Michael Nash is a farmer in the northeast corner of Iowa who supplies vegetables to local institutions through a community farming cooperative called Grown Locally. As his fields were too wet to work in on a recent October Saturday, he took the time to share his farming experiences and provide sound advice on routes to fresh, local, and safe food.
Q. First off, tell me about your farm, Sunflower Fields.
A. My partner Solveig Hanson and I farm 85 to 90 acres with the rest in prairie, pasture, and woods for a total of 215 acres of fairly hilly land. Yes, there are hills in Iowa. The land, which I’ve managed since 1996, is divided into seven sections of twelve plus acres each. Seventy varieties of vegetables are grown in three of the fields totaling 28 acres a year. The remaining acreage goes into small grains and sod on a seven-year rotation to help our land build organic matter. Our 110-year-old barn houses a washroom and large packing area for our vegetable production.
Q. What is your market? Who do you sell to?
A. Our markets are all direct: families and institutions. I sell through our farmer cooperative, Grown Locally. We are the largest vegetable grower in the co-op and oversee the co-op’s farm share program.
Q. When did you first start selling to schools?
A. You see, Grown Locally started in 1999, with the express purpose of being able to make products available to local institutions, such as schools, at a scale where institutions could buy our product. We didn’t make a distinction between nursing homes, hospitals, or schools. There were numerous challenges as independent growers meeting the needs of the institutions. I couldn’t do it alone, and neither could my neighboring farmers.
Q. So what was the first step to selling to institutions?
A. On a Field Day at my farm, I asked if anyone was interested in collaborating with us for selling to institutions. There was an overwhelming response. The next step was assessing what was necessary to deliver a safe and fresh product while learning the expectations of food service directors. If we didn’t have the co-op, the institutions would have to call 15 different farmers to find out what was available and to make an order, which wasn’t going to happen. They want one order a week, one delivery a week, and one bill a month, no matter how good your tomatoes are. And they need a consistent supply of quality product at a competitive price, and we needed to know how to speak the language of institutional buyers, what I call food service language.
Q. How does Grown Locally work for the buyers?
A. Grown Locally provides convenient ways to receive fresh products from our local farms for the farmer and the buyer. It must be efficient and equitable for the provider and the receiver.The first year we used phone and fax for ordering and then we received a SARE grant to move the process online. We have a brand new online ordering system coming in 2008. You can check out the website at www.grownlocally.com. There is a link to get into the store, which you can only access with a password to control geography. No need to sell to Ohio, Wisconsin, or Indiana. It’s not about how much we can truck across the country; it is about providing the freshest foods in a 40-mile radius.
Q. How does Grown Locally work for the farmers?
A. The farmers are the cooperative –we run it, we own it. The growers are fully responsible for running the cooperative including uploading what they have available for purchase each week. For example, if I have 400lbs. of potatoes, I add that info to the website, and another local farmer might add 300lbs, so there are 700lbs. of potatoes available as they are listed together.
Q. Is there buyer trace back? Does the buyer know which farm(s) the product is coming from?
A. Yes, they do and they can find out. It’s best that the customer can track back the product to its origin, but we do place all similar products together such as the potatoes for ease of processing and ordering. More importantly, the commingling of product represents the unified voice of the co-op, eliminating the need for the farms to compete with one another.
Q. How is the price established? Is there a bid from a buyer? Varied prices from the growers?
A. The cooperative was formed to eliminate the competitive nature of the market, which causes price fluctuations that either don’t cover the cost of production for the producer or unfairly charges the consumer. Instead, the co-op, which means all the farmers, set a price in the November prior to the harvest year. The established price reflects what the market will bear, and what will cover our expenses. This is the fairest route for both the farmer and the consumer.
Q. How are sales?
A. More demand than supply. We need more local farmers.
Q. How do you establish expectations and what to grow with no contracts?
A. We know what they want. We sit down with buyers two or three times in the winter to discuss future orders. It’s about building relationships. We find common ground through conversations. And then we go back as growers and sit down with calendars and decide who wants to grow what.
Q. What schools are you selling to now?
A. Grown Locally has not supplied to any schools in the last year because there was a change in the school food service director, and the administration’s perception of the value of purchasing locally changed as well. We are currently working on establishing relationships with food service directors in a number of local school districts.We have to face facts and numbers. Public school budget constraints are supreme; the chain of command is five deep—food service director, kitchen staff, whether it is a central kitchen or a number of kitchens in different schools, administrative office, parent/teacher organizations, boards, public at large (taxpayers) and a limited process for the kids input. It has a lot to do with the experience of the food service director –if they are conscious of quality of local product, if they are convinced that the handling of the product is up to speed—and if local farmers produce safe, market-worthy products. Can they see the advantage? Most of these people are not and cannot be strictly speaking “supportive of local farms” because it isn’t their job. Their job is to provide a meal that meets base nutritional guidelines inexpensively and consistently, and we have to find a way to work together.Colleges, on the other hand, are in the business of selling their institution and have greater budget flexibility so they are a slightly more accessible market. For example, we have a great relationship with the food service director at Luther College, and are still adjusting to this volume. They want 700 pounds of potatoes a week along with cucumbers, salad mixes, and other produce. We have also hosted freshman orientation service projects on our farm for the last six years.
Q. What is your advice to farmers wanting to begin selling to schools?
A. My biggest piece of advice is to learn everything you can about the process; what are the needs of the food service director? This will reflect on what you have to do on the farm to meet their needs. This means dependable supply and top-notch post harvest handling. We use stainless steel tubs, machines to wash, a licensed building to chop product, a walk-in cooler, reliable delivery vehicles, strict procedures of where you can go with mud on your pants, and organically recognized sanitizer used on vegetables. There should be at least as much time spent on post harvest as harvest to ensure we are top of the line.
Q. What is your advice to school food service directors?
A. They are experts in food safety and processing; I wouldn’t dare give them any advice. I would meet with them and offer samples after a couple conversations; seven times out of ten, it works! For example, bring in bok choy because chances are they’ve never had it fresh like how we can provide it, and it tastes great. Or smaller cucumbers work great on salad bars.
Q. What’s the key to sustainability?
A. This whole thing is about relationships. Not about vegetables, not about delivery. If you don’t take the time to talk to food service directors or families, then you are negating 50% of your advantage. Local farmers have two distinct advantages. One is procedure - we can get fresh, high quality and safe product to the institutions in 24 hours after harvest including all the post handling procedures. The other is relationship—the buyer and the grower have a real, face-to-face knowledge of one another. We aren’t Sysco or another large distributor, and we don’t want to be. We must distinguish our product and ourselves and be unique.We are cultivating more than just food here; this is about community, this is about relationships.
To learn more about Grown Locally, visit www.grownlocally.com or about Sunflower Fields, www.sunflowerfields.org.