It took some convincing to get 70-year-old Charlie Foster to start growing organic produce, but Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD) was up to the task.
It certainly wasn't a lack of skill that made Foster skeptical. A farmer for 60 years, he can grow nearly anything that sprouts. But he didn't have experience with organic methods. Anthony Flaccavento, former Executive Director of ASD and ASD changed that. ASD, an Abingdon, Virginia-based nonprofit specializing is helping organic farmers market, package, sell, and distribute their goods.
ASD’s first appeal is to farmers' pocket books. For most traditional farmers they start with the market as the first pitch. If a producer manages things well and has good luck with weather, ASD is confident that they can sell the crop at a good price, sometimes double the earnings from tobacco.
Another vital step to help farmers consider using organic farming methods is to diffuse some misconceptions. ASD routinely takes traditional farmers on organic farm tours where they have a chance to see farms that are "Well managed, not very weedy, where the plants are robust, the fruit is big," says Flaccavento.
To help Charlie give organic growing a shot, Anthony went into business with him. The two worked Anthony's three acres and split costs and profits 50/50. This gave Charlie a chance to add organic farming experience to his traditional know-how with very little financial risk. Charlie now has a mixed farm, raising some crops traditionally and some organically. Some of his organic crop is sold to chain grocery stores through ASD's Appalachian Harvest program.
ASD has been very successful in developing inroads to large chain supermarkets. Their Appalachian Harvest program now places organic eggs and produce from local farmers into hundreds of stores. Whole Foods, Earth Fare, Food City, and Ingles all sell food produced by small farmers associated with ASD.
This success is possible in large part to the new 150,000 square-foot packinghouse ASD built in nearby Duffield, Virginia that can handle produce and eggs from up to 200 farmers. Instead of each farmer washing, grading, labeling, and packaging their product then driving it to different distribution outlets, they just drop off their goods at the packinghouse. ASD takes care of the rest, shipping the boxes to distribution centers for various supermarkets.
Nothing being easy, ASD has had to straighten out a few wrinkles through the years of working with large chain supermarkets.
"The main challenges are that you're still selling something into what is basically an industrialized food system for which produce means, regardless of it being organic and regardless of it being local, they all want it to look pretty close to perfect, like it was produced in a mechanical way, not a biological way,” says Kathlyn Terry, ASD’s Business Operations Manager.
That problem was solved by heavy editing. Plucking out the ones that were a little too small, a little too large, or a little crooked. This, in turn, created another problem. In pulling out only the aesthetically perfect produce, you're left with tons of food not up to the stores' standards. In the beginning all those tons were thrown away, with the farmers taking total losses.
So ASD created a program called "Healthy Families, Family Farms" which raises money from churches, individuals, and civic groups to buy these seconds from the farmers at a break-even price. The food is then donated to Second Harvest, which supplies food to low-income families. Second Harvest loves this arrangement because the food is not boxed or canned. "We're able to give low-income families good quality, local, fresh, organic produce," says Terry. "And at the same time we're paying the farmers a break-even price instead of them taking a total loss." ASD has purchased and distributed over a quarter ton of local organic produce since starting the program in 2004.
Not content to settle for zero-gain payments to farmers, ASD then found buyers at university food service departments and grocery stores' hot bars. These customers don't need perfect looking food because it's going to be chopped up or cooked, and they'll pay a price between top-end and break-even.
ASD credits people power with their successes, says Terry. "There's a lot of expertise that ASD has, and the farmers in ASD's network have, so whether it's our staff or it's a farmer we've trained in helping other farmers, because there's a lot of peer learning that we facilitate as well, it's a pretty rich array of education and training services."
To learn more about ASD, please visit www.asdevelop.org.