From farm to fork: the journey of food

Farm to fork—it sounds intuitive enough, right? Farmers produce the food, which is then brought directly to consumers to eat. It’s simple. Unfortunately, this isn’t the way the majority of America’s food system works today. With a rise in agricultural conglomerates, the journey of food from the farm to consumer’s plates is anything but simple.

Take produce, for example. Once the product is picked fresh from the fields, it is often sent on a truck to a packing plant where it can be cleaned and packaged. From there it’s sent to the distributor before eventually reaching local stores. Each of these outlets may be hundreds, even thousands of miles apart, if the stops are in the country at all. About 70 percent of the food Americans consume must go through chilled transportation and storage to stay preserved throughout this process.

So exactly how long is food’s journey before it reaches the shelves of local grocery stores? On average, processed food travels 1,300 miles before it reaches consumers. Produce has an even longer trek with an average travel distance of 1,500 miles before reaching consumers. All food spends an average of 14 days on a truck before hitting local stores. Food transportation is the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

Fear not—fresh and local food is making a comeback. Eating locally is beneficial in more ways than one. Farmers usually receive a higher profit margin for their produce and consumers have the opportunity to interact directly with the person that produced their farm-fresh food. While food transportation takes a hard toll on the environment, eating locally eliminates the middlemen and associated travel. Whether it is through farmers markets, CSAs or farm to school, organizations across the country are making strides to build creative solutions to bridge the gap from farm to fork.

California Farm to Fork

California is at the forefront of the local foods movement. The California Department of Food and Agriculture initially funded this project in collaboration with the California Department of Public Health and the California Department of Education. California Farm to Fork assists farmers in directly reaching consumers, restaurants, schools and more. The project helps to coordinate workshops focused around local foods and provides resources to increase people’s access to healthy and fresh food from around the state.

Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS)

From 2008 to 2009, the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) worked to create a strategy to develop a sustainable local food system in North Carolina. The average person spends about $4,010 on food consumption every year. The folks at the CEFS discovered that if everyone in North Carolina spent 5 percent of that amount on local food, it would contribute over $1.7 billion annually to the local state economy. CEFS put together a farm to fork state action guide to work dynamically towards fostering a locally minded food and farming system in the state. CEFS will host its annual Farm to Fork Picnic on June 8.

Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project (ASAP)

The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project works to connect farmers in the Southern Appalachian region to local markets through training and support. The organization works primarily in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia but offers guidance on a national level through its annual Local Food Guide. Working with more than just farmers to spearhead the movement in the region, ASAP helps restaurants and foodservice buyers to find fresh, certified locally grown foods.

Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA)

For more than 20 years the Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture has worked in Massachusetts toward expanding markets for locally produced food. CISA formed diverse “buy local” programs to assist with all facets of local direct marketing, including providing shares of local produce to low-income seniors, supporting farm to institution programs, consulting farmers and farm service providers and offering technical assistance to farm operations.

Where to Find out More:

Recent Resource Spotlights highlighted direct marketing opportunities for farmers through food hubs and farm to institution models.

To find out where you can buy local food in your area, check out the Find Good Food page on the Farm Aid website.

Farm Aid is a sponsor of the 7th annual Farm to Cafeteria conference in Austin, Texas from April 15th through the 18th. The conference will bring together more than 1,000 food service professionals, farmers, educators, advocates, policy makers and more to work on sourcing local food to institutional cafeterias across the country. Click here for more info and to register for the conference.

 

MOSES 25th annual farming conference

The Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) will host its 25th annual conference from February 27 through March 1. The MOSES farming conference is the largest US event focused on organic and sustainable agriculture with over 3,000 farmers in attendance each year. This networking and educational event features 65 workshops, 170 exhibitors and keynote speakers.

This 25th anniversary event will be held at the La Crosse Center in La Crosse, Wisconsin. You must register by February 14th to attend the farming conference.

Email questions to info@mosesorganic.org. Click here to register for the event and for more information: http://mosesorganic.org/conference/

New and Improved NRCS Web Soil Survey

If you need details about the soils on your farm, look no further than the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Web Soil Survey. Using this online tool you can map out the soils on your land and learn important information to ensure crop nutrition, soil fertility and soil and water conservation activities. This tool is especially useful for beginning farmers and new farm occupants so that they can get a better sense of the land that they will farm.

NRCS recently announced the latest version of the web soil survey. The new version includes improved maps, increased Area of Interest acreage, and upgraded options for changing map properties. You can also access the survey online 24 hours a day.

Food hub roundup – a growing solution to direct markets

Direct markets are a growing way for farmers and consumers to interact, but they also support farmers by allowing them to set their own price for products. Even though farmers markets grew by over 250 percent in the past 15 years, many places called “food deserts” in the US still do not have access to fresh, healthy food from local farmers. Direct markets still only account for about .4 percent of all agricultural sales in the country.

Enter food hubs. Food hubs are a new and developing way for farmers to provide products directly to institutions, restaurants, grocers and countless other possibilities.  “Skyrocketing consumer demand for local and regional food is an economic opportunity for America’s farmers and ranchers,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said. “Food hubs facilitate access to these markets by offering critical aggregation, marketing, distribution and other services to farmers and ranchers.”

What is a food hub?

There are over 100 food hubs in the country today, each with a slightly different model. What all of these have in common is that each food hub helps farmers tap into new markets they may not have had access to in the past. The USDA created this definition for regional food hubs in the US:

“A regional food hub is a business or organization that actively manages the aggregation, distribution and marketing of source-identified food products primarily from local and regional producers to strengthen their ability to satisfy wholesale, retail and institutional demand.”

There are three different markets that food hubs can serve: farm-to business, farm-to-consumer or a hybrid model.

A food hub benefits farmers, consumers and the local economy of the community it serves. So, where can farmers and consumers find food hubs? There are currently food hubs all over the country. Some of Farm Aid’s resource partners are making a big impact on direct markets as food hubs that work with small and mid-size farmers.

Red Tomato

Red Tomato is a non-profit organization located in Plainville, Massachusetts. The organization created this video, which asks the important question, “Why is it so difficult to find local produce in your grocery store?”

It is that dilemma that the organization works to solve by providing the logistical support farmers need to provide regional grocers with local produce on a wholesale scale. In doing so, Red Tomato works with farmers across the Northeast in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. The organization also provides consulting to farmers looking to transition from direct markets to wholesale markets.

Appalachian Sustainable Development

Appalachian Sustainable Development is a food hub located in Abingdon, Virginia. The organization works with small and mid-size farmers to supply local farm-fresh food to over 600 supermarkets that carry the Appalachian Harvest brand. Through its Healthy Familes – Family Farms program, Appalachian Sustainable Development also provides produce to food banks in the area. The organization works with fruit and vegetable producers in the region to serve Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee and Ohio.

Ecotrust

Ecotrust works as a food hub across Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, Montana and Alaska. The organization is based in Portland, Oregon.

Ecotrust knows no boundaries, working with a wide array of different buyers including: bakeries, buying clubs, caterers, colleges and universities, food banks, food service contractors, grocers, healthcare facilities, hotels, motels, resorts, B&Bs, packers and processors, personal chefs, restaurants, schools and specialty retailers. The organization goes beyond working with farmers to encompass other producers such as brewers, fishermen and distilleries.

This food hub even provides an online marketplace for producers and consumers similar to a website like Craigslist.com. In doing so, sellers and buyers can interact directly with each other.

For more information on food hubs, check out the Food Hub Resource Guide created by the USDA.

Farm to institution roundup

There are initiatives across the country to get farm-fresh food in all types of institutions. Schools, hospitals and corporate and government cafeterias are among the many institutions that create business opportunities for farmers.

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food is a USDA program created to foster the local food movement. This Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food map shows the locations of all of the USDA-recognized Farm to Institution programs as of 2012. There are a growing number of farm to institution programs in the country, but here are some of the biggest:

Farm to School

The number of USDA-recognized farm to school organizations rose from about 400 to over 2,300 from 2004 to 2011. Farms must go through rigorous food safety screenings before working with food service directors at schools. Once a farm meets USDA food safety regulations to work in a farm to institution program, that farm is held to those initial safety standards. There are many resources available for farms looking to become involved in a farm to school program. For more information, visit: http://www.fns.usda.gov/farmtoschool/farm-school-resources#fs

Farm to college programs are also a growing effort in the country, both in dining halls and at special events on campus. The Oregon-based Community Food Security Coalition started a national farm to college program in 2004. CFSC helps schools and producers connect and overcome barriers associated with starting a farm to college program. The organization also compiled a database that lists all current farm to college programs in the US. For more information or for resources on beginning a farm to college program, visit: http://www.farmtocollege.org

Farm to school programs are not limited to outside producers, though, and also provide the opportunity for schools to begin gardens or other agricultural operations. This provides schools with fresh produce while also educating students about farming and the importance of healthy, local food.

Farm to Hospital

Farm to hospital programs are two-fold in that they deal with both the patient and the hospital staff. Many hospitals are beginning to serve locally grown, farm-fresh food to patients as meals and to visitors and staff in the cafeterias.

While patients come and go from the hospital, doctors recognize the importance of fresh food for a patient’s health. As a result, some doctors began prescribing fresh fruits and vegetables to their patients. This takes the idea of farm-fresh food out of the institution and into people’s homes, expanding local farmers’ direct marketing and providing healthier alternatives for people.

Wholesome Wave created the Fruit and Vegetable Prescription Program (FVRx) to benefit overweight and obese children that are at risk of developing diabetes. The program is additionally designed to benefit family farmers through prescriptions that can be redeemed at local farmers markets. For more information visit: http://wholesomewave.org/fvrx/

“Given the increasing popularity of buying food products directly from local farmers,” the national Farm to School program explains, “as well as the heightened concern about human health and quality of food in hospitals, there has never been a better time to buy locally.” To find out more on the benefits of farm to hospital programs, click here to access the Farm to School guide: http://www.farmtoschool.org/files/publications_478.pdf

Farm to Business

There are also farm to business programs designed to help get farm fresh food into the workplace. Although restaurants most often utilize this, there are other businesses that work to get food from local farmers into company cafeterias or kitchens.

The Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project created a Farm to Business Trade Directory that offers tips for buyers and producers. The directory also includes a map that lists all farm to business programs in Western South Carolina and the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Check out the ASAP website for more information: http://www.buyappalachian.org/mixingbowl.

There are countless programs like the one ASAP created. Market Mobile is a Farm Fresh service that delivers food from family farmers to businesses in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The program is designed so the farmers can make their own prices and stretches beyond produce to encompass products such as local dairy, meat, seafood and granola.

Farm to Correctional Facilities

The recent demand for local food from family farmers even made its way into the correctional system. These programs can reduce an institution’s food costs while supporting local farmers and offering healthier meal options.

The national Farm to Cafeteria program surveyed the Montana State Prison and Montana Women’s Prison, both of which indicated the institution made an effort to purchase food from local vendors as often as possible. A representative of the Montana Women’s Prison cited the local cooperative as one of the most helpful resources for “locating and purchasing local foods.”

The Washington State Department of Agriculture recently partnered with the Washington State Department of Corrections to launch a farm to prison pilot program. Among other benefits, the program will determine if this project would successfully support local farmers through diversified markets. For more information on the new venture, visit: http://www.wafarmtoschool.org/Page/29/WSDA-Farm-to-Prison

Agricultural apprenticeship roundup

Beginning farmers account for approximately 10 percent of all US agricultural production, according to data collected from the USDA Census of Agriculture. Moreover, a beginning farmer operates about 20 percent of all farms. As such, there is an increased need for training and education opportunities for these farmers entering the field.

The Economic Research Service recently released a brief using data collected from 2011 with shocking results: only 25 percent of beginning farmers earn a positive margin of profit from farming. With the changing landscape of agriculture, beginning farmers are more important than ever. For this reason, it is crucial that beginning farmers are able to access the tools necessary to be successful. Many national organizations offer apprenticeships for those interested in farming.

Before beginning an apprenticeship, those interested in the opportunity should look into the Farm Internship Curriculum that Western Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (Western SARE) put together. This guide comprehensively describes the workweek of an individual farmer.

ATTRA – National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service

ATTRA has offered apprenticeships in sustainable and organic agriculture since 1989 in the US, Canada and the Caribbean. Potential apprentices can browse the farm and location possibilities for free. The listings are posted directly from farmers seeking apprentices or interns. For more information, visit: https://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/internships/

Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association

The Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association created the North American Biodynamic Apprenticeship Program (NABAP). This two-year on-farm program is designed for beginning biodynamic or organic farmers, in addition to one classroom course. Upon completing the program, apprentices receive a biodynamic farming certificate from the Biodynamic Association. Click here for more information: https://www.biodynamics.com/nabdap

CRAFT – The Collaborative Regional Alliance for Farmer Training

CRAFT is broken down by region, but each farmer-led branch is specifically designed to educate farmers through mentoring and a social network of support. CRAFT farmers are specialized in organic, sustainable or biodynamic practices in growing vegetables, livestock or grains. For more information on an apprenticeship with CRAFT, find your specific region here: http://www.craftfarmers.org

Beginning Farmers LLC

The Beginning Farmers LLC is dedicated to providing beginning and aspiring farmers with the resources and educational tools they need to succeed. As such, Beginning Farmers aggregates on-farm internship postings on its website. The Beginning Farmers’ blog announces internship postings, while its employment page collects information on regional resources with internship or apprenticeship opportunities, organizations with information on other jobs generally related to agriculture and links to international listings of agricultural jobs. For more information, visit: http://www.beginningfarmers.org/internship-and-employment-opportunities/

Season extension resource roundup

Winter is just around the corner, but just because the season is ending doesn’t mean the growing season needs to go with it. Luckily, there are season extension techniques that farmers and gardeners can implement in order to stretch a crop’s natural outdoor growing season or store crops through the winter.

There are plenty of easy, inexpensive practices available to farmers and gardeners for season extension. Many organizations put together tips on how to extend the growing season well beyond its natural time:

The National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (ATTRA) provides an extensive look at season extension. The resource includes information on everything from irrigation to transplants to plasticulture to heat as it applies to soil and moisture. The guide offers preparation and logistical information for various practices right for farmers or gardeners at any level, whether that is mulches or high tunnels or anything in-between. The resource also contains input on how to calculate the economics behind different practices and implementation.

The North Carolina State University organized basic concepts to remember in order to effectively extend a crop’s growing season. Most importantly, NC Cooperative Extension explains that growers must understand the principles behind heat and cold, as well as its impact on plants. Among other ideas, the university’s guide points out the ground retains heat that protects plants in cold temperatures, but wet ground preserves more heat than wet ground. The guide also addresses: temperature thresholds for different crops, different cultural practices for season extension and information on fabrics and structures commonly used.

University of Massachusetts Cooperative Extension provides a look at various inexpensive methods of season extension. The guide provides insight into low tunnels and winter storage for post-harvest storage methods. Through video demonstrations, the UMass Extension site also displays various how-tos on building and maintaining a hoophouse.

Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) put together an overview of information involving season extension, with particular focus on high tunnels, greenhouses and nurseries. SARE provides an outline of different topics with access to case studies, course information, fact sheets, multimedia packets and links to other organization’s websites. The guide delves into basic winter storage units, as well as information on marketing products and the economics behind season extension. The SARE website explains the basic fertility, pest and water management during cold months.

The Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) provides individual results from farmers that conducted research on various topics surrounding winter growing and storage. Five farmers researched methods of winter storage delving into the following issues: broccoli under row covers, watering impacts on soil temperature, bed pitch impact on soil temperatures, row cover comparisons and row cover heights. Three farmers looked into differing issues with winter storage techniques: winter carrot storage to maintain quality and minimize staining, carrot storage systems and post-harvest winter squash treatments.

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension organized a guide for farmers in Maine climate areas. The site is dedicated to educating farmers on how to make appropriate decisions for a particular farm situation. The resource explicates different techniques separated by no or low-cost practices and those that require investment. The site provides cost estimates for the techniques and offers links to resources on specified topics from other outlets.

In the same realm, Maine Rural Partners has a season extension program in place that focuses on food and energy. The program focuses on assisting women, elder and limited resource farmers in overcoming a multitude of common challenges: high energy costs, low daylight, market uncertainty, low volume compared to input costs, financing and institutional purchasing challenges.

The Colorado State University Cooperative Extension provides a short, but comprehensive overview of various tools to implement for effective season extension including: cold frames, garden fabrics, high tunnels, Walls O’ Water, hot caps and greenhouse umbrellas. The site explains how to use these techniques leading up to and proceeding frost dates.

The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service often provides hightunnel cost-share support for limited resource farmers.

Just because winter is coming doesn’t mean it’s the end for fruit and veggies. It is important to recognize that different season extension techniques are suited for different types of farms and climates. There are many inexpensive, basic methods of season extension, such as winter storage, that any farmer can easily implement into his farming or gardening.

Growing Change — Farmer Veteran Coalition

From serving the nation in the military to serving the nation food and fiber, many U.S. veterans are returning from combat to jobs in agriculture. Farming—with its taxing schedule and intense physical labor demands—is a good fit for such a hardworking and dedicated group.

Today, there are over 23 million veterans in the United States. Agriculture can provide an important source of income for veterans, particularly at a time when unemployment rates have skyrocketed. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, throughout 2012 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan had an unemployment rate of 9.9 percent—compared to about 7.9 percent for the general U.S. population. Particularly hard hit are female post-9/11 veterans with an unemployment rate of 12.5 percent. All in all, there are more than 200,000 unemployed Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in this country.

That’s where the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) comes in. Their mission is to mobilize veterans to work in sustainable farming jobs, creating a smooth transition into civilian life. Michael O’Gorman founded the organization and is its current leader, with 40-plus years under his belt as an organic farmer. He started FVC because of two converging trends: the aging farmer population in the U.S., and the high unemployment rate of veterans. Helping recent veterans find farming jobs hit the two issues with one stone, and FVC was created in 2008. The organization has taken off and now works with 1,000 veterans in 48 states.

Farmer Veteran Coalition

Tia Christopher is chief of staff at FVC. She says that while some of the organization’s veterans grew up on farms or have an agricultural connection, this is not universally the case. “Some of them get a brilliant idea that they want to be farmers, even though they have no experience whatsoever,” she says. They come from different professional backgrounds, geographic locations and military experiences. FVC finds a unique opportunity for each returning veteran through one of its many programs.

FVC is chock full of programming, from farm retreats, to financial planning and business courses, to a small grants program that helps aspiring farmer veterans build up their initial infrastructure. Another FVC program is the farm equipment exchange and donation program, or FEED, where individuals or dealers can donate used or new farm equipment to the organization. This equipment is given to disabled or financially challenged veteran farmers.

The FVC staff members represent all of the military branches (except for the Coast Guard). Being veterans themselves makes the organization’s work personal. “For us as veterans they’re our peers, they’re our brothers and sisters and so we really care about the people who contact us,” Tia says. This dedication and passion shows with each and every veteran they help.

One veteran in particular who stands out for Tia is Mickey Clayton, a single mother who is half Lakota Indian and half Puerto Rican. She is also an Army combat veteran who sustained a severe leg injury in Iraq. Having grown up on a South Dakota reservation among sheep, Mickey became mesmerized by the nomadic Awassi sheepherders in Iraq. Upon returning home, she decided to start a farm with FVC’s help. Now Mickey raises unusual breeds—that garner higher prices—like Navajo-Churro Sheep and Muscovy Ducks on Dot Ranch in Northwestern Oregon. She is one of FVC’s Bob Woodruff Farming Fellows, a program that has helped her secure adaptive farming equipment, making it possible for her to wrangle sheep even with her injury. And if being a single mother and raising all of those breeds wasn’t enough, Mickey also has a successful Etsy business selling her wool.

With Dot Ranch thriving, Mickey is now able to give back. She’s an ambassador for the FVC at Native American sheepherder events, and has ushered other vets into the FVC family. Tia says giving back like this demonstrates the program’s success. “Success for us honestly is when the veterans are able to mentor their peers, employ their peers, and pay it forward.”

The FVC has a strong connection to Farm Aid’s work of supporting the family farmer. Farm Aid was one of FVC’s earliest supporters, granting them $17,000 since 2009 to support their programming, most recently supporting their work training more than 100 veterans in farming skills, offering business planning to 31 veterans, and helping veterans secure legal counseling and disaster assistance in times of crisis. But that’s not all; Farmer Veteran Coalition has a huge presence at the Farm Aid concert each year, as part of the farmer meetings that take place before the concert and as part of the HOMEGROWN Village at the concert. FVC brings farmer veterans to Farm Aid from across the country to network with other farmers and spread the mission of the organization. Tia finds the jovial spirit of the Farm Aid concert conducive for recruiting would-be veteran farmers. “It’s really cool because we get awesome mentors and farmers to sign on with us when we’re at Farm Aid each year,” she says. Last year they recruited a veteran mushroom farmer and an entomologist.

Tia and her colleagues see the importance of the work they do everyday—not only finding employment for veterans, but also encouraging them to keep their spirits up and put their strong sense of service to use. Each and every farmer veteran motivates and inspires Tia. “It is often stated that farming and the military are two of the hardest professions; at FVC we believe that it takes a special type of person to do either, let alone both. I think the quality that’s most important for both is determination, and our farmer veterans have it in droves.” Helping military heroes and growing new farmers makes the Farmer Veteran Coalition a true Farmer Resource Network provider hero!

Learn More

Photo above provided courtesy of Jim Carroll Photography.

The Western Center for Risk Management Education offers funding opportunities

The Western Center for Risk Management Education is accepting funding applications for strategic risk management projects that help farmers and ranchers. These federally funded grants will not exceed $50,000. The deadline for pre-proposals is December 12, 2013. Finalists will be informed by January 31, 2014 that they will need to submit a full proposal.

Two categories of proposals will be considered:

1. “2014 Exploratory Projects for planning, development, piloting efforts and/or smaller producer education programs with awards up to $2,000 and;

2. 2014 Education Projects with awards up to $50,000.”

The Washington State University Extension will host an applicant webinar on Friday, November 8 at 1 pm EST here. To learn more about applying for 2014 funding, view or download the RFI document by clicking here. Before applying, click here to read the Extension Risk Management Education’s pre-proposal tutorial.

Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Holds Workshops for Good Agricultural Practices

Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) is a level of food safety certification for fruit and vegetable producers. Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is holding one-day fall workshops for direct-to-consumer producers to learn how to reach the GAP requirements.

Each workshop is divided into a Level 1 and Level 2 course. Interested participants can register online for a $25 fee and will receive a certificate of completion at the end of the course. Registration is still available for the following:

Council Bluffs Workshop—Iowa Western Community College

  • Level 1—Nov. 12: registration deadline Nov. 5
  • Level 2—Nov. 21: registration deadline Nov. 14

Click here for more information, or contact Heather Snyder with questions at (515) 294-9020 or hsnyder@iastate.edu.