Rural Action Agricultural Center

Project Overview

FNC96-146
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1996: $9,580.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2001
Region: North Central
State: Iowa
Project Coordinator:

Annual Reports

Commodities

  • Agronomic: corn, soybeans, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Fruits: apples
  • Additional Plants: ornamentals
  • Animals: bovine, poultry, sheep

Practices

  • Animal Production: feed/forage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, display, farmer to farmer
  • Farm Business Management: marketing management, market study
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, public participation, community services, employment opportunities

    Summary:

    PROJECT BACKGROUND
    As this is a group project, a number of producers have been involved with a variety of farm operations. Our farm is a family operation producing corn, soybeans, and hay, with a cow/calf herd, a ewe flock, and free range hens. In our own farm operation, we have seen this project as an opportunity to extend direct marketing efforts which can be highly profitable. Our eggs are currently marketed in Des Moines and easily sell for $1.50 to $2.50 per dozen. A more local outlet, but on the interstate, could reach the same target market and involve less transportation and handling for us.

    Other operations involved in the project raise a variety of products, including organic raspberries and apples; chickens and turkeys on a small scale; organic beef and lamb; emu; ornamental crops, e.g. flowers, pumpkins, and bittersweet; and honey. In addition, members have “value added” products including cider, fruit butters and jams. Producers not formally on board but who have expressed a strong interest in participating would offer farm raised fish, popcorn, and traditional farmer’s market items. Non food items produced locally, such as woodworking, welded items, beeswax products, art, and textiles are also a part of the project, as they generate on farm family income, attract customers, and contribute to a positive sense of rural life and agricultural heritage.

    PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
    Our project goals, as identified in our grant application, centered on the development of “a market center which combines sales of farm products with hand on, educational exhibits and programs for a wide range of ages.” We planned to survey potential customers, find an appropriate site, establish an organization to serve producers, lease space, and publicize the effort.

    Process:
    We began with a survey of potential customers. During the summer of 1996, a written survey was drafted and refined with help from Iowa State University. A small scale pilot survey was conducted at local restaurants, and a full scale survey of 150 travelers was conducted on Labor Day weekend at I 80 rest stops near Adair, Iowa. Four adults and six 4-H youths distributed the written surveys to randomly selected visitors to the rest area, explaining that the project was on behalf of local farmers. The anecdotal response was very positive, with comments such as “I normally don’t do surveys, but if it is for farmers, I’d be glad to.” Some of the respondents wanted to “chat” about Iowa agriculture.

    Numerical results of the survey were enlightening and very encouraging. For example, 88% of respondents were interested in purchasing locally grown fruits and vegetables; 79% said it was “very important” or “somewhat important” to know who produces the items they purchase. On the other hand, respondents seemed more interested in being entertained than educated, a point to bear in mind when planning educational programs.

    To further analyze the survey results and build upon them, we formed a steering committee which included several producers, a realtor, and a banker. Finding the best site for our market became top priority and has taken more effort than first anticipated. In fact, over a three year period, tentative plans were made to partner with several existing businesses in turn. We believed that such a partnership was necessary to fully staff our center and provide services the public expects. The businesses with which we explored such arrangements were the County Kitchen, in Stuart; the Menlo Market, in Menlo; and the Kopper Kettle, rural Menlo.

    As a part of our evaluation of potential sites, in the summer of 1997 we held a weekly farmer’s market on Saturday morning outside a vacant restaurant located at Exit 93 of I 80 (Stuart). This was in addition to the established farmer’s market held in the Stuart city park on Wednesday evenings, in which we also participated. Four regular vendors sold meats, eggs, vegetables, flowers, and baked goods. The market was not highly successful. Although the site was quite visible, it was not easily accessible, and it lacked amenities such as shade and water which would have made a market visit more pleasant. Also, we found that interstate signs which notified travelers of our offerings in advance of the exit would be necessary.

    The vacant restaurant became a Country Kitchen franchise. While the manager supported the idea of continuing the farmer’s market, he was not able to offer further partnering, such as offering local products on the menu.

    We then turned to the Menlo Market, an independent grocery and restaurant owned by a local group. This appeared more promising, thanks to the local control and greater flexibility. However, over the course of the next two years, management turnover was high; we would begin to make progress with one manager and then lose ground when he or she left employment there. In addition, the location, not visible from the interstate, was perceived as less than ideal.

    We then pursued the Kopper Kettle restaurant, located at the intersection of Highway 25 and I 80. This high profile spot seemed to offer what we were looking for in terms of visibility, accessibility, and high volume of traffic. However, the restaurant was managed by a firm based in Omaha and we had trouble establishing a relationship over that distance. Marketing at this site was investigated but not accomplished while the Kopper Kettle was in operation.

    However, the Kopper Kettle restaurant closed in January of 2000. Ownership of the property shifted form the Omaha based firm to an existing board of local farmers and businesspeople, directors of the country club on adjoining property. This gave the project new life, as those local people were more receptive to working with us and shared our goals of increasing farm profitability and diversity. We met with the board several times to discuss plans and arrive at lease terms acceptable to both sides.

    Deciding to lease this site was a major step forward in moving this project from an idea towards reality, giving it a sharper focus and greater credibility.

    A limited liability company, “Iowa Harvest” was formed in the spring of 2001 and a feasibility study was conducted. Outreach was intensified, contacting potential producer members through newspaper articles and advertising, direct mail and email, radio, and work of mouth. We used connections to reach people through existing organizations, including Practical Farmers of Iowa and Farm Bureau. We structured the organization as an LLC to promote member involvement in the organization; any person or organization wishing to sell products through the Iowa Harvest market must be a member, and each member has one vote in the business of the organization. We offered initial memberships at $100, purposely set at a low price so as not to be a barrier to any producer. Products sold are subject to a jury committee so that high quality is established and maintained. A commission will be charged to support the overhead expenses of operation the market.

    As members have joined, they have brought a variety of skills. One challenge has been to identify and apply those skills in a cooperative fashion toward common goals. We found it helpful to bring in an outside facilitator to help us map our assets, create a set of guiding principles for the organization, and discuss the operational framework.

    We now have a full nine member board in place to lead Iowa Harvest and are actively completing a business plan and securing additional financing. At the same time we are proceeding with implementation steps already underway, i.e. preparing the site and building awareness among both producers and consumers.

    People:
    Producers involved in leadership and implementation: Jeanette and David Parker, Donna and Mike Brahms, Denise O’Brian, Mary McColloch, Wayne Nosbisch, Cyril Klein, Ron Meyer, Diane Weiland, Deb Wilson, Don and Shirley Chesnut, and Doug and Shelly Botkin. Other producers/members, less involved in the organizational efforts but with quality products to offer, include Clark and Linda BreDahl, and Jerome Leininger. Additional producers who are not member but have indicated a strong interest include Chuck Ehlers, Jim Anderson, Arnold Lewis, Linda Thompson, and Deb Hoffman.

    Agency personnel who assisted:
    – Carol R. Smith, Iowa State University Extension Education Director for Guthrie County (through 2000) and National Catholic Rural Life Conference (currently); initial grant application, ongoing support and connection with local Extension council, assistance with applying for additional grant funds, facilitator to clarify assets and project direction.
    – Deb Hall, Iowa State University Extension Education director for Adair County, initial grant application, communication with producers through Extension newsletters, resource person for entrepreneurial support, facilitator for discussions of group goals and progress. Also helped conduct surveys (as did husband Rich Hall).
    – 4-H “Speak Out for Agriculture” program participants, including Jen BreDahl, Randy Dreher, and Laura Nosbisch, for assistance in conducting the survey.
    – Gina Lloyd, Iowa State University Extension Educator for Guthrie County; networking and publicity.
    – Jeff Jobe and Norman Brus, USDA Rural Development; feasibility study development
    – Mary Swalla Holmes, Iowa State University Extension Local Foods Systems Specialist; networking with producers, technical assistance resource person; sounding board.
    – Dawn Stisma, Iowa State University Rural Sociology; development of initial survey
    – Wayne Kobberdahl, Iowa State University Extension Community Development Specialist; survey analysis
    – Roxanna Sieber, Institute for Social and Economic Development; business plan development and marketing expertise
    – Sharon Johnson, Iowa State University Food & Nutrition Specialist; consultant on appropriate food preparation and marketing.
    – Rick Allely and Rhonda Boehm, West Central I 80 Development Corporation; office support for publicity and organization of initial group; assistance in conducting survey.
    – Board of the Neely-Kinyon Research Farm; networking and connecting with producers
    – Adair County Tourism and Greenfield Chamber of Commerce, networking

    Also:
    – Rick Hartmann, Practical Farmers of Iowa,; research to support feasibility study and business plan; networking; sounding board.
    – Warren Varley, attorney in private practice; legal advice, all pro bono. Also in kind contributions of computer time and expertise, copy machine, telephone and fax.
    – Alan Taylor, Stuart Herald; office space and computer time for survey data input.
    – Jeff Horn, First State Bank, Stuart; and Claudia Shepherd, Shepherd Realty; served on initial steering committee.

    Results and Discussion:
    We have moved forward with our original plan, maintaining our objectives but adapting our methods where necessary. In some ways our results are not easy to measure. We do have numerical values in the sense of 1) positive responses to the surveys; and 2) number of people committed to the project. The feasibility study further validates our original premise. While our market and educational center is not yet operating, it will open this calendar year. We never anticipated that the project would take so long to implement, but as issues of food safety and agricultural sustainability have become even more important in the minds of producers and consumers in the past five years, perhaps the “delayed” timing is in fact a benefit.

    What would we do differently next time? We found that until we had identified a location, innumerable discussions would take place about what a “great idea” this was, but progress was minimal. If possible, it would be good to move forward with organizational plans even without an identified site, or if some other essential piece is missing. We could have done much of the research for a business plan earlier in the process, even though not all information was available.

    Also, as indicated above, we found it helpful to bring in an outside facilitator to help us map our assets, create a set of guiding principles for the organization, and discuss the operational framework. We would recommend this process to other groups.

    We have noted that many in our group have a great deal of initiative and determination. While these are positive character traits, they can lead to conflicts in a group situation, and we are seeking guidance from professionals to help us keep that from happening.

    Estimating the impacts – the excitement this project has generated in our immediate two county areas is substantial. The Iowa Harvest market and educational site will tie together many existing efforts in local food production, direct marketing, and education for both producers and consumers. It will stimulate additional efforts by providing a viable market and helping to network producers who share an interest in alternative, sustainable enterprises. We will serve to showcase and promote Iowa’s best people and products, generating not only more income but also a sense of pride and satisfaction in our individual and collective ability to provide high quality foods and handcrafted items. That sense is already apparent in those working closely on the project, and judging form the sustained level of interest as this project incubated for five years, can be readily cultivated among others.

    OUTREACH
    We have reached people about his project though newspaper advertisements and articles; radio interviews; newsletters; letters; emails; telephone calls; booths at the State Fair; Neely-Kinyon field days, and other community functions, and by speaking to individuals and groups involved in agriculture and development. We have held public meetings specifically directed to this project, attendance ranged from 6 to 30.

    We are developing a brochure for distribution at this year’s state fair and at Iowa Welcome Centers across the state. A local person who attended one of our public meetings will donate her expertise for development of a website. Also the project coordinator is an active member of Toastmasters International and welcomes additional speaking opportunities.

    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.