Southern Md. farmers gather for buyer-grower workshop

AFP Correspondent

HUGHESVILLE, Md. (Nov. 11, 2014) — About 60 farmers, growers and buyers of meats, seafood and produce gathered for a buyer-grower workshop hosted by the Southern Maryland Agricultural Development Commission and was kicked off by a spirited discussion from six panelists, who shared reflections on local food.
Early in the workshop, Christine Bergmark, SMADC executive director, spoke of the opportunity in the Southern Maryland area to capitalize on local food demand.
The Washington D.C. region has a food budget of $26 billion, she said, though only about one percent goes towards local foods.
Micah Martin of Woodberry Kitchen and Jason Smith of Wegmans spoke from the buyers perspective. Both stressed the importance of developing relationships with the farmers they buy from. Advice to prospective producers was to always be consistent both in supply and quality.
As Wegmans is expanding locations in the mid-Atlantic region, Smith said he wants to be a resource for farmers. “Whether or not you sell to me, I want to help you grow your business. It reminds me of our philosophy of making a difference in the communities we serve.”
Speaking as producers were Brett Grohsgal of Even’star Organic Farm and Doug Hill of Cabin Creek Heritage Farm. Both farmers spoke to the challenges of creating a niche and scaling up.
Even’star is a 104-acre certified organic fruit and vegetable farm that markets to both retail and wholesale outlets. The largest volume of their business is their CSA (community supported agriculture). Grohsgal said he uses farmers markets as an opportunity to expand their CSA business.
Hill echoed the sentiment, “We don’t make a lot of money at farmers markets, but we do meet a lot of people. That presence helps build our brand. We use farmers markets as an opportunity to drive as many people towards purchasing whole and half animals as possible because that’s where the most profit is for us.”
Will Kreamer of Chesapeake’s Bounty and Bernie Fowler of Farming 4 Hunger rounded out the panel, offering perspective on aggregation of supply and regional food hubs.
Kreamer took over his business from his late grandfather, Greg Ciesielski in 2007. What started out as a small roadside stand has evolved into a larger store presence and on-site farm. A few years ago, Kreamer decided to change his business model and source products exclusively from the Chesapeake Bay region. He told the audience it turned out to be a costly decision.
“We lost $100,000 the first year after we went local. But you know what? It’s come full circle. Our customers are coming out and buying more product than they ever have before,” said Kreamer adding that his biggest struggle now is supply.
Fowler’s Farming 4 Hunger has grown over three million pounds of food since 2012 and has become the working partner for SMADC’s study on regional food hubs. Though Fowler is currently focused on supplying fresh produce to local food pantries, he’s already begun talks with local hospitals and schools.
The event’s keynote speaker, Jessica Moore from Philadelphia CowShare, illustrated how food hubs can be turned into successful business operations. Despite the lack of practical farming experience, Moore relied on her expertise in developing and managing technology systems from work as a software designer to create a supply chain and aggregate local grass fed beef.
On the consumer side, the business is simple. You go to the Philly CowShare website, choose what amount of meat you want to buy, enter your credit card information and your meat is delivered to your house. Behind the scenes, Moore has orchestrated a supply chain with pre-defined products and carefully controlled costs.
“I chose to start with direct sales to consumers (instead of wholesale) because I was new to the industry. The best way for me to get an understanding of what the consumer wanted, I had to sell directly to them,” Moore said.
In her presentation, Moore pointed to this and said that in order to capture a larger percentage of consumers food budget, smaller farms need to rethink business relationships to compete at scale.
Philly CowShare is on track to sell 400 cattle this year, she told the audience.
She said she’s encountered farmers who ask why should they sell to her when they can direct market their own beef and keep all the higher profit at a retail price. But she says many farmers aren’t actually profitable because they don’t account for marketing costs or the value of their time.
“You have to know what the cost is before you can make any profit,” Moore explained.
Being a part of Philly CowShare allows farmers to capture a fair market price for their cattle without having to absorb additional costs along the supply chain.
Moore’s presentation was followed by Professor Emeritus John W. Comerford from Penn State University. He delivered a talk “Improved Genetics for Meat Animal Selection” that gave producers practical advice for improving cattle herds.
“In about seven generations, about ninety percent of the genetics come from the bulls you selected,” Comerford said, noting that therefore sire selection is the most important decision a beef producer can make.
Before establishing criteria for selection, Comerford said, producers need to determine their market. He explained that a farm producing feeder calves will have different criteria than a farm raising cattle to direct market as sides of beef.
Acknowledging that genetics plays an important role, Comerford emphasized that they should not be relied on exclusively.
“Gene markers used alone are not going to get you very far. Environment has a greater influence on these traits than heritability alone. You can have the greatest genetics in the world, but if the cattle aren’t healthy or you don’t have enough grass in front of them, they are not going to realize their potential.”