War and Peas

The battle to bring local food to more Hoosiers needs to be waged through cohesion among our growers, innovators and policy makers

By Jon Shoulders

According to Indiana State Department of Agriculture data, approximately 90 percent of the food consumed in Indiana comes from other states and other countries. While imports and exports will always remain a staple of the state economy, there seems to be plenty of opportunity for Hoosier growers to grab a larger percentage of the local food market. But how best to accomplish such a task? And in the meantime, are producers doomed to duke it out for their share of that small fraction of the market that currently buys local? Our state motto, The Crossroads of America, seems more applicable than ever before; for those of us interested in boosting local food consumption and improving the infrastructure here for family farms to thrive, we’ve arrived at a crossroads indeed.

   Sure, farmers markets have exploded in number and popularity in recent years and can be a helpful pipeline into the local food economy, but as local growers and industry folks can attest, they have their limitations. “I don’t think that farmers market masters see themselves as competitors — the only thing I would say is that many of them try to stay exclusive in each category, so you’ll commonly hear a market master tell a new or aspiring poultry farmer, ‘Sorry, we already have an egg vendor,’” says Nick Carter, a local entrepreneur who grew up on an 80-acre livestock farm in Russiaville. “As if there is a finite number of sales that can be made at the market.”

   This drawback is one of the reasons Carter, along with Tyner Pond Farm Owner Chris Baggott, co-founded FarmersMarket.com, which allows consumers to purchase a wide selection of locally produced goods online and then pick up at their nearest market host.

   Carter says farmers markets represent the leading edge of a trend that requires more creative solutions in order to thrive. Whether that means more web and mobile application innovation, improved delivery systems, more cooperative farms and groceries or all of the above, time will tell. “To break through to the next level and move the needle on that 90 percent number, we will have to see innovation in the model,” he says.

   Cissy Bowman, organic farmer and president of the non-profit Hoosier Organic Marketing Education, feels small-scale Indiana growers need to focus their energies on making our local and regional ag infrastructure more cohesive and thereby take advantage of economies of scale. “After harvest, products must be preserved in some way so they will be available in winter, but there are few facilities available to Indiana’s producers—especially small ones—and not all producers can build their own,” she says. “Cooperative processing kitchens and facilities can have a great impact on this problem. The development of local processing facilities for grain and meat are very much needed here. Simple things like chicken pluckers can really make a difference in what farmers can do to increase production.”

   The current state of duck production in Indiana provides a telling example of the need for improved local infrastructure. Although Indiana is the country’s leading supplier of duck—according to Indiana State Board of Animal Health data, we produce more than 20 million ducks per year, which is 73 percent of U.S. duck production—there are no processing facilities in the state for small-scale duck farmers. Large producers with on-site processing capability are able to sell their product at a lower rate, while the small guys must travel out of state for processing, raising prices above the competition.

   Ryan Nelson, chef and owner of Late Harvest Kitchen and The North End Barbecue in Indianapolis, says plenty of space exists in the market for more Indiana restaurants to source locally without competing too fiercely, but cost efficiency is perhaps the biggest obstacle—an obstacle that could be removed if more effective and organized infrastructure among local growers could reduce the costs those growers must pass along to their buyers.

   “Our restaurant would make more money if we bought standard-issue stuff from a broadline producer, but I think food tastes best if it’s eaten close to where it’s grown,” says Nelson, who sources all of Late Harvest’s beef, lamb, pork, duck, rabbit, chicken and turkey locally. “I’ve been buying beef and pork from Dave Fischer (of Fischer Farms in Jasper) for 10 years, and when you have those relationships you can kind of take care of each other. Local sourcing has become almost an expectation at this point, at least for high-end restaurants, so the demand is there but the higher cost for the restaurants is what keeps it from happening.”

   Derek Means, owner of The Local Eatery and Pub in Westfield, has been sourcing local produce and meats since opening the establishment in 2011, and says competition among farm-to-table restaurants for local ingredients will benefit growers and consumers in the long run. “If you’re running a particular cut of beef for example, and there are other chefs competing with you that source from the same producer, all that does is make the chefs get creative with their menus and keep searching out more producers, too,” he says. “That’s a good thing because if you don’t have a strong, healthy demand there’s no paradigm shift. A lot of chefs believe in the locavore movement, and the demand will only make it grow.”

   Bowman says the benefits to growers of working cohesively and creatively can lead to a rising tide that raises all local ships. “(Growers) can compete, price-wise, and end up lowering everyone’s price to less than the cost of production,” she says. “Then, only the larger operations tend to survive.” Instead of competing with one another, she says, “a grower can diversify into crops and products for which there is little or no competition and charge a reasonable price.” 

   “Co-opetition” is a term Jamie Campbell Petty, founder of the Indiana Hemp Industries Association (INHIA), hears more and more frequently, referring to the need for local growers to work together and diversify their crops to simultaneously create a competitive and more united market. “There is definitely room at the table for everyone, but we are moving too slow,” says Petty, who is working in her capacity with the INHIA alongside Purdue University in an attempt to allow farmers in the state to grow hemp as a crop alternative, and to supply Indiana businesses that are currently importing hemp from Canada and Asia. “I give credit to Indiana Grown and Purdue Extension, as their effort to support beginning farmers provides a substantial platform for us to network with one another. It is time for the (Indiana State) Department of Agriculture and (Indiana) Farm Bureau to step up the game and increase budgeting and resources.”

   Indeed, Purdue Extension has educators in all of Indiana’s 92 counties working to help farmers. Jodee Ellett, Purdue Extension local foods coordinator, has focused a great deal of her work on trying to coordinate efforts among Purdue’s Extension staff. Looking at the state’s local food system from a 30,000-foot view, Ellett says the state now enjoys plenty of opportunity for growth. “The opportunity is that people are spending $18 billion a year on food, and we have a huge gap between our farmers markets … and the opportunities for any grower to get into local and retail marketplaces through aggregators or larger buyers.”

   Changing the way they do business, she says, is what has proven most difficult food growers—large or small. According to Ellett, large farmers who might want to diversify their crops and break into new systems of growing and selling food have a learning curve that involves marketing their farms in new ways. Large farmers may need to “learn how to create a farm brand and a logo and a story” about their farms so that they can engage local and regional customers, she says.

   Smaller, diversified farmers who regularly sell at farmers markets may need to look at finding new audiences for their products—particularly large buyers. In their case, their learning curve may be that that they need to stop thinking about the retail prices that they get at the farmers market and “start thinking about selling more product, packaging it in a wholesale manner and being able to not spend as much time marketing,” she explains.

   These learning curves are where Extension educators come in. Each holds different areas of expertise and works within their areas to help farmers find the information they need to expand their operations. Educators create videos, webinars, and toolkits, as well as host conferences to connect farmers and food growers to the people they need to meet.

     James Wolff, Extension educator in Allen County, points to the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, which is pushing to improve the regional food system, and the upcoming Allen County Food Council as two examples of how folks in the northeast region of the state are working together. “There are a lot of groups coming to the table to accomplish that push (to improve the regional food system) and make those connections,” he says.

   Wolff is helping to coordinate a Market Basket 360 program, which will develop training materials, farm tours and cooking demonstrations to be used by other Extension educators, farmers market managers, and food vendors throughout the state. “Our goal is to educate the community by putting everything in one convenient spot, and trying to reach all the audiences,” he explains. “We’re bringing the community together to help educate them.”

   Wolff sees beginning farmers who are eager to network with other farmers, even if those farmers pose competition to their fledgling businesses. A lot of the more experienced farmers, he adds, “are willing to share their knowledge, because to them, there’s still enough market out there that they don’t need to hog it all,” he explains. “It’s just a matter of trying to build those connections. It just takes time.”

   The demand for fresh, locally grown products has never been higher, so for those who’d like to see small- to mid-scale Indiana producers provide more than just 10 percent of the food Hoosiers eat, the best step forward is to view the problem in the most pragmatic light, which is to say, realize that working in solidarity to make the pie much bigger, instead of competing against one another, might be the most sensible approach.

   “Napa Valley isn’t Napa Valley because they all didn’t share information,” Ellett says. “Napa is Napa because they all worked together to grow a premier wine region of the world. … This camaraderie among wineries is similar to what I see that James is talking about. That’s where I think there are strengths (in Indiana), in networking and getting people engaged with each other. We haven’t nearly tapped the customer base.”

   In short, there’s plenty of room to, well, grow.