MFT recently launched Farming for Wholesale, a farm business planning program that helps Maine farmers better serve wholesale markets.
Wholesale is an important, and sometimes overlooked, market in Maine’s local food economy. According to the Maine Food Strategy’s 2014 Consumer Survey Report, 97% of Mainers purchase the majority of their food from a wholesale market. Wholesale includes grocery stores, co-ops, institutions, restaurants, food hubs, and other kinds of distributors. In the Farming for Wholesale program, we’re helping farms tap into these markets – by helping farmers identify their products best suited for wholesale, assess infrastructure and equipment needs, or whatever challenges and goals farmers hope to achieve through selling to wholesale markets.
This year, Christelle and Jon of Copper Tail Farm in Waldoboro are one of 22 farms participating in the program. The couple raises Nubian and Nigerian goats, and produces goat milk yogurt, cajeta (goat milk caramel sauce), caramels, and goat milk soap. Christelle and Jon moved from Oregon to Maine several years ago, with 8 goats and 28 chickens. Now, they’ve grown their herd and started a creamery. They applied to the Farming for Wholesale program to help guide their growth.
Farms participating in the program attend a series of workshops, then work with a team of technical assistance providers throughout the year. Farms can work on anything from figuring out which of their products are most profitable and how to expand production to marketing materials and labels that include all the information required by a distributor. Alex Fouliard, the program manager explains, “The technical assistance is completely individualized to the farm, based on what their goals and challenges are, which is really valuable. We’re really grateful for the team of organizations offering their expertise through this program.” There’s also financial incentive for farms participating – since funding is often one of the biggest hurdles for growth. All the farms who complete the 101 track receive a seed grant, and the 201 track farms will have the opportunity to apply for larger, implementation grants.
“The wholesale program gave me the tools and skills I needed to look at my numbers in ways I never had thought to do previously,” said Christelle. “It really made me look at my individual enterprises and determine what was making, or losing, money. The one-on-one technical assistance I received was invaluable. The seed money was also incredible- I’ve seen workshops advertised that look like they would be great for my business, but the cost of them makes it impossible for me, and many other small farms, to attend. There was absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t take this course, and I’m so glad that I did!”
Why focus on helping farmers sell wholesale? MFT believes the next wave of growth for local agriculture will be to help farmers scale-up and tap into wholesale markets in ways that retain the best features of local agriculture. This includes ensuring that adequate benefits flow back to the farmers. “Absolutely, we are making sure farmers’ time is included in their costs,” said Alex. There are several innovative models and initiatives going on around the state to achieve this larger goal (including the market development work of the Unity Food Hub and MFT’s FINI grant to expand the customer base at local food retailers). The Farming for Wholesale program is focused on helping farmers with the business planning to be able to produce for these types of markets.
“The most exciting part to me, is how eager farmers are to get involved,” says Alex. “There’s been so much interest in the program and seeing farms want to get started immediately has assured me that we are truly meeting a need for the farming community.” She goes on, “We’re hearing from farmers that they see wholesale as the best way to grow their businesses. Whether their direct-to-consumer markets are saturated, or too resource intensive, for logistical reasons, or for personal reasons, wholesale is where many farmers see potential for growth.” The Farming for Wholesale program helps farms — big or small — determine how best to enter or expand wholesale markets, and do so in ways that are profitable and sustainable.