Posts Tagged: small farms
Can plants typically grown for hedgerows also be a source of income? That's the question guiding a new UC study on the potential for farmers to grow elderberries as a commercial crop.
Blue elderberry, a California native plant with clusters of small bluish-black berries and a sweet-tart flavor, have long been eaten by Native Americans in the western states and are used today in jam, syrups, wines and liqueurs. And while elderberry orchards are popping up in parts of the Midwest, California's elderberries are usually just grown on field edges, and elderberry products sold retail rely mostly on foraged crops or imports.
Farmers at The Cloverleaf Farm near Davis are already selling elderberry products from plants grown on their farm, alongside their blackberries and stone fruits. And they find that customers love them. The farmers want to understand the viability of growing elderberries for market beyond their nascent effort, bringing some of the out-of-state production home.
The UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP) launched a project in collaboration with the Cloverleaf Farm, the UC Agriculture Issues Center, UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology, and four Central Valley farmers to assess the farm management practices, nutritional content, and market potential for elderberry and elderberry products in California.
“I think a lot about the long-term systems sustainability of our food system,” said Katie Fyhrie, one of the farmers at the Cloverleaf. “I keep thinking about how much we focus on production of blackberries and blueberries, when the elderberry also achieves that dark berry color and flavor people like with much fewer resources.”
Elderberries are typically grown on farms as hedgerows for their ability to attract beneficial insects, act as a windbreak, and sequester carbon, benefiting the overall health of the farm, but not providing direct benefit to a farmer's bottom line. Despite long-running federal cost-share programs for planting hedgerows, the number planted in California is still quite small relative to the large expanses of farmland in the state. Adding a financial incentive to planting elderberries may help increase the popularity of hedgerows amongst farmers.
As climate change impacts California with heat and unpredictable water availability, some studies suggest farmers may need to consider diversifying the crops they grow to adapt to changing local climates.
Elderberries, which grow in arid California regions along the coast and into the mountains, have the potential to grow in a range of climates and adapt to changing California ecosystems in the future.
It is unlikely that farmers would plant entire orchards of elderberries, in part because of restrictions on pruning elderberries that may be home to the Valley elderberry longhorn beetle, a federally threatened species. But for small- and medium-scale growers looking to diversify their income sources, elderberries may provide a boost.
The two-year elderberry project now underway will conclude with a growers' production guide, cost of production study, an assessment of market demand and nutritional contents, and workshops to help link growers with buyers interested in elderberry products. The project will also address issues related to the Valley elderberry longhorn beetle and generating income from hedgerows.
“Elderberry juice is already in so many products,” Fyrhie said, “so building a market for locally grown elderberries seems like a no-lose situation.”
For farmers interested in learning more about incorporating perennials into annual crop farms and similar agroforestry practices, view a webinar on the topic recently hosted by UC SAREP here.
In today's food system, large scale food distribution has become the standard way food moves from farm to market. The system works well to feed a lot of people, and has allowed us to eat tomatoes in December and send produce far distances while keeping it fresh. But the system is not without its sacrifices.
Through large scale food distribution, farmers can lose the ability to set their own prices, and small-scale farmers can be cut out from the system for not being able to fill high volume orders. On the consumer side, this system can make local food harder to find and identify. Institutions interested in providing locally grown produce at their cafeterias may need the efficiency buying from large distributors provides, but find they're unable to source food the way they'd like.
Food hubs are businesses popping up around California and the U.S. trying to create a food distribution system that supports regional food systems. By aggregating food from small and mid-sized farms and selling it to large businesses and institutions, food hubs are able to help realize the consumer's desire for local food while helping small and mid-sized farmers succeed by connecting them with buyers who may otherwise be out of reach.
To help ease the challenge of starting these unique businesses, a network of food hubs in California, organized by the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, is learning how to conquer their business start-up and growth challenges together.
Food hubs as business innovators
Thomas Nelson, president and co-founder of Capay Valley Farm Shop, a food hub in California's Capay Valley, has built his business around a vision of a thriving regional food system where small farmers succeed. Thomas purchases food from 50 different farms in and near the Capay Valley, and sells primarily to corporate food service in the Bay Area.
“Our model is farmer-focused," Thomas said. “Farmers set the price for their food, and we add on our margin. We help tell the story of the farms so that their identity is kept throughout the supply chain. We let our buyers know about new products or new farms we're working with, and our buyers ask for produce by farm name.”
Thomas works closely with his 50 farmers, helping them plan their crops to best meet the demands of their clients, and working with the beginning farmers to get them through the hurdle of learning how to sell wholesale.
“It can be a challenge to accurately predict the next harvest,” Thomas said. “And it's our responsibility to mitigate some of those risks for the buyers as much as possible, but our buyers also get it. The reason they choose to work with the food hubs is they want to support local farms. What really makes this work are shared values.”
Thomas is one member of a new statewide food hubs network created in collaboration with the UC Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (UC SAREP), a statewide program of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources whose work includes improving marketing opportunities for small farmers. The network, funded in part by the UC Global Food Initiative, brings together food hub mangers to learn from one another and collectively pave the way for successful food hubs in California.
The food hub business model is a relatively young one, few food hubs existed in the United States before 2008. Today, hundreds are in business across the country, and they're all trying to figure out similar things: how to best work with farmers and customers to make the business model effective, how to run a food business in a regulation-laden environment, how to increase efficiency without sacrificing price, quality, and the value of local agriculture.
“Food hubs are really working with farmers in their local areas to help them reach markets beyond selling directly at the farmers' market,” said Gwenaël Engelskirchen, who leads the food hub projects at UC SAREP. “We brought a group of northern California food hubs together for their first convening in February of 2015 and they realized that they all had a lot to learn from each other. They realized that there's opportunity in them working together.”
There's a hashtag on Twitter for what they're doing: #collabatition, or, collaborating with your competition. UC SAREP acts as the organizing body for the food hub network — coordinating resources to help the hubs wade through the many rules and regulations of operating a food business, and working through the visions of their own businesses and the network collectively.
“This is a newish space, so there is a ton to learn and share,” Thomas said. “By having a network we are supporting each other on the journey of growing successful businesses that serve local farms and regional buyers. Working with UC SAREP, we can have conversations with larger buyers that would be hard for us independently to access.”
One of those potential larger buyers is an organization close to home — the kitchens of the University of California.
“UC SAREP plans to interview kitchen directors from UC campuses all around the state to see what keeps them from buying local food, and whether the food hub business model is one that can support the desire they have to incorporate local food into their kitchens,” Gwenaël said.
And past successes show that food hubs can play an important role in linking UC dining programs with local farms. According to a recent report from the UC Global Food Initiative, through a relationship with the food hub Harvest Santa Barbara, UC Santa Barbara is currently able to source 23 percent of its produce from within 150 miles of campus.
“By linking UC food buyers with food hubs, we want to see if that success can be replicated around California," Gwenaël said. "In 2014, UC Santa Barbara alone served nearly three million meals, so the entire UC becoming a local produce buyer could be a major boon to regional food systems.”
The UC SAREP website offers a number of resources that can assist food hubs as well as farmers looking to see their produce wholesale. Find those resources here. Stay tuned for an upcoming article on food hubs in the next issue of California Agriculture journal.
Nigel and Lorraine of Eatwell Farm in Dixon go an extra mile to share a taste of real farm experiences with their 500 CSA members and their friends and relations, partly for increased understanding about the farm by their customers and partly to build loyalty and attract new CSA members.
After arriving and getting settled, we all walked out to the garlic field, where we learned how to pull up the bulbs with the stem still attached. We got the hang of garlic harvesting quickly, as the soil had already been loosened around the bulbs, making pulling pretty easy. We picked and pulled and shook off the dirt and piled our findings into harvesting trays to bring back to the packing shed.
After we'd filled a dozen or so trays with our harvest, Connie and Eric, our hosts for the afternoon, let us loose in the next field over, the most beautiful abundant strawberry patch, with instructions to taste and pick what we wanted. No prices, no weighing, just picking and eating of the most delicious ripe and sweet berries. Smiles were everywhere.
Then it was time to learn how to braid. First a little instruction in cleaning off the outer layers of skins, then a short demo on how to braid, and we were ready. We all made a few braids, or tried to make braids. Although the farm sells garlic at their farmers' markets, Connie and Eric again let us know that we could take home as much as we wanted! We felt royally gifted with kindness.
Finally, dinner was ready. The main course was farm-raised chicken, prepared by Lorraine. Rounding out the delicious meal were potluck salads, sides and sweets brought by the visitors. Dinner was followed by a campfire, complete with marshmallows and all the makings for classic s'mores.
Some consumers are willing to pay a hefty price at trendy restaurants, farmers markets, roadside stands, and even local grocery stores for tomatoes with irregular shapes, vivid colors and rich tomato flavor.
The consumer demand presents an opportunity for small-scale farmers, and a challenge.
“It's not easy to grow heirloom varieties,” said Margaret Lloyd, the UC Cooperative Extension small-scale farm advisor for Yolo, Solano and Sacramento counties. “They often have less disease resistance, are lower yielding and cannot tolerate as much stress as improved modern varieties.”
When Lloyd joined UCCE last summer, she began visiting small-scale producers in the counties she serves.
“I realized very quickly how important fresh market tomatoes are to these growers,” Lloyd said.
Because she holds a doctorate degree in plant pathology from UC Davis, Lloyd is well-positioned to begin her research program with a small tomato grafting project on UC Davis farmland. Her idea is grafting the particularly delicious heirloom varieties onto tomato roots that are resistant to soil-borne diseases.
“Grafting is an old technology,” Lloyd said. “It works in the same way we graft fruit trees and grapevines onto favorable rootstocks. Vegetable grafting has also been done for years.”
Lloyd said the process is simple and an individual can easily learn to graft tomatoes. But to do so cost effectively with the quality and success rate necessary for economically viable production, it may make most sense to work with a commercial nursery.
Lloyd is conducting a quarter-acre field trial with the three most common heirloom varieties – Brandywine, Cherokee purple and Marvel stripe – plus the yellow-hued Sun Gold cherry tomato and a non-heirloom salad tomato, Charger. Several growers in the area have also planted them in their commercial operations.
In addition to collecting data from the trial that will help small farmers decide whether grafted tomatoes make sense for their operations, Lloyd and her research associates will harvest many bushels of fresh tomatoes from the plots. Some will be sold at the UC Davis farm store to help support the research, and as for the rest, “We're definitely going to eat them,” Lloyd said.
“I enjoy them raw with olive oil, salt, vinegar and a little basil,” she said.
We like to get farmers and ranchers together and ask them this question: What could go wrong? Preferably after they've had a good night's sleep and a filling breakfast and at a time of year when their farms and ranches are relatively quiet. It is not the happiest of conversations, to say the least. But we feel that talking about farm and ranch risks, and hopefully, taking steps to create resilience in the face of these challenges, is critical to the success of agricultural businesses. Having a plan of action in the face of unforeseen crisis can be the difference between making it and losing it all.
Here are a few topics that came out of recent Risk Management discussions held during our Farm Business Planning short course and Farmer-to-Farmer Networking Breakfasts (for info on both of these events, visit our Foothill Farming website.)
Human Risk – What happens if you get hurt or sick?
This is not a fun topic. Knock on wood, you will be fit as a fiddle into a ripe old age. But what if? You need to buy health insurance. Period. You don't have the money or time to deal with being uninsured when you need health care. Take it from a gal who's racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills, health insurance is well worth the investment.
You also need to have an Operations Manual. Do it right now! Write down each enterprise that your business relies on and the basics of keeping it functioning from day to day. It can be rough but should be enough information that a person could read the thing and keep everybody/thing alive. Print it out and keep it in an obvious place, like a binder that says “Operations Manual.” Tah Dah! Your business just became more resilient.
Now you need a designated person/persons who can read the Operations Manual and run your farm in your absence. Employees are a good place to start as they probably have a good idea already. How about a neighbor or good friend? Have them over for a cup of tea and show them where the operations manual is kept. Maybe walk through a typical feeding of the animals or watering the greenhouse. How about a farm buddy system? I'll be your emergency farmer if you'll be mine.
Marketing Risk – What if there is a sudden change to your sales outlets?
Marketing risk is a much tougher nut to crack and prepare for. We build our businesses around projected sales to retail outlets, restaurants, and farmers' markets. What if one of those outlets suddenly became unavailable? You've produced the product and may not have another buyer lined up, so what options do you have?
Jim Muck of Jim's Produce has a good strategy. He tries to always have three potential outlets for a farm product, e.g. Restaurant A, Restaurant B, and Grocery Store X. While he may have made a commitment to Restaurant A for the season, he knows that if Restaurant A were to go out of business both Restaurant B and Grocery Store X would likely be interested in the product he was supposed to sell to Restaurant A.
So what are your options? Would your wholesaler buy more? Do you have a relationship with a Farmers' Market Association that will allow you to attend a market at the last minute? How about a place that will always take a bulk order to make jam or salsa? As Paul Muller of Full Belly Farm says, a successful farmer must spend her time “100% farming and 100% marketing.” Take a moment to identify your most risky marketing outlet and create a back-up plan for that product.
Legal Risks – Are you above board with your employees?
If you aren't filing payroll tax and covering workers with workers compensation insurance, you're walking on thin ice (and technically, breaking the law.) While talk of the costs may have dissuaded you from hiring employees the right way, it's time to make the switch. And if you think you can't afford minor costs like payroll tax and insurance, you may have bigger problems in your production plans than you realize. These costs are insignificant enough that you should be able to pay for them if you can afford hired labor. The risk of getting busted for violating labor laws is significant and fines could very well put your farm or ranch out of business. Time to read up on how to follow the law (getting legal?.
Financial Risks – How well do you understand your Cash flow?
It is likely that your farm and ranch business goes through ups and downs in your cash flow cycle. Our work is largely dependent on the seasons and cycles of animals and therefore there are times when we have a lot of cash coming into the business and there are times when there is not a lot coming in. For many of us, when we have the least amount of cash coming is also when we have a lot of cash going out! Create a cash flow budget for your farm that shows the months across the top and different categories of income and expense along the side. You can then go through and project income and expense by month. This will help you plan for when cash is short, and budget more stringently when income is strong. Another strategy to weather a lopsided cash flow is to move major bills and payments to times of the year when you have income. For example, pay for liability insurance in August instead of February.
Production Risk – Do you have a plan for wildfire?
We farm in a part of California with a particularly high threat of wildfire. Now is a great time to get your wildfire plan written down and understood by all involved. Do all of your properties have at least two exits? What will happen to your livestock if you happen to be out of the area when a fire threatens your farm? Did you know that Cal Fire does not want you to leave sprinklers on when you evacuate and would rather you place buckets of water around structures? Do you maintain 100 feet of defensible space around all outbuildings? There are a lot of great resources available online to help you get started creating a plan. Start off by reading this Foothill Farming blog post on wildfire planning: http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/blog/?blogpost=19003&blogasset=24945
One of the most important parts of managing risk on your farm is preparing yourself for the emotional toll that accompanies all of these scenarios. By taking a moment to think through a list of potential risks and what actions you'll take in the face of these risks, you are making yourself more resilient. Understandably, an initial reaction to these scary situations is to avoid thinking about them altogether. By looking at these risks as hypothetical situations, we are training ourselves and our businesses to react effectively if and when we need to.
For more information on the types of risk your farm or ranch needs to prepare for, visit the Risk Management section of our Foothill Farming website: http://ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/Farm_Business_Planning-_new_2/FBP_Risk_Management/Risk_Management/