Strategies to enhance a sustaining and sustainable local food system

submitted by David Wicklund

After having spent most of my life involved in agriculture from operating a conventional 1600 acre Saskatchewan farm to two degrees in Agriculture including a Master’s in Regenerative Agriculture, to lead hand at Comox Valley’s Pattison Certified Organic Farm, I have become convinced that small scale organic vegetable farming is the key to producing healthy food, a healthy local economy and a more mutually sustaining relationship with our Earth.

Scale

For a moment I want to set aside the larger argument for organic farming and focus on the associated idea of small scale. Scale (small) is key to farming that is sustaining, sustainable AND doable.

Small scale farming is the only way the large majority of perspective young farmers can make a reality of their dreams of supporting a family while living their dream of producing healthy food in a sustainable way. The idea of the family farm is facing serious challenges due to the aging farming population with limited interest in extending the family connection to farming.  I regularly meet young people who are enthused about farming, especially organic, but the cost of purchasing an existing conventional farming operation is significant/very often prohibitive. Even when land is available, the cost of machinery to run a conventional farm can be as limiting as land costs.

Intensive farming at a small scale opens the farming option to many who could not otherwise consider it—especially when coop models of ownership are considered.  Small scale farming makes it possible to utilize sophisticated human-sized  power and hand tools. Small scale makes possible organic farming at a level where skill and knowledge can be the key “investment” –where a more skilled comprehensive approach to growing and caring for the soil takes precedent over the conventional model of bullying nature into submission to our needs.

A local, sustaining and sustainable food system is best served by small scale growers that sell directly to customers. Such a system of production and distribution nurtures a farmer/ customer relationship, develops strong community ties and trust in the quality of the food. These relationships are vital in ensuring the viability of a local food system. This is the most conductive scale to ensure environmental responsibility and social cohesion. Organic certification is readily available to small scale growers and enhances the trust and connection between growers and customers.

Customers feel a direct connection to “their farmer” based on grower programs that allow customers to visit the farm and interact with all the farm staff and hear of their commitment to growing healthy food. One other very important aspect of small human scale production processes is it actively engages women who have become increasingly interested in food production as the basis of a healthy lifestyle as well as health food. Today farming is a family commitment requiring a strong sense of teamwork.

Customer driven

To be successful local, especially organic food production must be customer driven focusing growers’ effort on what customers want in the quantities they want and delivering it through a flexible structure that provides a wide spectrum of choice to customers.

Access to agricultural land

Given that access to land is one of the biggest barriers for young and/or new growers without a lot of financial resources at their disposal, leasing land has become an increasingly viable option. This requires that land owners and growers find workable lease and/or partnership arrangements. What is needed is a government interested enough in local, sustainable food production that it is willing to lend a hand in defining and developing lease options that will work for would be farmers and land owners. This involves addressing several key concerns by both parties. The land owners will want to have some assurance that the grower has the training, strategic planning and financial resources to be successful in this endeavor. This could include assurance that the prospective grower has the production and financial skills to implement their plan successfully. The grower needs to have assurances that they have continuous access to the land for a reasonable timeframe in which to create a profitable enterprise with a family supporting return on investment.

Cooperative/collaborative models of production

Using cooperative and collaborative models to provide access to necessary equipment and infrastructure is another key element. A new grower requires access to tools and equipment that are essential to profitable farm management, but purchasing outright can be prohibitive. Rent/leasing/cooperatively sharing these tools rather than finding the capital to purchase on their own can contribute significantly to a successful farm management strategy. The sharing economy is well established in other sectors and can easily be adapted to agriculture. Sophisticated, field-tested small scale mechanical and digital technologies are increasingly available for sale and for rent. These operation transforming tools can be, ironically, both high tech and hand or small engine driven tools designed to use significantly less non-renewable resources while empowering more intensive agricultural techniques. Buying clubs are springing up that allow a group of small growers to purchase in volume reducing the per unit cost.

Cooperative/collaborative models for innovative marketing

One of the biggest challenges of a new farm is in marketing. To operate a profitable farm business this should be the first step. Successful farm businesses identify customers before they even start any other part of their business. This is another area that could be well served by collaboration/cooperation through a food hub model. The food hub acts as the central marketing entity for a group of growers. The hub can engage with customers at different levels from wholesaling to retail outlets or customer direct thorough a box program like that often associated with Community Supported Agriculture. There are many models of food hubs some that require growers to bid on contracts to fulfill wholesale commitments. This may require growers to commit solely to the food hub while others allow growers to market to customers as well. For startup growers cooperative methods of marketing can be a life saver as they focus on getting their production in place during the first years.

Developing a well articulated, strategic business plan

Developing a well articulated, strategic business plan is fundamental to creating a profitable farm operation. Today’s startups need to have a fundamentally different approach to business planning than was required previously. They need to use processes that put the customer relation first so they grow only want customers want and the farmer is able to produce. Focusing on reducing waste is much more important that focusing on growth. Today’s farmers need to use agile flexible processes with shorter iterations when developing new processes so successful changes can be quickly adapted. They need to think in terms of unique value propositions and minimum viable products when starting their enterprises. In the current competitive environment a farmer’s strategic plan must focus on having the minimum resources to produce only the highest quality product that responds to clearly understood customer demand.

Strategic/information based agriculture

Successful farming today is information based. Beginners especially, must rely heavily on strategy and analysis of developing trends like tool collectives, rent/lease tool options, marketing options, as well as the science of soil, crops and marketing.

A crucial aspect for new growers is acquiring the knowledge and skill set necessary to become successful farmers. This requires a foundation of theoretical knowledge along with a professional apprenticeship program. Spending several seasons working directly with established profitable growers is essential. It makes sense that new growers gain apprenticeship level knowledge in order to significantly increase the odds of running their own startup business. Another option for new growers is to startup their own operation on a part time basis while still being employed by an experienced grower. Creating a mentorship process for new growers also increases the likelihood of success by having valuable feedback available.

Starting a profitable small scale farming operation today requires significantly different approach from earlier times. This includes borrowing ideas and strategies from other sectors such as software development and manufacturing. Using agile development concepts such as identifying the minimum viable product strategies is essential to using the lowest amount of costly resources. This requires the startup farm to work directly with customers to understand exactly what they want and how much they are willing to pay. It includes using shortened timeframes to deliver that value as quickly as possible while continuously requesting customer feedback. Growers also need to be aware of what their unique value proposition is for customers. This is important to be able to build value for customers and communicate that unique value to new customers. Like the manufacturing sector, farmers need to develop a lean business framework that eliminates waste in order to be more efficient and profitable rather than relying upon sales growth as a single minded business strategy. Successful growers today evaluate all processes they do on the farm to identify the steps which add value and those which do not. The goal then is to spend more time on the tasks which add value and minimize the tasks that don’t.

Identifying innovative/ farm friendly financial institutions

The last piece of the puzzle in providing the support structure for small scale organic food production is innovative financial institutions. These institutions approach banking from a social justice and community building perspective. They loan to small businesses that have a clearly documented and articulated plan to provide goods and services to the local community first and are structured to be profitable. They work with small growers to support them in doing all the due diligence necessary and creating a support network that enhances their likelihood for success.

Successful farm strategies in the Comox Valley

There are local examples of many of these strategies being implemented here in the Comox Valley. Merville Organics http://mervilleorganics.ca/ is an excellent example of cooperative farming effors. They are a group of growers cooperating to market their produce and to help new growers to get established. The Comox Valley Farmers Market https://www.facebook.com/groups/1764681507096626/ is a thriving opportunity for growers to offer their products to customers in a central location once or twice a week. The newest member to the Comox Valley farming scene is the Mid Island Farmers Institute. This is an energetic organization providing peer connections and sponsoring a wide variety of workshops and information sessions to small scale growers. They have a very active Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/groups/1764681507096626/.

I started Growing Island Growershttp://www.growingislandgrowers.com/ in the Comox Valley with the explicit intent of providing leading edge small scale farming equipment to new startup growers.

This year Pattison Farms http://pattisonfarms.ca/ is embarking on a formalized training and mentoring curriculum for new staff specifically wanting to pursue this form of production as a career. The intention through this program is to provide all necessary experience and skill base for apprentices to launch their own farming operation. The other goal is to provide ongoing support through mentoring, part time employment and potential co-marketing initiatives. I believe this is the best possible opportunity for new growers to provide themselves with the information and tools to launch a profitable small scale, intensive, organic farm enterprise.

Profitably growing beautiful, nutritious, organic vegetables in the Comox Valley can be a very rewarding career for growers and the community as a whole. Gerry Pattison operates a successful certified organic Pattison Farms in Black Creek. Pattison Farm includes 3 acres of certified organic field crops managed by a six person team. It has steadily increased production and over the last 5 years significantly. Plans are evolving to continue increasing production (10-15% annually) by a combination of intensive production techniques and innovative weed/pest management practices.

David Wicklund

Editor’s note: David is committed to keeping up an interactive (questions invited) blog on small scale organic farming on the GIG site: http://www.growingislandgrowers.com/