Emerging Local Food Systems – The Role of Locally Developed Innovation in Small-scale Sustainable Farming in Northeast Georgia
The focus during year two of this assessment of innovations within the farming communities of Northeast Georgia keyed in on 6 key innovations contributing to rapid development and shifts in the shape of the local food system. While all innovations observed had value to individual farms on which they were observed, these 6 key innovations are anticipated to have the most significant impact on the local food region in the short and long-term.
These key innovations are:
1. Soil Food Web priming techniques – This practice involves the significant and frequent application of compost teas and slurries as part of the fertility, pest control and plant vigor management systems on individual farms. While this technique is only being applied at 3 of the 24 farms in the study region, each of these 5 farms are either fairly large compared to other farms, play a significant role in influencing the characteristics of the broader food system, and/or have served to significantly re-orient the focus and the perceived success of the farms experimenting with the technique. This is also the first innovation studied that involves significant collaboration with individuals with specialized backgrounds, experience and equipment for creating and applying a compost designed to enhance microbial activity in the soil. These collaborators are non-farmers and could be characterized as non-traditional consultants. Fees have been very low averaging $200-$400 per acre per application. Results are measured via general crop performance (often including a control), and the brix method (testing sugar content as an indicator of plant health and quality), with reports of incredible differences in both. This slow build-up of positive experiences and related success stories has lead to investments in large scale compost sifters, hydroseeders to allow for the application of compost slurries to multiple acres, and business collaborations likely to lead to other farms experimenting with the technique. A relatively nearby manufacturer of worm castings is the basis of the applied material, a microbial feed such as molasses or sorghum syrup, a mixture of minerals (also considered microbial food), and a form of humic acid (such as menefee humates). Perceived benefits of the practices have been significant improvements in plant vigor, yields, brix levels, taste (as indicated by customer feedback), large gains in plant biomass (such as growth of new blueberries), resistance to late season frost (ex. tomato survival of May 8th, 2011 frost) and recovery of diseased plants (ex. in apples and tomatoes). Perception of the practice by the researcher is that the technique has particular appeal as a substitute for other more costly and more difficult soil organic matter management techniques such as extensive inputs of large volumes of compost to replace losses by tillage, additions of hay mulch or management of cover crops. The technique does not replace these techniques, and the researcher has some concerns that a microbial priming effect may demonstrate short term gains by mobilizing stored nutrients held in organic matter, but that overtime soil C levels and stored nutrients could be depleted by priming microbial decomposition of soil organic matter. This practice falls under the category of Production innovations.
2. Development and growth of an Internet based farmers market – Rural food systems face specific challenges in developing local markets, such as a more disperse customer base, smaller overall populations, and lower incomes. A relatively new type of farmers market, based on the success of the Athens Locally Grown internet based farmers market is entering it’s third season and is experiencing significant growth as it expands the number of farms and farm products from throughout a larger region and makes them available via two pick-up sites 30 miles apart. This dual pick up site style market increases the accessibility of the market to farmers and customers (average travel time of less than 30 minutes one way). These markets also create several advantages for farmers such as: less time spent at market (essentially the time it takes to drive and unload), less risk of waste and spoilage (products are pre-sold so you only harvest and deliver items that you know have sold), reaches customers in a broader region, drop offs create opportunities for networking and knowledge exchange. Disdvantages of this type of market are: lower overall sales compared to live markets due to no impulse sales and more risk by the customer in unknown products, less customer interaction may lead to less correction re: concerns with quality, greater time spent in packaging products (due to labels that indicate customer information). Overall this market has created greater opportunities for many farms, and is a good gateway market for newer farms trying to determine products and pricing. This innovation falls under the category of Marketing innovations.
3. Greenhouse Construction and Shifts in USDA Funding – Greenhouse construction increased rapidly in the study region during the last two years with 9 new houses being completed at 9 different farms. Of the 9 only 3 were funded with NRCS high tunnel grant funding. The value of season extension structures is commonly known by many farmers, and the types of structures that have been built are highly variable, including two homemade PVC style structures. Knowledge on greenhouse growing techniques has been slow due to a lack of regional expertise, and a tour to an experienced greenhouse farm outside the region was well attended by 17 individuals. High tunnel grants, irrigation grants, and fertility enhancement grants have aided many farms that have successfully applied for funding. However, other individuals were highly discouraged by interactions with local NRCS staff and as a result did not apply or seek further information on the programs. Training and additional resources for high tunnel or greenhouse growing would not only enhance the use of existing greenhouses, but improve the design and utility of new houses that will certainly be built in the region in the near future. This innovation falls under categories of Production and Governmental Policy innovations.
4. Development of a Farmers Network – Until recently most farmer networking was more casual, usually between a handful of individuals, or was related to interactions at farmers markets. In 2011 the non-profit Certified Naturally Grown awarded a small grant to help with the formation of a farmer-centered network. Its participants determine the characteristics of the network, but a Network organizer from within the group and paid by Certified Naturally Grown also participates in monthly conference calls with other organizers throughout the Southeast to exchange ideas. Called the Georgia Mountains Farmers Network, the group has hosted two farm tours, a potluck and a discussion meeting during which eight network priorities were established. These priorities include: coordinating bulk ordering (already completed), cooperative marketing efforts, sharing contact lists, hosting farm tours, acquiring and sharing co-op equipment, obtaining or producing organic feed, organization of crop mobs (or other labor assistance projects), creating a forum for regular communication (a blog website was created), holding technical workshops and hosting public events. In addition to bi-monthly farm tours and meetings, the group will host a Georgia Mountain Farm Tour open to the public that will feature area farms, and help to raise money for the network. A venue for knowledge exchange and organized collaboration has met with strong enthusiasm and may be one of the best vehicles for speeding up adoption of many small innovations and problem solving strategies. This innovation falls under the category of Networking innovations.
5. Changes in Food Regulations – Last year saw some major shifts in the interpretation of some key food regulations by the Georgia Department of Agriculture. Both sustainable local food markets in the region (Simply Homegrown in Clayton and the Locally Grown internet market) were inspected by the Georgia Department of Agriculture for the first time. One of the principal results of these inspections was an explanation that the exemption to non-profits for the sale of baked goods and jams and jellies not processed in a certified kitchen was now extended to any farmers market organized by a 501(c) 3 organization. One of these markets was already organized by a 501 (c) 3, and the other quickly began working with a closely aligned non-profit to fall under their activities. Perhaps more important than the ability of these markets to now legally sell baked goods and jams and jellies, is the influence and increasing role of non-profits in the development of local food activities. Immediately after reorganizing, the Simply Homegrown market began to establish detailed operational guidelines, fee structures, and marketing plans. This innovation falls under the categories of Governmental policy and Marketing innovations.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes