University of Wisconsin Center for Wisconsin
Rural Cooperatives, July/August 1999, p. 16-21
Published by the Rural Business and Cooperative Development Service 

A Sea of Greens: Low-income farmers use vegetable processing, marketing, co-op to create new opportunity in north Florida

By Pamela J. Karg

Field Editor

As a small farmer, you're already on the bottom, so you have no way to go but up," Spencer Lewis says. "With this new cooperative, it's a lot better. It makes you feel good. You know you're moving up."

When Lewis plants his seeds today in the soils of Florida's panhandle, he essentially only worries about the weather. He and his wife, Melvina, know exactly how many acres to rent, how much collard or turnip seed to plant, what to do for pest control so the greens can be harvested on time and who's going to purchase his produce. The Lewises and their fellow farmers credit New North Florida Cooperative for bringing stability to their lives and their operations.

Historically, these small-scale, black farmers have been price takers, says Glyen Holmes of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) in Florida. Farmers sold produce from roadside stands or to local restaurants. What wasn't sold within days of picking usually spoiled. One neighbor had no idea what another neighbor was planting or harvesting. This turned friends into direct competitors in an already flat local marketplace. And these producers felt there was no hope on the horizon.

"These are small-scale producers," says Holmes. "They have limited land, limited capital, limits to their experience with marketing, and even limits in local marketing opportunities. Some are only part-time farmers, with jobs in town. These people were raised on farms and knew the production side of business, but they had never organized to market their products."

That changed when 15 small-scale farmers put their own "sweat equity" to work in the co-opt Helping them in this effort have been USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service, Florida A&M University (FAMU) and the West Florida Resource Conservation and Development Council.

Not all is sunshine

The number of black U.S. farmers has steadily declined, even more rapidly than the trend for all farmers. In 1910, there were one million black farmers who owned 15 million acres of land. By 1998, that number was down to fewer than 20,000 farmers who owned about two million acres.

At the same time, the farmer's share of the consumers' food dollar had shrunk from 37 cents in 1980 down to 23 cents in 1998. One reason for the decline is consumers who increasingly want convenient, quick, ready-to-eat products. Consumers want their cabbage washed, sliced and packaged so that they only need to add a few sliced carrots, mix in the dressing, toss it all in a bowl and serve up "homemade" coleslaw. Small-scale farmers such as Lewis don't have access to the processing and packaging equipment to give consumers exactly what they want. As a result, income has been shifting away from farmers toward companies that process, package and market food the way consumers want to buy it.

While most people see Florida for its beautiful beaches, thirst-quenching glasses of cold orange juice, Disney World and as a winter haven for snowbird senior citizens, the northern Florida region is experiencing financial difficulties. Federal and state officials studied the environment within which producers wanted to form a new marketing cooperative. Their reports indicate that increased urbanization of southern and central Florida has left northern Florida as the only region where small farming operations continue to exist in large numbers.

Small farmers are further confronted with major problems as they attempt to compete in today's rapidly changing political, economic and technological environment. Add to this a lack of profitability, and small farmers are leaving their operations for non-farm employment.

"This growing trend is resulting in the surrounding community becoming overwhelmed with a demand for employment that it is unable to meet. The search for employment is also taking many away to seek employment in other communities. Thus, the extinction of this very important agricultural group, small farm and ranch operators, is a possibility in the northern Florida area," one study noted.

In eight of nine counties in west Florida, unemployment rates range from five to nine percent. These same counties have between 11 and 25 percent of their population living below the poverty rate. The per capita income ranges from $10,400 to $11,900. Only Leon County, where the state capital of Tallahassee is located, has a healthier unemployment figure (3.9 percent), poverty rate (9.4 percent) and per capita income ($15,724).

Birth of a co-op

Committed and informed, producers established New North Florida in 1995 to try to increase their income through innovative marketing. They knew there were no guarantees for the cooperative's success, even with technical assistance from USDA and local organizers. Each farmer had to commit sweat equity for a share in the new organization, which they hoped would help lift them up the economic ladder through innovative marketing. USDA and community development personnel provided management assistance, but the farmers did not receive any large financial grants.

The cooperative's first delivery was 3,000 pounds of greens to the Gadsden County School District. Food Service Director and Registered Dietitian J'Amy Petersen remembers the free samples.

"I met Glyen Holmes at a USDA Commodity Food Program meeting in Atlanta," she says. "We started talking about the use and how important fresh, local produce is in feeding programs in the public schools," she recalls. "When driving to the various schools, I saw fields of cabbages, tomatoes, and grapes/berries, fresh food items that students would enjoy with meals and salads."

A short time later, Holmes coordinated the delivery of cabbage, strawberries and watermelon to the district's central warehouse. The produce was distributed to 15 schools that daily feed about 7,000 preschool through high school students, as well as educators and administrators. The district also serves nearly 4,000 breakfasts daily through the National School Breakfast Program. About 80 percent of the district's students receive free or reduced-price meals through the National School Breakfast and National School Lunch programs, the largest of the federal child nutrition programs in terms of spending and the number of children served nationally.

"The quality of the produce was topnotch," Petersen says. "The leaves were clean with no holes, rot or wilt. The berries and melons weren't mushy, which means they were freshly picked. Glyen was in constant contact with me, asking how the produce looked, what the staff thought and how the kids liked it. He still does that today, which is real important."

More importantly, the kids responded. They loved the taste and texture in their mouths of the fruits and vegetables. For some of the smaller children, it was their first time ever trying fresh strawberries. The smell of fresh cooking cabbage piqued everyone's taste buds so they ate more. Petersen and her local food service managers have noted increases in student participation in the School Lunch Program, which they attribute to the efforts to provide children with high-quality fruits and vegetables. There has even been an increase in the number of teachers, district staff members, and maintenance crews who opt to stay at school for lunch.

Working through Holmes and New North Florida, Gadsden County schools now contract shipments of strawberries, watermelons, turnip and collard greens, cabbage, blackberries and Muscadine grapes. Jackson County School District food service director Linda Wright also purchased produce from the cooperative. New North Florida continues to work with Jackson County schools through Aramark Food service, a private management firm the district has retained. The Department of Defense's Direct Vendor Delivery payments enable districts to buy more fresh produce without the school food service fund footing the bill. All invoices are sent to the state's Commodity Food Programs, which retrieves money from the Department of Defense food fund to pay the local produce bills.

New North Florida cannot supply either district's complete fruit and vegetable needs all year long.

"In school food service, you learn to go with the flow, be flexible and to work with what you have. Our menus include many fruit and vegetable items," Petersen explains. "One vendor, like the New North Florida Cooperative, cannot fulfill all of our needs, just like one vendor cannot fulfill all the milk, bread and frozen food items. We have to learn to work with each specialized distributor."

Of course, pizza and cheeseburgers are just as popular in Gadsden County as they are anywhere else, and Petersen's staff has learned to complement these items with fresh lettuce, tomatoes, coleslaw and fruit cups as a dessert.

"Those are definite favorites, but the fat content can already be high in children's diets, so the addition of fresh fruits and vegetables with the needed high fiber and nutrient content can be assets and complement our school meals," stated Petersen. "For many of our children, school breakfasts and lunches provide most of the needed nutrients for brain and body growth, and unfortunately may be the only well-balanced meals they eat throughout the day. We are especially conscious of the nutritional values in daily meal planning. By following the USDA Dietary Guidelines and Food Guide Pyramid, I am assuring they eat properly therefore resulting in lower disciplinary problems, better school attendance and higher learning activity."

The majority of fresh produce is purchased from non-cooperative sources, local produce vendors, Petersen says. The cooperative's prices for some of its items are often lower than those of local produce companies, even after the management team factors in the costs incurred during production, post-harvesting handling, delivery and a reasonable profit level. With strawberries, the cooperative does not set its selling price. Rather, the management team monitors weekly and daily market prices and then sets its own competitive prices.

But Petersen's preference is to do business locally, adding North Florida farmers' Muscadine grapes or melon chunks to a breakfast fruit cup, or with seasoned cooked greens, cornbread and barbequed or baked chicken for lunch.

A holistic approach

There's something deeper, even holistic, about Petersen's commitment to the business arrangement. "I'm originally from North Dakota," she says. "My upbringing assisted in understanding the importance of locally grown items and utilizing them wherever possible. The USDA Buying Guide was shared with the cooperative and we talked about how it is used to figure portion sizes. We also shared prices paid for items, the number of breakfasts and lunches served at each school and their locations.

Lewis, for example, plants about 54 rows of collard greens per acre of land. The yield from his field provides enough greens to serve during one lunch at the 30 schools across Gadsden and Jackson counties.

"But my rural roots also create in me a deep appreciation for local farmers," Petersen continues. "I was really glad to be able to buy produce from our farmers because, in a rural area, they're our backbone. I know the importance of giving back, helping the community. And nowhere is that truer than in an economically disadvantaged area."

Dan Schofer, an agricultural engineer with USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, says the genuine concern expressed by Petersen and others in the local community about the cooperative, its members and their success was crucial to coordinating this pilot project.

"I can't emphasize enough the personal relationships that have been formed between the cooperative's members, the farmers and the management team, the cooperative and its customers. That helped foster J'Amy's willingness to go with this new cooperative before it was even standing on its own two feet. She took a chance on us when no one else would," Schofer says.

Turning over a new leaf

Cooperative members now have customer demands to meet through strict production schedules. That was a challenge at first.

"It's one thing to grow a few greens in your garden for use on your family's dinner table or to sell to the neighbors," says Schofer. "But it's quite another to have a high-quality product that meets all the customers' expectations and is ready on a particular date. If J'Amy wants something delivered on Monday, members had to learn that they must deliver."

Only once since it started has New North Florida missed a delivery. The greens didn't arrive, but Petersen had some frozen ones she could distribute to her school cooks. Another time, through a mix-up on the delivery dock, a fruit delivery wilted under Florida's summer sun.

"The cooperative replaced the shipment, and it wasn't even really their fault," Petersen says.

Holmes, especially, remains intimately involved in the cooperative's daily business. He makes contacts with customers, talks to potential customers, develops delivery schedules and ensures that operations are moving forward. Vonda Richardson, with FAMU's Small Farmer Outreach Project, works on-farm with the members, assisting them with production issues and management questions. She acknowledges that New North Florida is slowly learning to crawl, which it needs to do before it can walk.

'We've seen in our area that the traditional way people start cooperatives— with heavy involvement from members — doesn't necessarily work here," she explains. "These farmers want services so they can concentrate on what they do best—growing produce. We're trying it that way, giving them what they want, the way they want it. That means Glyen and I put a lot of intensity into the effort every day. But we see it as part of the careers we already have working for USDA and Florida A&M."

Growing into the future

Lewis thinks about the future, too. He knows the cooperative has given his family immediate financial gains. But Lewis also knows local farmers will eventually need to make some tough decisions about building equity in the organization, expanding marketing opportunities and dealing with the challenges growth brings.

"The future does cross my mind, when I'm out there tending to my plants or turning my watermelons, but I haven't sat down to think about it much," Lewis explains.

As members gain self-confidence, they're expanding their knowledge, building their marketing skills and realizing the power that cooperation has given them, says Holmes. They are slowly pushing forward.

New North Florida received its first large financial assistance from a local bank and the Jackson County Development Council, a non-profit organization that helps implement the President's Empowerment Zone program. The loan was used to buy a new cutting/chopping machine and a refrigeration storage system. These improvements, along with a packaging/processing shed to house them, were essential to the cooperative's survival, Holmes says.

Meeting with success

"We've had many successes and learned a few valuable lessons," Schofer says. "We've shown that you can bring different organizations and different people with different expertise together to work on a project that makes a positive difference in people's lives. And you don't have to worry about who gets the credit because, when it's as successful as New North Florida has been, there's plenty of credit to go around."

In addition to the innovative partnership between farmers and outside sources, the cooperative has shown producers and advisers how north Florida producers work best when organizing and educating themselves to new ideas and changes. New markets have been developed and income to small-scale farmers has increased. New North Florida Cooperative has developed a good reputation for itself among state and federal agencies, as well as heightened awareness in local communities of how much people can achieve when they work together.

"And I think we have a model here that can be implemented in other communities across the U.S. where small-scale, limited-resource farmers want to form a cooperative," says Schofer.

'We're making things better all the way around," Lewis says. "The more people see you do things, the more they'll want to come in to what you're doing. The younger generation wants to know about the cooperative and what we're doing. It makes me feel good when people pay attention. Then we can plant more because we'll have to send out more and wel1 make more money. We're working hard and we're being a success. That's all good for small farmers."

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