Strategies to enhance the local food system

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Strategies to enhance the local food system

I will start by clearly stating my biases towards small scale organic production. Small scale utilizes sophisticated human sized tools with relatively low gas powered engines and many of them person powered. They do not have the ability to “bully” the environment and require a subtle set of strategies in using them effectively. Certified organic production requires a more skilled comprehensive approach to growing and caring for the soil. These strategies as with all human endeavours do not guarantee there wouldn’t be abuses of the environment or other human beings. They do however limit the size of impact any abuse can render. 

The main reason I see this as a feasible approach is due to the aging farming population and a next generation seldom interested in continuing the family operation. The cost of purchasing an existing conventional operation is a significant barrier to entry for younger new farmers. A local food system is well served by small scale growers that sell directly to customers. Customers develop a direct relationship with these growers which builds strong community ties and trust in the quality of the food. These relationships are vital in ensuring the viability of this system. This scale also lends itself to being environmentally responsible and socially aware. The organic certification system is readily available to small scale growers and enhances the trust and attraction of growers to customers. Customers can brag about “their farmer” and having growers develop programs that allow customers to visit the farm and interact with all the farm staff is important. One other very important aspects of small human scale production processes is the access to woman that this provides. The majority of interest from new younger growers is from woman. Growing food is requires lots of physical effort but this scale can easily be done by women. A farming enterprise does require more than a single person so teaming up with others either as partners or employees is important. 

Key elements in this strategy

First and foremost this must be a customer driven system which allows for growers to grow only what customers want in the quantities they want and delivering it through a flexible structure that provides lots of choice to the customer. 

Given that access to land is one of the biggest barriers for young growers without a lot of financial resources at their disposal, local landowners how don’t have the interest or skills to produce food on their own will need to offer these lands via lease to these new growers. This requires that land owners and growers find workable lease and/or partnership arrangements. 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 endeavour. This can also include the knowledge that the grower has been professionally vetted and has the support both production wise and financially to implement their plan successfully. The grower needs to have assurances that they have continuous access to the land for a reasonable timeframe that they can create a profitable enterprise to establish a return on investment. 

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 mandatory to produce in a manner that is profitable. By providing the means to rent/lease these tools rather than finding the capital to purchase on their own can contribute significantly to the opportunity of being profitable more quickly. The sharing economy is well established is other sectors and can easily be adopted to this sector. Sophisticated field tested small human scale mechanical and digital technologies are readily available in the marketplace. These tools are designed to use significantly less non-renewable resources on a per acre basis than conventional production practices. As stated earlier many of these sophisticated tools are person powered. This approach also includes buying clubs so a group of small growers can purchase in volume reducing the per unit cost to all of them. 

One of that biggest efforts of a new farm startup is in marketing their products. To operate a profitable business this is a first step before anything else. Successful businesses have customers identified and ready to purchase 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 hud model. The food hud acts as the central marketing entity for a group of growers. The hub can engage with customers at different levels be it wholesale to larger retail outlets or directly to customers thorough a box program 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 and strategic business plan is fundamental to creating a profitable business. Todays 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 they are able to sell. Focusing on reducing waste is much more important that focusing on growth. They 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. Focus on having the minimum resources to produce only the highest quality product that they know customers want. Borrowing tools and processes to develop their business plan is mandatory. Incorporating tools such as Toyota’s “Lean Business Frameworks” and “ Lean Startup” processes build the shortest route to profitability. 

A crucial aspect for new growers is acquiring the knowledge and skill set that developed provides the ingredient for them to be successful. This really requires a foundation of theoretical knowledge alone with professional apprenticeship program. Spending several seasons working directly with established profitable growers is essential. Current cultural wisdom states that to learn competency in a trade/craft business requires approximately 10,000 hours of effort. It makes sense that new growers gain several thousand of those hours apprenticing as is common in many trades. This structure prepares them to significantly increase the odds of running the own startup business. Another option for new growers is to startup their own operation on a part time basis while still being employed by a experienced grower. Creating a mentorship process for new growers  also increases the likelihood of success by always having valuable feedback available. 

Starting a profitable small scale farming operation today requires significantly different approach than ever before.  This means borrowing ideas and strategies from other sectors such as software development and manufacturing. Using agile development concepts such as identifying the minimum viable product which uses the lowest amount of 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. The 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. Manufacturing has developed a lean framework that identifies and eliminates waste to be more efficient and profitable rather than just relying upon growth as a profitable strategy. Growers evaluate all processes they do on the farm to identify all 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. 

The last piece of the puzzle in providing the support structure for this type of food system to flourish is innovative financial institutions. These are institutions that 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. 

Examples of these strategies at work in the Comox Valley

Their are local examples of many of these strategies being implemented here in the Comox Valley. In terms of a strong cooperative organization is Melville Organics. They are a group of growers cooperating to market their produce and to help new growers to get established. The Comox Valley Farmers Market 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. 

I started Growing Island Growers here in the Comox Valley with the explicit intent of providing equipment to new startup growers. Leasing/renting sophisticated equipment specifically designed for this scale of production is a major advantage as a startup operation. As a startup demand for initial investment money is high and if a grower can defer some of that investment for a year or more, it can have a significant advantage to being successful. We also provide lots of information and training on field tested production practices to customers. 

This year Pattison Farms 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. We believe this is the best possible opportunity for new growers to provide themselves with all the tools to launch a profitable and successful enterprise.