CONFERENCE PREVIEW: 6th Annual Virginia Biological Farming Conference
Increasing the market share for organics, and other stories

February 18-19, 2005 – Eagle Eyrie Convention Center, VA

By Mark Schonbeck


Photo by Chris Fullerton, Courtesy of
the Pennsylvania Association for
Sunstainable Agriculture
Posted January 7, 2005: Keynote speaker Jim Crawford will open the 6th Annual Virginia Biological Farming Conference by addressing, “What does it take for organic farming to evolve into a significant sector of agriculture?” Drawing on examples from his 30 years’ experience growing and marketing organic vegetables, Jim will discuss the right mix of idealism, realism and optimism needed to succeed in the business of organic farming. He will explore questions like: “When we say we are sustainable and that conventional agriculture is not, what does it mean? What has to happen for us to sustain ourselves?”

For Jim, the definition of ‘sustainable’ is not something theoretical about pollution, but is “first and foremost, being able to continue to farm,” he says. “Will we still be farming when we retire? Idealism alone cannot make us sustainable; we need a strong dose of economic realism.” In his talk, Jim will give specific examples from his farm and others of economic realism in practice.

Jim and his wife, Moie, produce more than 40 different vegetable crops on their 25-acre farm in Hustontown, Pa., and market their vegetables from the end of April until midwinter. With the help of greenhouse and cold frames, they do from four to 25 successional plantings for the various vegetable crops they grow throughout the season in order to provide a steady supply to their customers. Meanwhile, they utilize cover crops, compost, crop rotation and careful nutrient management to maintain the optimum soil health needed to sustain intensive production over the long run.

Initially, the Crawfords sold some produce direct to customers and the rest wholesale. In 1988, they partnered with several other organic farms in their area, pooling wholesale marketing efforts and arranging for one part-time farm employee to make calls and set up sales. “We made a brochure, selling the idea of offering produce from a range of farms, all available in one truck delivery, which is convenient for chefs.” Their strategy also gave them more leverage than an individual grower would have so that they could receive organic premium prices. Thus the Tuscarora Organic Growers’ Cooperative (TOG) was founded.

“We started small, without a large initial investment, and it took off well,” Jim says. “By the fifth year, we became more professional, hired a manager who stuck with us [for longer than one season], got incorporated as a co-op, and had a large increase in sales.” TOG now includes 20 organic growers, operates a fully equipped 5,000 square foot warehouse and office space, and markets about $1 million in produce annually. They are able to send full trucks of produce (much more efficient), making twice-weekly deliveries to restaurants and other retail outlets in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, about a two-hour drive from their south-central Pennsylvania location.

“[TOG] is small enough so that all growers participate in managing the co-op. Most important, we plan the full season’s production as a group so that we are not competing with each other. We know what the co-op can take, so that there is no overproduction and maximum diversity.”

TOG is owned by its producer members, so “there is no ‘us and them,’” says Jim. “It is small enough so that all growers participate in managing the co-op. Most important, we plan the full season’s production as a group so that we are not competing with each other. We know what the co-op can take, so that there is no overproduction and maximum diversity.” For example, one year when TOG already had all the tomatoes they could use, the Crawfords planted celery root instead. Jim observes, “I could not sell three tons of celery root myself, but the coop had no trouble doing so.”

Jim will speak a second time at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference in a breakout session on Ag Math: Calculating the Costs and Income from Organic Vegetable Production. The idea for this workshop evolved as he watched too many farmers working too hard trying to succeed without the necessary business accounting skills. “Now that I am 60,” he observes, “I have seen economic challenges that I had no idea of at the age of 30.”

In this session, Jim will cover the nuts and bolts of family farm economics, how to determine what are one’s largest costs, and what financial factors make the farm profitable. He will discuss questions such as: What does it mean to borrow money? What is capitalization? How much is appropriate on your farm? What does it mean to make a living over the long run? The workshop will include a set of principles that growers need to handle financial situations likely to arise in farming, and “examples of applied economic realism.”

Other conference workshops will include basic and advanced topics in organic horticulture, pastured poultry and livestock, CSAs, organic grain and hay, and much more. Jeff Moyer, the farm manager at The Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pa., will give an update on organic farming research at The Institute.

For more information on the Virginia Biological Farming Conference, visit www.vabf.org, or contact conference registrar Marilyn Buerkens at 540-291-4333, e-mail biofarmingconf@hotmail.com. For more information on the Tuscarora Organic Growers co-op, visit www.tog.coop.