1996 Farmer to Farmer Conference
How can farmers market more directly to consumers? What’s the biggest challenge facing sustainable agriculture? Can communities be convinced that farming is better for their economies than strip malls or housing developments? These were some of the questions that Vern Grubinger, small fruit and vegetable specialist in Vermont, raised during his keynote speech at the Farmer to Farmer Conference.
Grubinger sees direct marketing as one important key to sustaining farms. “What’s got us cornered right now is a marketing system that wants uniformity,” he said. “The more removed the producer is from the consumer, the worse the situation is. We have to move more toward direct marketing to coops, consumers, restaurants,” he continued. “Innovation [in production practices] in itself isn’t the answer.”
Innovation is part of the answer in the move toward sustainability, however, but Grubinger pointed out that “you can’t just tell people they’re nuts and they’re wrong. You have to help them with transitioning. You have to help people see possibilities. The change of generations helps.”
He cited rotational intensive grazing as an exciting area of change that is coupled with the emotional and sociological problem of taking in less money – even though the farmer is spending less at the same time. The Vermont Grazers’ Association, which has formed to share information and fine-tune pasture management techniques, as well as to help growers avoid buying so much grain, should help overcome such problems. “In parts of Vermont and Maine, harvesting sunlight and turning it into grass and grazing the grass is probably the most ecological thing you can do,” said Grubinger.
One way to connect with consumers is to market to urban centers and “transfer some of that urban wealth to the countryside.” Grubinger gave the example of a Vermont farm where gourmet goat cheese is made in small “country kitchens” and the farmers/processors are “making a whole bunch of money.” The small “country kitchen” approach and the handling of small batches of production result in a quality product – some 7,000 pounds worth – that fetches a quality price – up to $11 per pound. These growers believe that if they tried to produce more cheese, its quality would suffer; thus, they bought a nearby farm with a land trust and they are training other farmers to make cheese. They believe that the market could take 10 times the amount that they produce.
Poultry pastured in hoop houses is another way to offer consumers quality (the meat has a better taste and texture than that from caged birds) and reap about twice the supermarket price for poultry.
Milk can be sold more profitably, said Grubinger. While in many Vermont supermarkets, the consumer doesn’t know the farm where the milk was produced or even whether it was produced in the state, some farmers are making more attractive milk cartons with pictures of cows or of their farms on them; with BST-free notices; or with organic labels. “The challenge” in producing organic milk, said Grubinger, “is organic grain production. We hope to get more people producing organic grains locally.”
One innovative dairy farmer is making more money from manure than from milk, to the point where he says he makes compost with milk as a by-product. He uses the manure from his own cows and from those of other dairy farmers, composts it and sells it in bags as ‘Moo Mix.’
Produce can be sold through coops. The Deep Root Coop sold about a million dollars worth of produce last year, said Grubinger, and has a full-time professional sales manager. Grubinger finds it ironic, however, that much of that produce had to be sent out of state to be sold.
Niche markets for specialty crops, such as cut flowers, daikon, basil and garlic, can be lucrative for some growers, said Grubinger. “There are really some alliophiles out there!”
Mesclun mix fills another niche market. One farm in Vermont grows mesclun mix in 4' x 8' x 3" trays in a greenhouse.
The tourist industry offers a huge marketing opportunity, he continued, citing the fact that Vermont has 500,000 residents and 8 million tourists. The state is pushing the link between agriculture and tourism as an alternative to development strips. “Farms are complementary to tourism,” he said, and he showed a slide of a farm that had a huge roadside sign announcing, ‘FARM STAND.’ “Tell them what you’ve got,” said Grubinger, if you want to tap into this industry. He quoted New Hampshire vegetable specialist Otho Wells who says that New England is the envy of the nation as far as direct marketing goes.
Customer satisfaction is an important ingredient in sales. Grubinger showed a slide of the Walker Farm in Vermont, which is attractive and has “total commitment to customer satisfaction. The place where you always go back is where you feel valued as a customer,” he said.
Entertainment can bring customers to the farm. Grubinger told of one farm that has a pumpkin carving event, then candles are put in some 500 carved pumpkins and they’re all lit on Halloween night. Another farm put in a Smoothie machine, and now customers are coming there on Friday nights.
You can also bring the farm to the customers. Grubinger showed a slide of a farmstand that sits on the back of the truck, and the grower takes his produce “on the road.”
Regarding farmers’ markets, Grubinger said the ones that seem to be benefiting the farmers most are those with “happenings” – a sand box, picnic tables, musicians.
Vermont has a couple of dozen community supported agriculture (CSA) enterprises, which Grubinger sees as “a fantastic model for Vermont and Maine,” which have a lot of small, tight-knit communities. One CSA in Vermont has three families, another has 230 families. One in Massachusetts now has 400 members. “Consumers are getting great products,” said Grubinger, adding that with more members, all customers don’t have to get the same assortment and quantity of produce “so that the people who hate chard aren’t pissed off.”
Vermont also has about 70 greenhouses growing tomatoes. In a 24- x 96-foot greenhouse, a grower can produce about 9,000 pounds of tomatoes and sell them for about $2.50 a pound, said Grubinger. He added a caveat: this is a complex system that needs a lot of attention.
Grubinger addressed the use of pesticides, likening its change to “turning an ocean liner around. You don’t just do it. We’ve come a long way. There was incredible disregard for the toxicity of pesticides in the past.” He is glad to see more growers using Integrated Pest Management and said that even on a small, diversified farm, you can do IPM: “Take a clipboard out every Sunday night and walk the whole farm.”
Grubinger said that the next level of farm management will be system management. For example, when a hairy vetch/rye cover crop is used, ladybugs come in early and feed on the aphids that are on the vetch, then, after plowdown, those increased, well-fed populations of ladybugs are available to feed on corn borers or potato beetles. Using compost for disease suppression is another exciting area of system management, as is mechanical weed control. He told of one grower who makes two or three passes over his field to dig up quackgrass. He lets it dry on the surface of the soil for a few days to control it. Likewise, flame weeding at the end of the season to burn off seed heads before weeds are tilled under can be one component of a weed control system. Many of these techniques are on a video that Grubinger and his coworkers made of nine farmers from three states who have received USDA SARE funding. Called “Vegetable Growers and Their Weed Control Machines,” it details control strategies, machine adjustments, et cetera. It is available for $10 from the University of Vermont Sustainable Agriculture Program, 590 Main St., Burlington VT 04505, or can be borrowed from Tim Griffith in Maine (1- 800-870-7270).
“The big challenge” to sustainability, said Grubinger, is “who’s going to take over the farm? This is really scary to me. Lots of young people are interested in going into agriculture. How do we create opportunities for them to do that?” He praised one program in Vermont in which cooperative extension makes garden space available to foster children.
Educating people that farms don’t cost a town money is another step. Grubinger told of a New Jersey brochure that tried to do just this. It read, in part, “Cows don’t go to school. Tomatoes don’t dial 911.” Vermont has put together fact sheets educating legislators about the numbers and value of fruit, vegetable and other farms in the state.
Another component of saving farmland and farmers is considering the long-term future. “Why do we call five years a long-term plan?” Grubinger asked. Communities should be asking, “Where do we want to be 50 or 100 years from now?” The answer should include not just preservation of farms, but making farms economically viable. “Land trusts are realizing,” said Grubinger, “that just having land in perpetuity isn’t enough. You have to have the farmer. Otherwise you’re going to be bush hogging a lot of land.”
One approach to viability is to start small and grow. Grubinger said of the next generation of farmers, “If you really like toys, you’re in trouble.” In addition to starting small, “you need good record keeping; you need to learn from trial and error and know what you really want to do.” He advised setting goals first. “What crops do you want to grow? What lifestyle do you want? The people making money are the ones with a passion for what they’re doing.”
– Jean English