TALKING SHOP: Future Harvest-CASA, Hagerstown, MD, Jan. 16 - 17, 2004

Stars of the Chesapeake
A few of the many inspiring farmers whose presentations enlivened the Future Harvest-CASA conference.

By Laura Sayre and Amanda Kimble-Evans
Posted February 13, 2004

S p o n s o r B o x
Future Harvest-CASA

Founded in 1998, Future Harvest-CASA is a non-profit network of farmers, researchers, landowners, consumers, and activists in the Chesapeake region. Future Harvest-CASA works to promote profitable and sustainable food and farming systems by exploring new crops and new markets for farmers, stimulating consumer demand for locally grown food, and promoting conservation and stewardship.

Contact info:
Future Harvest-CASA
P.O. Box 337
106 Market Court
Stevensville, MD 21666
410-604-2681
fhcasa@friend.ly.net
www.futureharvestcasa.org

More from the Future Harvest-CASA Conference


For more on the Future Harvest-CASA conference, see our story on keynote presentations by Steve Groff of Cedar Meadow Farm and Barbara Damrosch and Eliot Coleman of Four Season Farm: Nothing middling about the Mid-Atlantic.

 

Ed Snodgrass, Emory Knoll Farm, Street, MD

Ed Snodgrass's forebears emigrated from Scotland to Philadelphia in 1709, traveled about 60 miles into rural Maryland, and haven't moved since. "You could say we're a family that likes to stay put," Ed reflects.

But the key to their survival as a 400-acre family farm, he says, is that "each generation has refrained from trying to tell the next how to innovate." When Ed took over the farm from his dad in the early 1970s, he watched the price of corn tumble from $4.25 a bushel to $1.90 a bushel. "We were used to getting a loan from the bank in the spring and paying it off in the fall. Interest rates were 18 percent. We got hammered. I swore I'd never be a commodity farmer again."

After that, Ed was obliged to spend several years working off-farm. For awhile he was an anti-drug educator, but the farm kept pulling at him. "I've known a lot of junkies," he observes, "but if you get addicted to farming, it is a thing that never leaves you."

Gradually, Ed was able to buy out his siblings' share in the family property and develop an on-farm business growing plants for 'green roofs'—living, vegetative roofs for installation on residential, commercial, or industrial buildings. Emory Knoll Farms is the only green roof company in the U.S., and to date has built a quarter of a million square feet of green roof in 20 states and four countries. (You can learn more about Emory Knoll Farms and the benefits of green roofs at www.greenroofplants.com.)

In a separate venture, Ed also runs educational programs at the farm, including a stream ecology course and a 'tribal studies' course, in which young kids are asked to build a village, a culture, and a language in one day. His advice for those seeking to develop viable farm businesses? "Remain opportunistic, and remain determined."

Pat Elliott, Everona Dairy, Rapidan, VA

Everona Dairy didn’t begin with a yearning to bring sheep’s milk cheese to U.S. consumers. Nor did it start with a business plan or any kind of plan for that matter. It all began with a dog. Pat Elliott explains: “I got into [the business] because I bought a border collie. I needed to give my collie something to do so I bought some sheep. Then I started thinking, ‘What can I do with these sheep?’ I kind of backed into it.”

Now Elliott runs the only licensed sheep dairy in Virginia and is tapping into a market that is going almost unnoticed in the US. “According to Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, the largest producer of sheep’s milk in the US, more sheep are milked in the world than cows, but there are only about 100 producers in the U.S. I want to convince you that you can do this, too," Elliott told conference-goers.

Dr. Elliott is a physician by training who stumbled into dairying as a second career. Although keen to get more farmers on board, she warns, “If you’re not interested in making friends with people, go into research or something.” To succeed, Elliott believes it takes making friends every step of the way, starting with your inspector. They can be a hindrance or a help—you have to decide beforehand what kind of relationship you want to build.

Which leads her to another warning, “Get legal!” As a producer of raw milk cheese, Elliott is a stickler for following through with the rules and regulations. She recommends you “get legal” from the beginning and stay legal—you won’t have as many problems down the road and it makes the process easier all around.

Elliott participates in as many cheese and dairy conferences, tastings and events as she can and sells her product through upscale outlets, restaurant groups and direct at farmers’ markets. Everona Dairy, though only a part-time job for Elliott, has become a full-time passion.

Kate Zurschmeide, Great Country Farms,
Blue Mount, VA

Ten years ago, when they were in their late twenties, Kate Zurschmeide and her husband listened to a presentation about Community Supported Agriculture. The Zurschmeides had been farming leased land in Loudon County, Virginia, for a generation, but as the Washington D.C. suburbs began to spread out in their direction, the family knew they needed to rethink their operation.

The young couple found a farm that had been on the market for six years, and managed to convince the sellers to give them financing based on their projected CSA income. The first year, they signed up 50 members and offered home delivery to all of them. It was a roaring success—so much so that in their second year, full of pride and ambition, they upped membership to 600, still promising home delivery. Kate gives a nervous laugh at the memory. "Needless to say, we were in way over our heads. It was a logistics nightmare. It was also a drought year, and we had no irrigation."

Somehow they made it through the season, managed to hold the loyalty of most of their members, and took stock once again. One of their members owned a courier service, and he took over a big part of their delivery route. They established a fixed delivery area, and began offering a u-pick 'bonus value' to draw members out to the farm. And they articulated a mission for Great Country Farms: "To offer a way for everyone to experience farm life and enjoy the benefits of its bounty."

Having that mission has kept them on track ever since. Gradually, they have built their CSA membership back up to 550 members for a 22-week season, most still with home delivery. At the same time, they have vastly increased traffic to the farm by organizing festivals, offering tours, and hosting parties and weddings. CSA members can attend the public events free of charge, while non-members pay $10 per car. "We doubled our revenue the first year we instituted the entry fee," says Kate, and she encourages other farmers to place a value on the farm experience. "That may sound like a lot of money," she points out, "but compare it to the price of taking the family to McDonald's and a movie."

Randy Sowers, South Mountain Creamery,
Middletown, MD

Randy Sowers inherited his “get big or get out” dairy farm with over 1,000 head in 1981 and has slowly turned it into a direct-to-consumer marketing success.

After years of getting just $13 per hundred weight (before hauling, brokerage and marketing fees) and being misrepresented by large cooperatives, Randy decided it was time to stop fighting the current and step out of the stream. He downsized to just 300 head on 2,000 acres and looked into direct marketing. But, as he quickly discovered, “Competing dairies in an area drive down prices. We need to work together in a way that can benefit everyone fairly.”

So Randy started rounding up other farmers disgusted with the system and persuaded them to form their own cooperative. “The current system is raping the farmer. We have to reclaim the cooperative in dairy. [Co-ops] should be farmer-run and farmer-owned.”

The transformation has been dramatic. South Mountain Creamery now boasts over 600 customers. The biggest seller for Randy is skim milk, for which he can get $2.09 a half-gallon. Plus, the butterfat he removes to make the skim milk can now be made into butter and sold for $6/lb. “If I back up a tanker to my barn like I used to, I’d get just $960 for 8,000 lbs of milk. Now I’m making $3888 just in direct sales of skim, and that’s not including the butter. In total, I can make about $5000 from that same 8,000 lbs.”

The success of direct marketing sparked a bit of herd growth at South Mountain Creamery, but lately Randy’s taking another step back. “We downsized again to make more of a profit. We found out as we grew, it caused more and more problems—we ended up with larger costs and lost control of our marketing.” South Mountain Creamery is now down to 200 cows on just 1,500 acres and spreading the word: it’s time to “get small, or get out.”

Pam West, West Farms, Lewisburg, W. VA

Pam West is a fourth-generation farmer who grew up in New Jersey, started farming with love and no money in a remote corner of West Virginia, and learned the hard way.

In the early '90s, she and her husband responded to an extension recommendation to get into the pimento pepper business, setting out 15,000 plants in their first year. "We nearly killed ourselves trying to take care of those peppers," says Pam. "And in the end, we made more money off of a small patch of cut flowers that I had put in just for the heck of it."

They went on to try other ventures, including shiitake mushrooms, before finally settling on sheep, herbs, and flowers. Today, they've reclaimed a 114-acre farm that had been left fallow for 50 years. They have 77 acres of woodland, 100 ewes on 28 acres of pasture, and 9 acres in cultivation, of which 3 acres are dedicated to 120 varieties of cutting flowers. They also have 1300 sq ft of greenhouse space and grow all their own transplants.

Pam's specialty is floral arrangements and wreaths, some of which she takes to juried craft shows in the off-season. Their remote location has made marketing a continual challenge, but with persistence and ingenuity they have made it work. "Not a day goes by," says Pam, "when I don't get up and say to myself, what can I do to make the world a better place—and what can I sell?"