The pandemic revealed several gaps in agriculture, including a fragile supply chain and the lack of diverse revenue streams for farmers.
Farmers that had multiple business arms or models were the ones that fared the best and were able to divert resources to avoid a large shock to the system. Even before the pandemic, farm revenue in Pennsylvania had decreased by half from 2014-2019, according to a study by the National Young Farmers Coalition.
As older farmers retire, Chatham University is stepping in to help train aspiring farmers to bring in multiple sources of revenue to help lessen economic blows with its new Cash Cow program.
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With a half-million dollar grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Chatham’s Center for Regional Agriculture, Food and Transformation – or CRAFT – will host a 12-week training course for small and mid-sized farms within 200 miles of Pittsburgh.
Nicollete Spudic, food innovation lab manager at CRAFT, said the biggest gap they’ve identified is the need for “value-added” products. So if a farmer cuts and packages their carrots, they’re adding value and likely more direct-to-consumer sales. But Spudic said when farmers are asked to create value-added products, they’re being asked to do something they weren’t trained to do.
“They aren’t marketing professionals. They aren’t product developers. They aren’t branding professionals. They don’t know everything that they need to know about the nuances of food safety as it relates to value-added products. So we wanted to get a course together that would provide them all of that information in one place instead of having to go to multiple locations to get it,” she said.
A unique component of the program is the opportunity for farmers or producers to pitch to local markets that could carry the new products. Spudic said market owners say there’s a need for more and better products.
“You know, a farm store might not need another pancake mix or might not need another line of jellies, but they might need, you know, a really interesting pickled product or something like that. So we want to make sure that farmers aren’t wasting their time and [are] producing the best products possible that stores want and the consumers want,” she said.
The Edinboro Market is partnering with Chatham. Since its launch in 2017, the market has sold over $1 million of food and food-related products with nearly 80 percent of sales going to producers.
Co-owner Marti Martz said that nearly all of the small business owners who sell at the market have a day job to cover costs or for health insurance. She said CRAFT’s work is critical to building a more resilient food system.
“Meetings with these new business owners who’ve gone through the Cash Cow training will allow them to showcase and pitch their products to us and possibly result in a retail outlet for them,” she said. “If we can help them source local ingredients, tweak their marketing, or share guidance on pricing in our area, we are happy to provide those services to them. And our customers are always happy to try new and tasty foods.”
Another market in Meadville will also give feedback on product pitches. The 152-year-old indoor and outdoor market has nearly 90 suppliers who could use additional support, according to Kerstin Ams with the Meadville Market House.
“Whether it’s labeling, having an online presence to navigating the Department of Agriculture regulations and kind of food safety aspect that comes along with having a food business, there’s just a lot of pieces to navigate,” she said. “And most people going into farming or making a value-added product have some experience in one or a few of those areas but certainly usually not all of them.”
The end goal is to strengthen the local supply chain and sustain interest in locally sourced foods, Spudic said.
“The more localized your supply chain was, the healthier and safer that it was. So having really strong farms, having diversified farms with tons of local products allowed for a more resilient supply chain and just a more resilient food system within the region,” she said.
Those interested in the 12-week course can learn more here.