Opportunities for scaling up small farms to serve a growing wholesale institutional demand for locally-sourced foods are knocking at the door. But farmers who choose to answer the call are advised to become GAP (Good Agricultural Pratices) certified, will need to implement washing and packing efficiencies, learn to manage labor, and have adequate storage facilities.
“People want what we are doing. Do not be afraid to scale up your farm,” farmer Tom Murtha, of Blooming Glen Farm in Perkasie, PA, said.
To help the region’s growers effectively meet the demands of the rapidly emerging institutional market, The Seed Farm, in partnership with Penn State Extension, Buy Fresh Buy Local of the Greater Lehigh Valley and Pennypack Farm and Education Center presented a daylong workshop focusing on the realities of scaling up the farm.
The Lehigh Valley area of Pennsylvania is ripe with institutional demand for locally-grown products. Institutional buyers, such as Sodexo, as well as regional food hubs like the Philadelphia-based Common Market, are seeking local growers. Common Market, which began by using a few large New Jersey growers, is now also aggregating product from many smaller growers. They will be requiring third-party GAP certification for all growers, by August 2016, and are seeking organic or sustainable growers.
“We want to represent you all in the best way that we can,” Andrew Puglia, Procurement Associate with Common Market, said. “We want to assure that all the produce is of incredibly high quality, from the time that it is picked until the time it goes into someone’s mouth.”
Food safety and handling concerns
The morning sessions of the workshop focused on food safety, and maintaining safety from field to pack house, and storage unit to delivery. The workshop included a tour and discussion of The Seed Farm’s facilities, as well as first-hand accounts from Pennypack Farm and Educational Center and Spiral Path Farm, two area farms who have successfully scaled-up to serve large wholesale accounts. Tianna Dupont, Penn State Extension Sustainable Agriculture Educator in Northampton and Lehigh Counties, also provided insight on food safety regulations and practical means of incorporating safety procedures on the small farm as it scales up.
“We can only maintain quality in storage, we can’t improve it,” Dupont said “Making sure we are starting with a healthy crop” is the most important step. “Produce is alive,” she said. “A one hour delay (in cooling) can decrease shelf life by one day. Bangs and scrapes are also entry points for those pathogens.”
A discussion on techniques to remove field heat included the use of harvest conveyor belts in the field. This equipment was seen as a worthwhile investment which increases product quality and farm efficiency when scaling up for wholesale accounts. The higher the respiration rate — think broccoli, salad greens, corn, peas, spinach and berries, among others — the more imperative to get the field heat out via pre-cooling, and gradually cool to storage temperatures. A conveyor belt with shower-type hydro-cooling capabilities allows Spiral Path Farm to immediately decrease the field heat. The produce is then covered wet, with a reflective, insulated cover, to further protect it until it reaches the pack house.
“Hydration really helps,” Farmer Mike Brownback, of Spiral Path Farms, said. “It’s really important to know the parameters of the crop you are dealing with,” Brownback said. “Customers can only take so much at one time. You’re not going to give all the winter squash out the first week you harvest it. Know the handling requirements.”
The longer the product can be kept, the longer you have to sell it, and the more profit you can make, he said. Of course, it all depends on maintaining the quality through the supply chain.
“We have so much invested in our products,” Brownback said. “The more we can minimize the problems along the way,” the more the profit potential. “In the store, I’m totally dependent on the produce guy. Do the absolute best you can. There’s a point where you lose control. This is a movement. If you want to take over the local food system, you have to take care of the basics.”
Marketing and managing the scaled-up farm
At Blooming Glen, they have found themselves ‘ill equipped’ for the increased demand for their product now that they have expanded their wholesale markets. With one small cooler, they currently cannot store product for more than one day, so they have to plan ahead and move it quickly.
When scaling up, you’ll also have to scale back, Murtha advised. Focusing on growing a few things well for the wholesale market, rather than a wide diversity of product as for a CSA, is a necessity.
“It was time to say ‘what does our farm grow really well’,” he said. Offer it at a competitive price. Emphasize quality.”
You might not get top dollar, but you will make up for it in volume. Increasing efficiencies on those products means more profit. Rather than focusing on interns, the farm now focuses on paid workers. A flatbed wagon for each crew, a jiffy hitch, and laying out the farm in a more logistically manner were necessary. He, too, has invested in a harvest conveyor belt.
Murtha outlined the top three things which make scaling up for wholesale work on his farm: an employee manual, pick sheets, and directives. Each of these assist him by clearly defining expectations — what is to be done, how it is done, why it is done, by whom it is done, when it is done — and by providing employees with expectations, directions, and autonomy.
“It seems mundane, but you’ve got to have this stuff. If you want to scale up your farm, then you have to be a manager,” Murtha said. “We had to learn a lot of business managerial skills. It’s not easy managing people.”
Taking the advice of their distributor, New Jersey-based Zone 7, the farm became certified organic, which has dramatically increased their wholesale markets, Murtha said.
“Our revenue is going up, and all of our other costs are pretty much staying where they are at,” since recently becoming certified organic, he said. “Farming is expensive to get into and it takes some time to get to the point where you’re making some money. Make some big decisions and don’t be afraid.”