Many a family has ventured into the homesteading or farming life with rosy visions of making a living selling beautiful produce on Saturday mornings at the farmers market. Often, those hopes are quickly dashed as farmers realize that there are real obstacles to making a living on a farm in modern society.
For one thing, families are cooking less and less, relying on convenience meals and eating out for a large part of their dietary intake. In addition, consumers have become accustomed to the types of vegetables created for the mega-industry of modern agriculture—produce bred for stability and uniformity, resulting in flawless vegetables that look more like they came off an assembly line than from nature itself.
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One solution to overcoming these barriers is to sell value-added products rather than just fresh vegetables. While “value-added” has been a buzzword in agriculture for many years, what that looks like for each farm varies wildly. State-by-state regulations drastically affect what farmers can do with the food they grow.
Some states allow growers to process and sell items such as jams and jellies in their own homes, while other states have strict regulations that require a commercial kitchen for any kind of food processing. (To determine what the guidelines are for value-added farm products in your state, check with the state health department and your local agricultural Extension office.)
Nathan and Michelle Howell of Hickory Lane Farm in Bowling Green, Kentucky, had both worked in agriculture-related jobs, but eventually realized they wanted to make a living working on their own farm full-time. For the last two years, they have done just that, offering a year-round, full-diet CSA as well as selling produce to area schools and restaurants.
What Customers Want
The Howells realized that their CSA was missing out on an untapped market by not offering prepared foods to their customers. Michelle said, “If I got busy and didn’t have the time to cook, I would just go with whatever was easy and convenient. When I went to the grocery, I could see that most of what people were buying was already prepared or at least part of the way—pre-chopped veggies, cooked entrees, etc. If I didn’t always have time to prepare healthy meals for my family on the farm, how much more difficult would it be for other consumers to cook what they needed?”
At first, Michelle and Nathan considered the idea of a using a shared kitchen. Many communities across the country have built commercial kitchens that can be rented out to those starting food businesses or small farms who need processing space. After thinking it through, they realized that solution probably wouldn’t work for them in the long term.
“Shared kitchens are unrealistic,” Michelle said. “Farmers are already pressed for time. It’s just too much to expect them to load up the produce, drive somewhere, prepare it, clean up the kitchen, load everything back in the truck and drive back to the farm.”
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Though funding and space were both issues, the Howells kept coming back to the idea of a commercial kitchen for their farm. When they moved in 2014 from their small suburban farmstead to a more rural location with additional space, the time was finally right to get a kitchen. The Howells were able to crowdsource a $10,000 no-interest loan from Kiva Zip to cover the cost of their project.
After receiving the funds, they quickly began the work of transforming extra storage space in their farmhouse into a commercial kitchen. “For between $6,000 and $10,000, you can build a commercial kitchen if you are frugal, already have a location and do the work yourself. It took us about a month to build the kitchen into our existing basement,” Michelle explained.
While this may seem like a substantial investment, the Howells expect it to pay big dividends by adding value to their farm products and helping them connect with an entirely new customer base—those who don’t have time to prepare their own meals.
The physical space of the kitchen and passing a health department inspection were not the only issues at hand. There were other things to think about as well. Like most homesteaders or full-time farmers, the Howells were already pressed for time farming several acres and two high tunnels to meet the demands of their CSA. Michelle homeschools their four children and is heavily involved in community work, including helping to run Community Farmers Market, the market the couple founded. There was no way that processing farm products commercially would fit into her schedule.
A Natural Fit
Enter one of Hickory Lane Farm’s customers. Emily Cothran, an academic librarian, often found herself cooking dinner at the farm whenever she came to pick up her CSA share. These meals became sort of community events, and more and more people were telling Emily that she should sell what she was preparing. It seemed like a natural fit for the farm and the new kitchen that was in the works.
Thus, Farm Fresh But Already Fixed was born. Emily’s new business venture takes place in Hickory Lane Farm’s new commercial kitchen but operates as its own business entity. Emily and her employee, Chelsea Suleski, take the food that would normally be offered in the farm’s fresh-veggie share, as well as some local dairy and meat products, to create fresh and healthy meals. The meals are packaged in a “share” that costs $55 a week and operates much like a CSA.
A prepared food share made at Hickory Lane Farm and marketed through Farm Fresh But Already Fixed includes roughly enough food for two dinners for a family of four.
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Emily Cothran, the owner of Farm Fresh But Already Fixed, said, “We have a lot of single-person and two-person households. We have some four-person households that say they get two good meals with some leftovers out of our share. There are people who take our salads for their lunch. We do different pieces you can pull apart rather than provide complete, coordinated meals.”
When we visited the farm in April, Emily was cooking pastured sausage for a kale-pesto penne. The share that week also included a tossed salad, kale cooked with caramelized onions and sun-dried tomatoes, lentil soup with carrots and kale, Indian-style mustard greens and bok choy chips.
Farm Fresh But Already Fixed does not require customers to commit to buying a share each week. “We found that people were overwhelmed with the idea of such a big commitment. Letting them try it for a week usually means repeat business for us,” Emily said. “Everything is pre-sold, which helps keep our costs low and minimizes waste. We compost all our trimmings and extras. This keeps our share cost low for customers—we don’t have to buffer in the cost of waste.”
The benefits to Hickory Lane Farm have been numerous. Michelle said, “We are able to be much more efficient with the product coming out of the fields. Whereas a retail consumer might not purchase food that is less than perfect, Farm Fresh But Already Fixed can take our seconds because they will be cooked anyway. Also, because our CSA is harvested at the end of the week, we now have another harvest at the beginning of the week for product that might otherwise go unused.” In addition, the farm shares its farmers market booth with Farm Fresh But Already Fixed, which uses the space on Tuesdays, while the Howells and the farm use it on Saturdays.
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The exact model used at Hickory Lane Farm may not work for you, but a commercial kitchen can still be a viable way to add value to your farm products, expand your customer base and increase your income.
This article was originally published in The NEW PIONEER™ Winter 2016 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.