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Farmers thinking outside of the box, grocery bag

Posted on Thursday, May 1, 2014 at 3:39 pm

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Box by box makes its way down a small conveyor belt as workers fill the cardboard vessels with in-season, locally sourced food.

In this small Montpelier packing shed, an interesting partnership has emerged. It’s here that local food co-op, The Farm Table, fills its orders, assembling boxes of local foods that are delivered to consumers’ doorsteps – a mail-order farmers market.

Jimmy Pickett, of Harvest Hill Farm in Montpelier, holds a young tomato plant, which was being greenhouse-kept until cold temperatures abated.

Jimmy Pickett, of Harvest Hill Farm in Montpelier, holds a young tomato plant, which was being greenhouse-kept until cold temperatures abated.

Jimmy Pickett, owner of Harvest Hill Farm, made the switch to growing produce six years ago. Pickett grew up at the farm site where his family had traditionally raised cattle and hay. He said growing vegetables began as a way to make sure he had quality produce on hand.

“The whole economy and the whole food movement is just changing,” he said. “You can’t buy anything in the grocery store that you like. The produce is bad, especially in the off-season. Nothing looks good and you don’t know where it’s coming from.”

“It got to the point where, if you want anything good, you’re going to have to grow it yourself,” he added.

Today, it’s become a full-time job, as Pickett raises vegetables on about 60 acres. The farm site is also where locally sourced foods converge as part of a partnership Pickett has established with The Farm Table.

Each Wednesday, the boxes are packed; each Thursday, they ship to customers in the Richmond area, Virginia Beach and Fredericksburg, with Northern Virginia soon to be on the distribution list.

Now in its fourth season, The Farm Table has about 1,700 members, who sign up to receive a box per week of in-season goods sourced from local farmers.

“We try to stay within 250 miles,” Pickett said.

The exception is oranges, because none are grown locally. During peak season, Pickett said the 250-mile radius shrinks down “to be almost right here in Hanover, because we can get it all from here.”

In Hanover County, The Farm Table sources from several farms in addition to Harvest Hill, including Sunnyside, Keenbell, Deer Run and Agriberry, according to Sam Krivanec, crop coordinator.

Krivanec said that The Farm Table maintains a good relationship with its growers and comes to learn their agricultural practices. In addition to occasionally helping farmers with planning and acting as a support mechanism, Krivanec said contributing farmers are paid within three days of fulfilling an order, much faster than the industry standard of around two weeks.

Krivanec hopes his organization will grow, because as membership increases, demand for local goods grows, and, at the end of the day, farmers benefit.

“The more we can buy from farmers, the more of a support mechanism we can be,” he said.

Pickett said the partnership is paying off on his end, as he continues to grow and supply local vegetables, putting consumers one step closer to the farm.

“You can make a good living and I guess that’s all anybody could ask for,” Pickett said.

The cooperative approach is one innovative way that local farmers are finding their way to local dining room tables.

Alistar Harris, of Origins Farm in Hanover, uses a CSA model to get his produce to market.

Alistar Harris, of Origins Farm in Hanover, uses a CSA model to get his produce to market.

Alistar Harris, of Origins Farm in Hanover, is exploring another, called the community-supported agriculture, or CSA, approach where consumers are essentially farm shareholders, contributing upfront capital, with the expectation they will receive fresh produce in return.

Harris hails from South Africa, where his background was in horticulture, landscape and garden design and environmental education. He moved to the states in 2010 and got a job working for the farm’s previous owners before buying the farm in 2011. The bulk of his agricultural knowledge came during this time working at the farm, which was operating under a CSA model when he first arrived.

While still in South Africa, Harris worked to help establish community gardens in low-income neighborhoods and suburbs. This experience led to his career in agriculture.

“I would say that’s where a lot of inspiration came from for me in wanting to grow food,” he said.

The CSA model, itself, hails from Europe. One of the first CSA models in the United States was established in Massachusetts and the model has since spread across the country as a way to bring together producer and consumer.

“There are food producers everywhere and there are consumers everywhere and [the CSA model] was looking specifically for ways to have a direct line or channel between the producer and the consumer,” Harris said.

In a CSA, members invest money up front, which allows growers to begin their season by covering costs such as labor and supplies. Once crops are harvested, members start receiving food in return for their initial investment.

Harris said many CSAs fill a grocery bag or box with whatever produce they might have on hand, which are either delivered or picked up at the farm. Harris’ model is a little different. Members are issued with a card, preloaded with the amount they have invested, and on a weekly basis, they can “buy” Origins Farm produce at either of two farmers markets he participates in – the St. Stephen’s Farmers Market or the Byrd House Farmers Market, both in Richmond.

“There’s a lot more flexibility and freedom in our system,” he said.

Harris’ target CSA membership is around 150 individuals, which allows him to grow enough food for his members while also selling directly at farmers markets and to a couple Richmond-area independent grocery stores.

Overall, the biggest benefit to the farmer running a CSA model is that their market is, for the most part, already set once the seeds are planted. For Harris, who raises around 50 different varieties of produce on his six-acre site, this is important.

“You know where the food’s going to go,” he said.

The upfront money also allows for better preparation and planning by helping cover pre-season operational costs and offers the farmer a degree of psychological security, Harris said.

Drawbacks include the customer service, or “people management,” side of running a CSA. Harris said it’s important to make sure members stay happy with what they’re receiving back on their investment. He tries to keep them updated as best he can with weekly email updates letting them know what they can expect on their kitchen table.

Drawbacks also include the pressure that comes with knowing that 150 households are depending on you to provide them with a steady supply of food.

“It’s quite a commitment to say to 150 families, ‘Give me money and I’m going to grow food for you,’ and then having to deliver on that given weather events, given, maybe, insect pressure, and sort of just being like all farmers are, exposed to the natural elements,” he said.

Though Harris and Pickett demonstrate a newer approach to getting locally grown food to market in Hanover County, they reflect a growing trend nationally.

Richard McCarthy, executive director of Slow Food USA, said that in every community he’s visited across the country, he’s noticed a gradual reinvention of food distribution systems based on demand for locally sourced foods.

“What is so surprising in both its breadth and its depth is an intense consumer demand to reconnect to food and food choices in a region,” McCarthy said.

Ten years ago, McCarthy thought that the farmers market revival might have been running out of steam. He was wrong. There are around 8,000 in the country now and farmers markets remain the most public exhibition of the local food movement.

“We’ve seen steadily in the last 15 years a 400 percent increase in the number of farmers markets,” he said.

The rise in farmers markets nationwide is mirrored by development of CSAs and local food “hubs,” like those run by Harris at Origins Farm and Pickett at Harvest Hill Farm, respectively.

Driving the local food movement, overall, is increased demand for transparency, for knowing where food comes from, McCarthy said.

“I think some of that is a desire for community and connection; some of it is a general, growing lack of trust in the institutions that have told us that we’re safe,” he said, adding that those sentiments are paired with a growing desire to keep money within communities.

And that commitment is having real, economic effects in communities throughout America.

“Now, you’ve got rural markets springing up in places that are bringing life to downtowns and small towns and it’s triggering the development of coffeehouses and restaurants that are next to these pop-up operations,” McCarthy said.

“Its staying power really kind of staggers me,” he added.

Cindy Conner, a partner with Homeplace Earth LLC, and recent author of “Grow a Sustainable Diet: Planning and Growing to Feed Ourselves and the Earth,” was well ahead of the curve in the local foods movement in Hanover County.

In the early 1990s, Conner started selling produce directly to a handful of Ashland restaurants. In 1999, she started the Ashland Farmers Market, which today attracts up to 700 consumers each Saturday during a three-hour window and features 26 vendors during peak season.

In its first year, Conner said the market had “five regulars,” some of whom continue to participate. Conner said that the market’s vendors gradually increased alongside demand.

“You get too many farmers and not enough people, the farmers are going to stop coming,” she said. “You get too many people and not enough growers, the people are going to stop coming. It’s been a whole balance.”

Aside from the season’s atypical weather, Conner said the main hurdle facing local producers is consumer awareness.

“I think the biggest challenge is for people to pay attention to what they’re eating. If more people realize how healthy they could be if they ate real food and ditched their microwaves and all the packaged food, there would be not enough local farmers to supply the people that want to have [local foods],” she said.

Conner’s recent book delves into the topic, “What if the trucks stop coming?” based on her experience with a project she conducted while teaching sustainable agriculture through J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College. The goal was to identify where they’d get their food within a 100-mile radius. What they learned was there wasn’t enough local supply to meet their current dietary and food demands.

“We need more of everything. We need to grow the eaters at the same time we grow more producers,” Conner said. “We’re getting there. People just need to ditch their microwaves.”