifying an existing food hub interested in expanding to cover the Upper Valley. During this outreach it became clear that more coordination and network building was needed among the existing food hubs. Vermont hubs are currently improving their coordination and capacity with Rural Development funding and as a result of the connections made during this project, we joined with a group of New Hampshire hubs and just submitted a request for similar funding. Since the Upper Valley straddles both states, a more regional approach to distribution will be needed to increase local farm product sales to whole sales.

This project went in unexpected directions, but led to many valuable conversations and significant movement on the original Farm Mart concept and establishing another wholesale sales channel for farm products. We will continue this work with grant funding from Working Land Enterprise Initiative for dual feasibility studies for both “The Granary” and the aggregation facility in the coming year. 

Participation Summary
9 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

3 Consultations
1 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
3 Tours

Participation Summary

47 Farmers
16 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

Consultants:

  1. Consulted with Cooperative Development Institute when exploring business structure options for this project. 
  2. Met with Holly Fowler of Northbound Ventures, New England food system consultant, about how to structure the community engagement events that were part of this project.
  3. Rose Wilson of Rose Wilson Consulting presented to the steering committee and worked with Vital Communities as we developed a pilot project that expands southern Vermont food hub activity into the Upper Valley.

Educational Tools:

  1. Created resource page on Vital Communities website to disseminate data collected throughout this project including survey results, stakeholder discussion results identifying pain points, and regional resources for processing and aggregation.
  2. Webpage-Shared-Farm-Food-Facility-I-VC

Tours:

  1. Mad River Food Hub, Waitsfield, Vermont
  2. The Co-op Foodstores commissary kitchen, Wilder, Vermont
  3. Food Connects, Brattleboro, Vermont

Project Outreach:

Outreach to farmers, stakeholders, service providers, and partners included 5 blog posts, 3 highlights in the Vital Communities e-newsletters distributed to 626 email addresses, 3 direct emails to 305 farms and others, 4 posts to the UVfarming discussion list, 2 posts to VVBGA list-serv, direct emails to service providers, through direct outreach by our 6 farm partner collaborators, and to 27 farmers at the project celebration event.

Printed and mailed 250 postcards for a community discussion and 150 for end-of-project farmer celebration event. 

 

 

Learning Outcomes

2 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

Savage Hart Farm, as the champion of the Farm Mart/Granary concept has learned from this project that there is significant customer interest in having access to more convenient prepared foods made with local farm products. This research means that she is moving forward with business planning for this retail space.

Luna Bleu Farm became aware of how complicated The Co-op Food Store commissary kitchen functions and that including more local farm products in their prepared foods department would require a lot of coordination and committment from the farm and the co-op in order to be successful. 

Project Outcomes

1 Grant applied for that built upon this project
1 Grant received that built upon this project
$20,000.00 Dollar amount of grant received that built upon this project
3 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:

While this project is in its infancy, Vital Communities received funding from Vermont Working Lands Enterprise Initiative for dual feasibility studies for a farmer retail and education facility and an aggregation and distribution network for Upper Valley farms. The fact that this project is continuing with new funding speaks to the potential of an actual facility in the Upper Valley whether is be for aggregation or sales or both.  More outcomes are anticipated in the future.

New project collaborators include The Co-op Food Stores, Food Coonects, Willing Hands.

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.