Connecting Farmer to Consumer through Small Businesses of Rural Main Street

Project Overview

FNC09-782
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2009: $5,989.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: North Central
State: Kansas
Project Coordinator:
Carissa McKenzie
Horse Creek Ranch

Annual Reports

Information Products

Commodities

  • Additional Plants: herbs, native plants

Practices

  • Education and Training: participatory research
  • Energy: energy use
  • Farm Business Management: market study
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, sustainability measures

    Summary:

    PROJECT BACKGROUND
    Carissa and Greg McKenzie experience Tallgrass prairie life in the Kansas Flint Hills, one of four remaining natural grasslands of the world. Prescribed burning methods and rotational grazing are used to maintain prairie grass vitality. Ranch business has included pastured livestock, commodity grains, small fruits, garden vegetables and herbs, brome fields and hay meadows covering 1,068 acres of rolling hills, woodlands, and creek bottom. Scottish Highland and Red Angus cattle are rotated among several pastures until the last 60 days, when they are grain finished. Commodity crops such as wheat, soybeans or milo are not certified organic due to herbicide use of county weed control. Carissa embarked on her SARE project to investigate ways of capturing more income within the community and for drawing more people to the area.

    The McKenzie family has spent 15 years raising cattle without hormones, have controlled weeds mechanically, employed rotational grazing and prescribed burning of prairie grasses, practiced zeriscaping and organic gardening.

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION
    GOALS:
    • Develop connections between local producers, retail business and consumers;
    • Implement an action of the newly adopted Strategic Plan for Wabaunsee County, Kansas by:
    o Creating opportunity for rural residents;
    o Identify local food producers, processors, wholesalers and retail stores;
    o Work on product placement;
    o Increase opportunity for sales through a food manufacturing license.

    PROCESS
    Project leader presented her SARE proposal to Wabaunsee County Economic Development Council (WCEDC), eliciting comments and ideas. Council members were addressing issues of retaining current businesses, attracting new ones, encouraging youth to return to their rural communities, increasing economic opportunities to improve town vitality and services, and find ways to increase income of agriculture producers. It was logical to start with this group. Each of 7 towns and 4 areas at large are represented on the council and dissemination of information was already set up. Abby Amick, council director, controls the website detailing town histories, calendar of events, contacts, tourism and residential/business opportunities and business directory. Council is many-faceted: retail, realtor, campground, food production, infrastructure, etc. Extension is also represented. It was decided to capitalize on consumer interest in buying food from local sources. A state inspected commercial kitchen was set up in Alma allowing licensing for retail and wholesale applications to benefit local processing.

    Members were to identify local producers, processors, wholesale and retail stores to include in our general county directory and through website links. Developing farmer profiles for the website and directory seemed logical for promotion, but was met with resistance by humble producers who quietly apply their trade. We will work on this effort. Karaline Kayer and Steve Hund interviewed local businesses and our four regional newspapers published Kara’s account.

    Project Leader gathered contact information for experts in development and marketing at state, county and university venues. A resource guide was meant to assist current and future producers in the area. Many producers are unfamiliar with pricing and product consistency or supply.

    Retailers were solicited for product placement. Few local producers are set up for regularly scheduled distribution of product. Bundling cooperatively will be further explored to maximize opportunities.

    Obtaining a manufacturing license to process blackberries and garden produce to sell wholesale or retail would provide both local food options and added income. Kansans suffered two years of adverse weather knocking back harvest yield. Triple digit temperatures prevented tomatoes and peppers from setting. Loss of raw ingredient also prevented processing of value-added items.

    Outreach was conducted through participation at statewide and regional events. Stakeholders of this project also attended a variety of educational seminars and workshops (including the KSU hosted Retail Grocers Summit in 2010).

    WCEDC members went back to their towns and neighborhoods to share information and organize local Farmers’ Markets and investigate other business options.

    PEOPLE
    Abby Amick, Director, Wabaunse County Economic Development Council, Alma
    Abby was integral to coordinating activities, embracing the project, and encouraging other members to work with community people to organize events highlighting talents and opportunities at the local level.

    Karaline Mayer, Ag Agent, K-State Research & Extension, Wabaunsee County
    Kara traveled throughout the county visiting merchants who open their doors for local traffic. Utilizing her Bluestem Breezes weekly column, Kara reported findings in a series of articles published in our four local newspapers.

    Steve Hund and Ed Howe were Kara’s scouting team. Steve owns antique shops in Paxico, restores woodstoves, promotes the Meatloaf Cook Off and Blues Festival, and began a Farmer’s Market. Ed raises alpacas with wife Marta in Eskrdige. They offer breeding animals and husbandry advice as well as fiber and other products.

    Alma Creamer, LLC of Alma, Kansas
    Home of Alma Cheese – all natural, all handmade. Offers both local and regional sales. WCEDC Director Amick mediated negotiations between Alma Creamery and Fort Riley in attempt to sell cheese on base. Could not overcome military provision that food brands must be available to all bases worldwide to ensure equality of disbursement. Contributed to annual dinner.

    John Goodell, Alta Vista Locker,
    USDA & Custom Processing. Provides fresh, frozen and processed meat to Alta Vista (whose grocery store closed for second time). Sells throughout region. Contributed to annual dinner.

    Sharon Heidemann, Prairie Thunder Elk, Alta Vista
    Began as elk farmer in 2001, then expanded into selling USDA inspected meat products in 2006. Sells tanned hides, ivory teeth and antler sheds. Contributed to annual dinner. Contact made by Carissa McKenzie with meat buyer of state’s oldest whole foods market (Community Mercantile) resulted in Sharon’s elk meat sold in that venue.

    George Leroux, Alta Vista
    Raises bison and contributed meat to annual dinner.

    Nikol Lohr, The Harveyville Project
    Nikol runs a workshop, retreat, and creative residence in the old Harveyville schoolhouse. She raises sheep for fiber sales, workshop demonstrations and weaving. Her shop also sells fiber from other producers. She provides meeting space for the 2012 WCEDC annual dinner and prepared all food.

    Greg McKenzie, Horse Creek Ranch, Alta Vista
    Greg is an agriculture producer and photographer. He took photographs in each of the 7 towns for promotional purposes.

    RESULTS
    We were unable to increase placement of local products within the county. Both Paxico and Lake Wabaunsee Farmer’s Markets were not sustainable. Not enough growers participated to entice buyers from driving to other counties. Neighboring Morris County will open their Farmer’s Market Spring 2012, offering perhaps a chance for Wabaunsee County participation.

    Due to permitting and space requirements, sales of local foods were not available during Paxico’s festivals. Paxico Café shut down within a year because the owner did not have required permits in place. Alta Vista lost its grocery store for the second time (inexperience of new owner). Many residents want the convenience of a local store but too often drive to big box stores for purchases.

    It was anticipated that food sales would be brisk at Symphony in the Flint Hills and a great outreach venue. Regional food and wine had been served in previous years. The 2011 Symphony, held in Alta Vista, attracted 5,000 visitors (even from out of state), but organizers limited food sales to one caterer, one box wine brand and one non-local micro-brew. More work needs to be done to convince organizers to allow for local product inclusion.

    The proposed “How To” guide became the PowerPoint presentation “What’s on your Plate? Capitalize on Locovores”. Philosophy, terms, market targets, options and possibilities, cost effectiveness, consumer taste, terms and purchasing power are topics covered.

    Project was not considered successful in matching up consumers, rural Main Street business, and local farmers and ranchers in our county. It was considered successful in broadening awareness in locally sourced goods and services, encouraging entrepreneurs to investigate market options for local foods, and in placing sustainable food production in forefront of county economic development initiatives.

    DISCUSSION
    From this grant, I learned economic factors still have the greatest impact on success or failure of
    Locally-grown food as a viable choice for consumers, retail business, and producers. Philosophically, people want to support local entrepreneurs, but their pocket book is still the dominating factor in decisions. Although growing conditions were unfavorable during project’s two years, the decision to obtain a manufacturing license will be beneficial in future years. Learning the process and risks has been valuable to my own operation. Deciding to proceed with the community licensed kitchen was a barrier I overcame. At least one of our producers is happy to have another sales point. The retail store is happy to carry her product, as are their patrons. Members of Wabaunsee County Economic Development Council are please to have embarked on a new avenue of potential economic gain and perhaps attracting future business.

    This project provided a focal point for stakeholders. Learning what works and what does not was important. Even failures inspired new attempts. There is now a baseline from which to move forward. Identifying local producers, retail business options, consumers, and profitable market possibilities, as well as recognizing existing businesses has energized the community and developed a framework for future projects. If asked for more information or a recommendation concerning what I examined in this project, I would tell other farmers and ranchers to develop a business plan outlining what they want to do, identify obstacles they perceive, and list applicable talents or knowledge. Also, contact organizations and project leaders in their area that may provide useful input.

    PROJECT IMPACTS
    Environmental evaluation was intended to calculate petroleum transport consumption to compare envisioned savings for locally sourced foods over standard long haul items. Due to severe weather conditions during project, garden produce was unavailable throughout the state. Even livestock performance was affected due to triple digit heat for extended periods. Prairie Thunder Elk of Alta Vista was able to place product in Community Mercantile of Lawrence. The miles between grower and retailer were outside project parameters, therefore, petroleum consumption was not calculated. One of our bison ranchers chose to continue selling only through the Manhattan Farmers’ Market. His location is within a 60 mile radius of the market, but sales there began prior to project and residents in half the county will have to travel beyond 60 miles to purchase his meat. Therefore, no calculation was made.

    Economic evaluation was intended to be based on inclusivity of local food producers in a resource directory, item marketability, and identification of sales opportunities for growers as well as community businesses, connecting them with consumers. The resource directory will not be published until 2013, although funds have already been committed. Wabaunsee County Business Directory is normally published every four years, but a new computer program is now being used and all data must be transferred. This will allow for a most current and accurate edition.

    Social impact was intended to be calculated through surveys of consumers and visitors to events. The first survey was conducted at the economic development annual dinner in 2010. When given the choices of purchasing food grown by local people versus from far away, 100 percent indicated the local choices. Taste of food was most frequently cited as factor for selection. Quality came in a close second. Only one person indicated organic or sustainable production as a primary factor. Premium price paid for local food over standard big box stores garnered a majority willing to pay up to 15% higher. Only one indicated “at any price”. All participants would like to see more locally grown or processed foods in their area. One participant selected big brand name they know as more important than local but unknown brand. Most participants knew farmers and ranchers personally and indicated taking pride in knowing them and how they farm.

    The second survey was conducted at Kansas Sampler Festival in May 2011. Locally grown food choices were selected as preferred over imported from far away by 100 percent of those surveyed. Most indicated taste of food as primary factor in selecting purchases, with quality coming in second. Organic or sustainable food fell behind price in factoring decisions. Everyone indicated they would like to see more locally grown and processed foods in their area. Most favored local source over big name brands even when local name was unfamiliar to them. Premium price paid for local source over big box tallied highest for “at any price” category. Visitors to the booth were introduced to SARE and concepts such as Slow Food and Local Food. Questions on sustainable production and marketing methods were answered.

    OUTREACH
    I first addressed members of the Wabaunsee County Economic Development Council (WCEDC) with description of my project, got them on board, and worked with them during project time to connect consumers to producers and Main Street business owners to capture greater economic return for our community. There are twelve council members and a director who reports to the County Commission. Carissa McKenzie, serving as Secretary these two years, began submitting minutes to the four regional newspapers. Quarterly newsletters are now available online as well as distributed among the 7 towns. Potential number reached is 6,000.

    WCEDC hosted the 2010 annual dinner, designed to thank supporting businesses. Because of this project, the theme was “A Taste of Wabaunsee County” and showcased local food and non-food items. Ten producers and eighty guests participated.

    The July 2010 monthly luncheon meeting of WCEDC was hosted by Carissa McKenzie who prepared all food items from local sources – chicken, salad greens, homemade mayonnaise, apple pie, herb tea, and blackberry wine. Our guest was the director of the soon to be opened (April 2012) Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, Kansas. The center is designed to feature the Flint Hills ecosystem, history, and culture.

    “What’s on your plate? Capitalize on locovores” is a 20 minute presentation on marketing concepts for locally sourced foods developed by Project Coordinator and presented at the National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference in Columbia, Missouri, November 2010. Billed as the largest annual small farm show in the USA, meeting, demonstrations, exhibits, short course, the forum and seminars are offered. The parent magazine included an insert of presenter activities.

    A booth was shared with WCEDC at the 2011 Sampler Festival held in Leavenworth Kansas. The festival brings together stakeholders from all Kansas counties to showcase foods and non-foods, tourism, history, culture, business, services, and housing. Several thousand visitors attend each year and the festival rotates around the state. A survey was conducted to gather information on factors consumers use to make purchases. Information on SARE in general and my project specifically was available. The PowerPoint presentation developed for the Farmers Forum of the 18th National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference was shown, providing ways to capitalize on locovores. Questions were fielded. One visitor was disappointed in lack of bees the second year after she and her husband bought a farm. Turns out they had mowed the hay meadow used as habitat for pollinators. She vowed to make her farm more pollinator friendly.

    Karaline Mayer, our County Extension agent and WCEDC member visited with business owners throughout the county. Her Bluestem Breezes weekly column was used for a three-part series on buying local. It was successful in making prospective patrons aware of available goods and services. Business owners were delighted to be recognized.

    WCEDC’s most recent annual dinner distributed raffle items made by locals (included pottery, flowers, food, etc.) or provided by businesses (such as the bank and utilities). Dinner was held at the Harveyville Project with owner Nikol Lohr preparing all food. Abby Amick presented her Master’s thesis results on bringing youth back to rural communities. Attendance numbered 125. Sadly, ten days later, a tornado hit Harveyville, destroying 40 percent of homes and killing one person. The community came together during Emergency Management response. Our WCEDC director and Extension agent immediately mobilized through 4-H and email, to organize several thousand volunteers to assist state and county response teams with clean up. No FEMA money will be given as our communities are too small to qualify under their financial loss guidelines.

    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.