Posted October 12, 2006: What do local growers,
an artisan brewery and an innovative facility at western Pennsylvania’s
Slippery Rock University have in common? They’re changing
the way people throughout the community think about food, where
they shop for it and where they dine.
Helping to shape the area’s local food economy are initiatives
coming out of the Macoskey Center for Sustainable Systems Education
and Research. The center, a facility of Slippery Rock University
(SRU), manages a farmers’ market it helped to found, hosts
an organic student farm and is the collection point of a farmers’
collaborative supplying produce to a local restaurant and brewpub.
These diverse activities fit within the center’s mission
to reconnect consumers and farmers, says Thomas Reynolds, its director.
The center’s market garden, which sells produce at the local
farmers’ market and to area restaurants, puts students to
work in ways that teach them about crop production as well as direct
marketing. All work—from planning to harvesting—is done
by students. The farm demonstrates basic plant and animal husbandry,
professional cultivation methods, integrated pest management and
Most importantly, the student farm models three spheres of sustainability:
economic, social and environmental. Although the garden is run by
university students, it is managed as a commercial operation.
Sustainability that flows cash
“Sustainability isn’t just ecological. It also includes
economic and social sustainability,” explains Reynolds.
The soil of the center’s market garden continues to improve,
showing the net positive effect of their farming methods. Production
is also becoming more efficient, with the farm expected to make
a profit this year—its sixth season. Through its involvement
with the farmers’ market and farmers’ marketing coop,
the farm also helps develop local community and social sustainability.
The student garden program provides SRU students—mainly graduate
students in the Sustainable Systems program—the opportunity
to run their own farm operation. They develop the skills and responsibility
needed to manage a small business. Many former farm managers have
gone on to operate their own farm or are working for key agricultural
organizations within Pennsylvania and nationally.
The SRU student farm faces a number of challenges common to student
ag efforts. Students only stay for a while, meaning turnover due
to graduation slows the development of organizational knowledge.
Because learning takes time, and time is money during the growing/marketing
season, “the biggest challenge is balancing economic success
and educational success,” notes Reynolds.
The Macoskey Center was central to starting the Slippery Rock Farmers’
Market in the summer of 2002. The market continues to grow each
year, with revenue and the number of vendors and customers increasing.
Benefits include additional revenue for the center and for area
farmers so they can expand their produce sales. The market enlivens
the downtown, inspiring economic and cultural activity.
But what tastes best is this: It provides a place to shop for local
and fresh produce.
Extending marketing options
The student organic farm, along with other members of the farmers’
market, is a part of the Slippery Rock Area Farmers’ Collaborative
. The group’s goal is to cooperate to supply a single-delivery,
local-produce option to North Country Brewing Company (www.northcountrybrewing.com).
“Buying local produce is part of the local economy paradigm
we follow,” says Bob McCafferty, owner of the brewery. This
involves local businesses working together toward common goals with
mutual benefit. By spending money locally and keeping it close to
home, dollars circulate locally more often before flowing out of
town and out of state.
produce is part of the local economy paradigm we follow.”
-- Bob McCafferty, owner North
Country Brewing Company
“It’s resource efficient, but more importantly, it
builds the Slippery Rock community,” explains McCafferty.
Local building materials, renewable energy, reusable takeout jugs,
and local produce are just some of the ways the brewery embodies
the local economy paradigm.
Before the business even opened, Bob and Jodi McCafferty began
renovating the current structure with local hardwoods and recycled
on-site materials. The brewery partnered with Green Mountain Energy
to contract for 100-percent renewable energy. Spent grains left
over from its fermenting of quality brews are fed to local cows.
North Country is the founding buyer for the local farmers’
collaborative. The group is coordinated by Tanya Turner of Keystone
Development Center (www.kdc.coop),
a non-profit organization funded by a USDA Rural Cooperative Development
Grant. Turner, a graduate of Slippery Rock University’s Master
of Science in Sustainable Systems program, is committed to developing
businesses within a local food paradigm.
Turner has worked for three years with numerous local food projects
in western Pennsylvania. She tries to bring self-empowerment to
those she works with: “We don’t sit farmers down and
say, ‘Let’s start a cooperative’. It has to come
from them. We enable farmers to organize themselves.”
Restaurant staff and farmers talk in off-season
Turner knew of McCafferty and his dedication to the local economic
paradigm. Beginning late last fall, she arranged monthly meetings
between Slippery Rock area growers and the brewery’s kitchen
staff. The brewery management outlined what produce they’d
like and what quantities they expected to need. The growers then
made tentative commitments to supply that produce. Both parties
went into the collaborative with good intentions and had faith that
prices would fall into place.
Each of the growers takes a turn conducting the orders and deliveries,
using this well-outlined process.
- On Saturday, the grower in charge of the order talks to the
other growers at the farmers’ market to record what produce
will be available, what quantity and at what price.
- On the following Monday, the coordinator calls Nancy Lee Santella,
the kitchen manager at the brewery. The coordinator relays the
product and price information from Saturday’s market. Nancy
decides what she’d like and states what prices the brewery
- The coordinator then calls all of the growers to relay the order.
- After checking with the other growers, the coordinator confirms
the order with Nancy.
- The growers then harvest Tuesday and/or Wednesday morning before
the 9 a.m. collection at the Macoskey Center.
- The coordinator records what’s collected and then delivers
the order in its entirety to the brewery. A single delivery limits
the hassle for a restaurant dealing with multiple growers.
- The kitchen staff at the brewery checks the order and pays the
coordinator for the entire order.
- The following Saturday the coordinator pays each grower for
their portion of the order. And a new coordinator takes charge
the next week.
So far this season, both parties are happy with the arrangement
—thanks in large part to Nancy at the brewery. “She’s
such a pleasure to work with,” Turner says with a smile. “If
it wasn’t for her, I don’t know if the collaborative
would work. An arrangement like this is extra effort for the restaurant.”
It’s much simpler and cheaper to work with a conventional
food distributor. But the brewery is committed to local food, even
if it does mean additional time, effort and a few extra dollars.
“The freshness and quality of the produce is worth it,”
explains Nancy, “and I think our customers can taste the difference.”
Living with the challenges
That isn’t to say there haven’t been challenges. The
delivery schedule must suit both the growers and restaurant. Growers
can’t deliver to restaurants when they are at market or harvesting
for market. The brewery has conveniently accommodated an early week
order and midweek delivery. This allows growers to harvest and deliver
early in the week, exactly between weekend markets.
Restaurants also need consistent supply and quality. Fortunately
for the Slippery Rock Area Farmers Collaborative, the brewery is
willing to work with slight variations due to fluctuations in weather
and different production practices. The brewery purchases several
varieties of lettuce from several growers in different quantities
to enhance menu diversity.
Restaurants also have to be willing to pay a bit more for fresh,
local produce. This is difficult for most restaurant owners or chefs
accustomed to buying through a conventional food purveyor, particularly
if unit cost is their main interest. Those who value fresh quality
and the long-term financial benefits of building the local economy
can “buy local” if they can successfully market these
“values-added” benefits to their customers.
Another challenge is communication among growers. Only half the
growers use email, and fewer than a quarter have cell phones. Turner
notes this is characteristic of rural western Pennsylvania. “My
colleagues in Harrisburg and Philadelphia don’t have the same
problems with communication, and the people they’re working
with are keen on e-commerce.”
“We’re taking baby steps,” explains Turner.
“Farmers need realistic, tangible results. This year we’re
collecting data for a feasibility study. We’re keeping detailed
records of sales and the cost of production, including delivery
and labor. Farmers aren’t used to taking into account their
Farmers tracking benefits
Once the season’s over and the numbers are totaled, the
farmers will be able to track their time and their sales to see
how profitable the collaborative effort has been. “Maybe even
next year we’ll take on another restaurant or two,”
Turner says hopefully. The producers have much to consider in their
next step. (See the “Where do we go from here?” sidebar.)
The human pieces of the local food movement around Slippery Rock
are interconnected and interdependent.
- The brewery supports local farmers by buying via the collaborative,
consisting of Slippery Rock Farmers’ Market vendors. The
market is, in turn, managed by the Macoskey Center.
- The center’s student organic farm is a member of the collaborative
supplying the brewery and sells at the farmers’ market.
It supplies produce to other area restaurants, as well.
- Most of the area growers savor the custom brews of North Country,
showing in another way how members in a local economy both give
and receive benefit to the others.
Result: Locally owned
businesses thrive with a short supply chain for unique and seasonal
food, local culture flourishes through connections and relationships,
students experience and contribute to “real life,” their
university creates positive connections with local small businesses,
and the quality of life for the entire community is strengthened.
Trade needs to be fair and sometimes done at a distance, but there
is much more than revenue to be gained for farmers and their communities
when they can invest in each other.