Polarizing Production: Ag of the Middle

June 26, 2013 | Trish Popovitch

“Over 80% of farmland in the U.S. is managed by farmers whose operations fall between small-scale direct markets and large, consolidated firms. These farmers are increasingly left out of our food system. If present trends continue, these farms, together with the social and environmental benefits they provide, will likely disappear in the next decade or two.” –Fred Kirschenmann

Often we hear about small farmers and Big Agriculture but what about the growers and producers in the middle? Their operations are usually too large to sell directly to customers, but too small to have much bearing on the stock market. The “Ag of the Middle” is a term used to define the farmers caught in the middle of the agricultural debate both physically and politically.

The Ag of the Middle project characterizes a midsize farm as one with gross sales ranging from $50,000 to $500,000 (although the U.S. Census places farms with $250 to $500,000 in gross sales as large farms rather than midsize). Midsize farms are essential to the current food system, bridging the gap between mass produced monoculture and small organic food production. They can be sustainable or traditional in nature and provide meat, produce and dairy for businesses and institutions, but don’t sell directly to consumers.

Census data shows a rise in the percentage of small farms and large commercial farms with a steady decline in midsize family farms starting in the mid-1980s and increasing annually. Indeed, many experts claim that the polarization of the American food system between small growers and large producers is creating a hollow center that was once filled by midsize family farms. The economic downturn of recent years and the aging farm population have contributed to the hollowing out of the midsize farm community.

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Ag of the Middle. There are new opportunities available for those farmers willing to make some drastic changes to their production and their business model. Marketing, value added branding, regional selling and farm-to-farm cooperation could help the family farm compete in an agricultural landscape dominated by polar opposites.

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On Edge of Phoenix, Small-scale Farmer Seeks to Grow Local Food Movement

June 25, 2013 | Suzanne Heyn

When Maya Dailey started farming nine years ago, she had little more than big dreams and credit cards on which she purchased seeds. Today, Dailey runs a thriving five-acre farm on the edge of Phoenix, Ariz., and is a well-known figure in the local foodie scene.

She started by growing herbs and selling them to establishments in Santa Fe, N.M., where Dailey worked in the restaurant industry. After moving to Arizona, Dailey added flowers and eggs to the mix.

Maya Dailey: 'The farm-to-table concept can be really beautiful'

Maya Dailey: ‘The farm-to-table concept can be really beautiful’

In 2006, Dailey started a full-time farm at her present location, leasing land tucked in the back corner of The Farm at South Mountain, a peaceful desert oasis featuring trees, grass, picnic tables, three restaurants, a home décor shop and a massage studio

At first, she leased ¾ of an acre from The Farm at South Mountain’s owner, eventually expanding to cultivate an additional four-and-a-half acres down the street. She grows produce, herbs, flowers and keeps chicken for eggs. Crops cultivated include arugula, cucumber, eggplant, radishes, tomatoes, melons and dandelion greens.

The first year of farming brought Dailey resounding success. But the financial volatility that came over the next few years tested her commitment to her dream. Today, she is profitable, but the victory did not come without hardship

“Small farms are fragile and they need community support,” said Dailey, who has worked hard to develop partnerships with local farmer’s markets, restaurants, schools and residents who purchase seasonal CSA shares. Dailey’s CSA membership has reached a high of 150, although numbers vary by season, and she aims to build a base of 200 members. No one sector stands out as the most profitable, she said.

The location, just an eight-minute drive from downtown Phoenix, affords Dailey prime visibility to carry out her mission of raising awareness regarding the importance of local food to Arizona’s security, in addition to residents’ physical and spiritual health.

Working with local establishments to increase the availability of local food is part of her mission. With a background in the restaurant industry, Dailey says she wasn’t shy about walking into restaurants and asking if they were interested in purchasing her vegetables and herbs. “The farm-to-table concept can be really beautiful,” she said.

At Maya’s Farm, Jesus Cibrian, executive chef at the Phoenix Convention Center, discusses using the farm as his source for local, fresh, organic produce for use in his recipes at the Convention Center.

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Farm to Childcare program expands to 62 sites across Minnesota

Healthier, locally produced food on the menu for Minnesota children

Beginning June 17, childcare centers throughout Minnesota began serving healthy, locally grown foods as part of a Farm to Childcare initiative—an innovative program designed in partnership between the Minnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) and childcare provider New Horizon Academy (NHA).

The program began last year as a pilot project, designed to evaluate effectiveness at 14 childcare sites throughout the state. Now, after seeing great success, the Farm to Childcare program is expanding to 62 New Horizon Academy Centers throughout the Metro area and greater Minnesota, potentially reaching 7,500 children.

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Healthy food from nearby farms combined with experiential learning opportunities, garden-based education and interactions with farmers connecting participating young children with how their food is grown. By the end of last year’s pilot program, IATP found that 84 percent of participating children could correctly identify featured foods and 72 percent reported liking the local foods that were featured.

“We’re excited to see Farm to Childcare experience the same exponential growth we’ve seen in our Farm to School work,” said IATP’s Erin McKee VanSlooten. “Introducing young children to fresh, local foods and starting them on the path toward healthy eating habits just makes sense—kids love it, parents are happy, and our local farm economy retains more local dollars.”

Research shows children’s taste preferences are most actively developed between the ages of three and five. The childcare age is a golden opportunity to develop a taste for healthy foods and to help stave off childhood obesity and other diet-related diseases, some of the fastest growing public health concerns today.

“New Horizon Academy’s mission is to build the self-esteem and potential for the children in our care, and teaching healthy lifestyle choices is central to that goal. We believe our children are best served when they understand where their food is coming from and the critical role fruits, vegetables and other crops play in a healthy diet,” said Cisa Keller, director of government and community relations for NHA. “Research shows that 90 percent of brain development happens in the first five years of a child’s life and we want to ensure that each child’s brain develops to its ultimate potential with engaged classrooms and healthy meals and snacks.”

“I loved the program, and my son loved it, too! He enjoyed the hands-on activities. And now he can point out healthy food choices and unhealthy food choices. As a parent, that is an important thing for your child to learn at such a young age,” said Renita Cyprian, parent at East St. Paul New Horizon Academy who participated in the pilot program.

IATP will be publishing a Farm to Childcare curriculum package, complete with teaching materials created with NHA and lessons learned from the pilot later this summer. IATP is working to grow farm to institution relationships in order to strengthen local food systems for farmers, communities and eaters.

This work has been funded in part by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota.

 

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Reported by Andrew Ranallo and Cara Johnson-Bader for the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), June 17, 2013