The Many Faces of Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food – A Conference on Local Foodshed Innovations Held 2/3

February 10, 2012 at 1:55 pm

This past Friday, Feb.3, the USDA’s Illinois Rural Development & Food & Nutrition Service Midwest held a one-day conference “The Many Faces of Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food”.  I attended part of the sessions and share tidbits below.  Please find first, the big take-aways I gained from the conference; then hear about the specific sessions I attended.  If you are interested in finding more, you can go to the link here for the full agenda.

The conference brought together organizations from 12 midwestern states as well as federal agencies, institutions, and others involved with agriculture to  learn successful models, resources, strategies and opportunities for supporting, cultivating and growing local/regional food systems in the Midwest. We also learned about available support from USDA agencies.  Illinois Senator Dick Durbin spoke,  and he reiterated his support for improving the local food system and helping the small farmer in Illinois and the midwest.  We heard about $4o million in grants awarded by the USDA.  You can find out more about that at the USDA blog.

There was a lot on the agenda so my commentary is just a taste of what was spoken and shared. My biggest take-away from attending the afternoon sessions of this conference was, as Colleen Callahan USDA Rural Development Illinois Director stated, the USDA is trying to be of service to the various constituencies supporting the local food movement, and the USDA is trying to break down the “silo effect” from different organizations working on their own.   Instead, the USDA is trying to encourage collaboration and the sharing of information, so growth can happen faster and the local food shed in Illinois and the Midwest flourishes.  The other major take-away I took from the afternoon sessions, was hearing about The Great Lakes Food Hub Network(GLFHN).

What is a food hub? On the Edible Economy of Illinois’s website they cite the USDA, “the USDA defines a “local food hub” as “a business or organization that is actively coordinating the aggregation, distribution, and marketing of source-identified locally grown food products from primarily small to mid-sized producers.  As such, food hubs are a proven approach for building farmer and community wealth. They help farmers to obtain a fair price for their goods, improve food security for people at all income levels within the community, and ensure more of the community’s wealth is reinvested locally.” Throughout the afternoon sessions the issue that kept coming up: what was the most efficient and effective ways for distribution and growth of local food to all communities.  The GLFHN is a group of organizations collaborating on ways to build local food infrastructure through small businesses and it is an ongoing process.

I sat in on two sessions.  The first session I attended had a panel called “To Market, To Market! Direct retailers share information on purchasing and selling local foods”. Peter Horferr, Chief Executive Officer of St. James Winery moderated.  To find the full agenda and panelists go here. For me, it was most interesting to hear Peg Shafer’s story of how they started Sandhill Organics from the ground up, they took advantage of The Farm Business Development Center , a small farm incubator so to speak, at Prairie Crossing to learn how to grow their business and take it to the next level as well as their use of “Agri-tainment” on their blog and facebook page to service, educate and develop lasting relationships with their customers.

Irv Cernauskas of Irv and Shelly’s Fresh Picks,  took the time to explain his history and philosophy behind starting his business. Irv talked about distribution, and how his business was filling a niche, getting small farm produce to people who did not necessarily have access to farmers markets or CSAs, so that Fresh Picks is the middleman to get small farm produce to the consumer.

Mark Olson of Renaissance Farms, pointed out how he changed his marketing strategy from a traditional push based strategy to a “pull” based one that focused on developing relationships and educating customers. Diane Endicott  of Good Natured Family Farms, which is a distributor for small farms out of Kansas to large grocery stores, focused on “CSR” or Collaborative-Social-Responsibility.  For me, working at a farmer’s markets and seeing some of what goes on behind the scenes, hearing these collective stories showed the passion, determination and hard work that all these people put in to making their businesses financially sustainable.

The second session that I attended was titled.”Local Food Systems Fundamentals” although Karen Lehman, the Director of Fresh Taste and the moderator, said to the audience it was more about “innovations than fundamentals.”  Karen Lehman explained that Fresh Taste is really a coalition of foundations and organizations trying to encourage collaborative work among a diverse range of community-based non-profit organizations, private businesses and the public sector in order to strengthen the local midwest foodshed. Each of the individual speakers, spoke of the innovations they made in order to get their businesses on a sustainable financial tract.  To see the list of panelists go here.

Betsy Anderson from Local Roots cited a diverse Board as one of her keys to success.  Their Board included a banker who helped set up their point of sale system that tracks by SKU each individual vegetable sold by each farmer.  This allowed them to see what is sellling, what farmers are most in demand and where they can run their organization most efficiently. Local Roots is a new kind of co-op. It helps small farmers by catering to customers who want to buy local but find visits to farmers markets and weekly buying clubs inconvenient. It is located about an hour from Cleveland and manned nearly all by volunteers; since inception they have grossed $750,000 in sales of locally farmed goods.

Mary Donnell from Evergreen Co-op, who calls herself the “Greenhouse Lady,” commented that for all the years she has worked on sustainable and local food, she has never seen so much attention, energy and focus, public and private on growing local food.  She said she finds this a very exciting time. Green City Growers Cooperative will be a 100% worker-owned, hydroponic, food production greenhouse located in the heart of Cleveland. GCG is part of The Evergreen Cooperatives of Cleveland, which is comprised of GCG, Evergreen Cooperative Laundry and Ohio Cooperative Solar. Evergreen’s employee-owned, for-profit companies are based locally and hire locally. They create meaningful green jobs and keep precious financial resources within their community. Their workers earn a living wage and build equity in their firms as owners of the business.

At the end of the session Karen Lehman opened up the floor to questions and Brian Watkins of 312Aquaponics took advantage and posed the question to the audience, “Has anyone had experience with health regulations and for profit aquaponics?” He was facing the brickwall of health rules from the FDA that prevented “livestock, in his case fish, water and food production all in the same facility”. Yet again, antiquated health rules were preventing a new business from flourishing. To me what was great, that once Brian described his dilemma, 3-4 arms shot up and voices spoke up that they had information that could potentially help him. Brian’s experience was the kind of day it was, I felt that I was at an event where people were willing to share their information, were excited by the businesses that they were in, and wanted to create change.

For those of you, who love the farmer, want to become farmers, want to learn more about farmers, how to acquire, use, cook, preserve local food, and to meet a myriad of midwest farmers and producers, the Good Food Festival, March 15-17th will provide you another opportunity. The agenda is chock a blocked with speakers, seminars and products, the sign up is here.  At this conference sponsored by the USDA I was informed and inspired by the people focused on improving the availability and distribution on a broad scale in Illinois.  Many thanks go to the USDA folks for organzing this great day, including, Colleen Callahan Rural Development Director of Illinois and Alan Shannon, Public Affairs Director, USDA, Food and Nutrition Service, and leader of .If you are interested in learning more about the USDA programs, what is going on in the public sector on food, farm to school, food related to health programs, the monthly meeting is a great way to start, go to the website for more information.