Innovation on the Farm

Capitalizing on the growing local food trend, these agri-entrepreneurs are finding success with small, specialized farms

Art Sherwood's first experience with farming didn't go well. A business professor at Indiana State University, Sherwood banded together with a group of local farmers to produce vegetables for local residents. But he quickly realized it wasn't economically feasible: Farmers in the same area plant similar vegetables and fruits, all of which ripened around the same time during Indiana's June-to-September harvest season. As soon as the produce hit the market, prices would drop.

So, in 2006, Sherwood teamed up with Jeff Ezard, another local farmer, to create a line of off-season produce. They built three large greenhouses and used special irrigation techniques to grow tomatoes, peppers, and zucchini. His tomatoes ripen as early as May, before other farmers have sown their seedlings; he harvests his last crop in December. "We are the only ones selling locally grown strawberries, Romaine lettuce, and tomatoes at Christmastime," says Sherman.

As more consumers develop a craving for local fresh food, a batch of new small farms is finding innovative ways to meet the demand. This rural renaissance is producing more varieties of vegetables than most Americans are accustomed to, raising goats and sheep to produce new types of cheese, or finding creative methods of getting it to market.

More Pennies for the Pound

Americans have taken the food fads of the '60s and '70s from a fringe to a mainstream revolution, egged on by celebrity TV chefs who talk up the flavors of food that has been picked a day or two before cooking rather than being plucked raw and stored in a refrigerated truck for a week. "American palates are changing, and there's a growing sophistication and appreciation of newer kinds of foods," says Marci Wilson, director of the American Cheese Society, a nonprofit professional trade society.

If they can do it, farmers always prefer selling direct to consumers. The average farmer makes just 8¢ on every dollar of food that you buy at a supermarket, according to figures from the U.S. Agriculture Dept. The rest of it goes to the processor, the marketer, the distributor, and the retailer. "When farmers sell direct, they get as much as 94% of the total price of their produce," says Michael Pollan, author of best seller The Omnivore's Dilemma and Knight professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

The shifting tastes of consumers make up for the fact that by growing a huge variety of crops, small farmers lose the efficiencies of large agribusinesses, which specialize in one kind of crop, whether it be corn, wheat, or soybeans, planted from fence to fence.

Specialty Products

Greg Reynolds of Riverbend Farm in Delano, Minn., for instance, now grows as many as 50 varieties of tomatoes on 10 of his 30 acres. "The pineapple variety tastes good and it doesn't crack, and the Cherokee purple has a complex acidic taste," says Reynolds. Over the past two years, he has seen demand grow 30% to 40% for his vegetables, which also include radishes and arugula. "I grow a short variety of organic sweet corn that yields the most amazing flavor beyond anything that you can buy elsewhere for corn bread and polenta, and a local restaurant here serves it for dessert with dried cherries," says Reynolds.

A similar commitment to specialization is found on Michael Yezzi's and Jennifer Small's Flying Pigs Farm in upstate New York. They started with three pigs in 2000 and had no idea what they were getting into. Initially, Yezzi and Small borrowed their neighbor's horse trailer to cart their pigs to the only USDA slaughterhouse in their area, paying an average of $2.75 a pound just to get the meat cut and packaged. Now they have their own trailer, but after factoring in the costs of transportation, veterinary care, animal feed, and labor, their pork chops sell for $15 a pound and sausages for $9.50 a pound—far higher than what's available at the supermarket.

But New Yorkers liked the taste of Flying Pigs' rare breed Black Gloucestershire Old Spots and Tamworth pigs, and soon orders poured in from high-end city restaurants such as Mas, Savoy, and Il Bucco. Today, Yezzi and Small raise 600 pigs. To cut the costs of transportation, they co-founded an organization called Farm to Chef, with a $110,000 grant from the New York Agriculture Dept. The organization links local farmers in their area with chefs in New York City who like to order directly from farms. Chefs place orders for food that varies from salad greens, raspberries, and blueberries in the summer months to root vegetables in the winter months. All the orders are piled into one truck, which delivers to the restaurants. "The chefs like the convenience," says Yezzi.

Dreaming of Cheese

Cheese is another food group that has seen a boom in specialized local production. The American Cheese Society has seen its membership grow 84% in the last three years, to 1,500 producers, sellers, and distributors. Each year, the interest in the Cheese Society's competition for the best specialty and artisanal cheeses gets more intense; last year, the number of entries rose to 1,208, from just 700 in 2005.

Many of the new cheesemakers are dairy farmers who are branching out. Karen Weinberg and Paul Broghard had jobs in New York City when they decided to pursue their dream of making cheeses like ones they had tasted in France. Initially only Weinberg quit her day job, unsure of whether the idea would take off and support them both. They started with just four sheep in 1999. Little by little, they gained confidence that it could be a way of life. Broghard quit his job as a lawyer in 2002, they acquired a cheese-making license a couple of years later, experimented with different cheeses, installed an aging cellar, and now have a full-fledged dairy sheep farm, 3-Corners Field Farm, in Shushan, N.Y.

Along the way they also expanded their farm business. Today they raise 500 lambs for slaughter, milk 140 sheep, and sell yogurt, wool, sheepskin, lambskin, and soap. Their most popular cheese, Shushan's Snow, is a kind of camembert made of sheep's milk. It is featured on the cheese plate at the popular New York City restaurant Gramercy Tavern. Other cheeses, such as a feta and a smoked variety, are available at eight cheese shops and 10 restaurants in the metro area.

On Second Thought…

Of course, not all the innovations work out as planned. Michael Paine has built a vibrant farm named Gaining Ground on 76 acres in Yamhill, just outside Portland, Ore. Each week, 110 families who have paid $490 upfront for the growing season come to collect from the farm's 50 different varieties of vegetables, including heirloom tomatoes, eggplant, greens, and cucumbers. Paine also has two acres planted with apple, nectarine, pear, and peach trees, which he hopes will bear fruit later this year. He has 750 chickens roaming around.

But when he introduced goats, hoping they would eat wild blackberries, they turned out to like the vegetables better. "They were too social and wanted to be on the front porch when people came to collect their vegetables and it was too much to handle," says Paine. "I sold them for goat meat, and don't think I'm getting any more any time soon."

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