Eat & Drink

Small farms band together to grow their connections to consumers who hunger for local food

Jacqueline Smith left sheep cheesemaker Green Dirt Farm earlier this year to launch Central Grazing Co., which sells locally grown lamb.
Jacqueline Smith left sheep cheesemaker Green Dirt Farm earlier this year to launch Central Grazing Co., which sells locally grown lamb. The Kansas City Star

At first glance, Howard’s Grocery, Café & Catering seems exactly what the name implies. When it opens next month, the grocery will carry local products, and the café will serve cheeseburgers, grilled-cheese sandwiches and seasonal fare. Owner Craig Howard will continue catering, and his rooftop garden and nearby hoop house will yield greens, peppers and tomatillos.

Of course, he wants to make a living at it, but profit isn’t the sole goal. Howard is creating a mini-food hub at 1708 Oak St. in the Crossroads Arts District that connects farmers to eaters by serving up delicious food. Local just tastes better, Howard says, but he knows small farmers often struggle to get what they grow to the consumers who want it.

“There’s not really a good system in place in our area,” Howard says. “I want to build a solid infrastructure that’s better for everybody.”

He’s not alone. Entrepreneurs like Howard are increasingly building their own food infrastructure and networks, even as the regional food hub planned for Kansas City and Lawrence moves ahead. (See story on D4.) They’re working with neighbors, partners and even competitors to build creative frameworks that expand production, connect to buyers, encourage sustainability, keep family farms viable and bolster rural economies.

“It’s really important to understand the only real way we can have small producers with a competitive edge is to work collaboratively,” says Jacqueline Smith, who left sheep cheesemaker Green Dirt Farm this year to launch Central Grazing Co., which sells locally grown lamb.

Not that it’s easy. When Smith and her business partner, Sarah Hoffmann, started Green Dirt near Weston in 2000, no one in Missouri could tell them how to manage a grass-fed flock and turn the milk into cheese.

“We chose an industry that had absolutely no support,” Smith admits.

Smith and Hoffmann persevered, built up their flock and established a Grade A dairy (the classification with the most stringent health and sanitation requirements) and a cheesemaking facility. As their cheeses won awards and distribution grew to 15 states, Green Dirt faced another hurdle: how to expand its product line.

Green Dirt’s kitchen could handle the output of up to 600 ewes, but Smith and Hoffmann had only enough pasture to graze 200. So in 2012 they approached nearby dairy farmers who wanted to diversify.

None had owned sheep before, so Green Dirt shared its processes, procedures and milk records. In return, the 10 dairies adopted the farm’s grazing, sustainability, quality and animal welfare standards.

“Those are hard challenges, but they’ve been so willing to work with us on those things, and to listen, adapt and change,” Smith says.

The farms deliver milk daily, most of which is used in Green Dirt’s Only Ewe yogurt. But milking sheep presents another quandary: what to do with their lambs. Some are kept as replacement milkers, and about 75 grass-fed lambs are processed for private meat customers. The rest used to be sold at commodity prices into commercial feedlots, which struck Smith as a lost opportunity.

So Smith created Central Grazing Co. to market grass-fed ground lamb and other products to restaurants, grocery stores and the like.

The meat is already available in Natural Grocers locations in Kansas City and Lawrence and Grazin’ restaurants in New York, and will soon be sold elsewhere in Kansas, as well as Oklahoma, Arkansas, Nebraska and parts of Colorado. All together, Smith expects Central Grazing to sell 900 lambs a year, including those from their partners, adding to everyone’s bottom line.

Demand is already there, she says. Smith is now seeking funding from sources like Slow Money (a national organization that connects investors with small food enterprises), and she’s working with partners to build the infrastructure needed to meet it.

It’s the approach Smith loves.

“Collaboration is the factor we’ve talked about a lot, because it’s so powerful,” Smith says.

Successful collaborations aren’t born overnight, though. Often they evolve out of necessity, as did Good Natured Family Farms, which traces its roots to the 1990s.

That’s when founders Diana and Gary Endicott moved to their 400-acre farm near Bronson, in southeast Kansas. They began growing greenhouse tomatoes, and a bumper crop sent them to Ball’s Food Stores. The retailer bought the excess and made the Endicotts’ produce — and later their beef — a regular feature.

When beef orders outstripped supply, the Endicotts formed a cooperative to fill them. Before long, other producers were calling Diana Endicott to ask whether Ball’s might want their honey or eggs.

“I just started organizing the growers and adding products,” says Endicott, who also runs a federally inspected meat- and poultry-processing plant in Uniontown, Kan. “Eventually it grew to become an alliance of all these different farmers.”

In 2004, that alliance solidified into Good Natured Family Farms. There wasn’t a blueprint for that kind of food hub, so Endicott and Ball’s, which owns 28 Hen House Market and Price Chopper supermarkets, gradually figured it out.

“It just grew organically,” she says. “Maybe that was the key to it — it was out of necessity.”

There are now more than 100 Good Natured members selling everything from milk, cheese and eggs to honey, bison, beef, chicken and pork to Ball’s and food service supplier Sysco.

Most package and label their own products and deliver them to a central Ball’s warehouse, although some have regular on-farm pickups. Good Natured coordinates orders, provides marketing support, and sets quality and food-safety standards.

Good Natured also won a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant to bring local food to vulnerable communities in Kansas City, and Endicott is helping develop a food hub in St. Louis’ NorthSide Regeneration Project with an eye toward establishing an Interstate 70 food corridor.

Creating such markets stabilizes farm income and keeps farmers on the farm, both of which expand rural economies, Endicott says.

“None of this is successful if we don’t have the farmer,” she says. “Local food is finally being recognized as an economic engine for rural communities.”

Certainly that’s the case for Bauman’s Cedar Valley Farm, near Garnett, Kan. John and Yvonne Bauman moved there in 2001 with no experience — just six children and the drive to build a sustainable business.

Their operation now encompasses 18 enterprises, including pastured poultry, grass-fed beef, grain, hay, a GMO-free feed mill, and poultry- and meat-processing plants. All that employs 15 full- and part-time workers, including the family.

One thing simply grew off another, says their daughter, Rosanna Bauman. Take poultry processing. The family started by butchering chickens themselves, but took them to an off-farm plant as sales grew.

The cost soon convinced the Baumans to open their own facility in 2007. The ANCO Poultry Processing (the acronym stands for Anderson County) operates three days a week and handles about 40,000 chickens, ducks and turkeys a year.

“If we were doing it anyway, we might as well make use of the infrastructure and dress for other people,” Bauman says. “We needed our neighbors to patronize us for our own sustainability.”

That same thinking marks the Baumans’ approach to the feed mill. Buying feed that isn’t genetically modified was too expensive, and they couldn’t find a dedicated mill to grind the GMO-free grain they were growing into feed. They weren’t alone, especially after the Kansas City Food Circle announced all members must use non-GMO livestock feed by 2017.

So the Baumans found used equipment and storage bins, won a zero-interest loan from Slow Money and set up the mill. This spring they began selling GMO-free bulk feed.

In the midst of that process, another opportunity arose. Like many of their neighbors, the Baumans relied on a nearby plant to process their beef. When it unexpectedly came up for auction last fall, the family agreed: They had to buy it to preserve an essential community asset.

The Baumans won the bidding with help from private investors, renamed it the Bauman’s Butcher Block and reopened.

Each project provided exactly what the Baumans needed for their own aspirations, but they couldn’t do any of it without support from other farmers, Rosanna Bauman says. Does she care that some customers are also her competitors? No.

“We need competition,” she says. “If you all work together, everyone’s better off.”

Craig Howard also sees competition as healthy. At least 10 food businesses are likely to move into his neighborhood over the next decade, Howard told the 1 Million Cups crowd at the Kauffman Foundation in February, but he sees that as only boosting demand for good food.

“The more people who start operating this type of business — well, that’s good for everybody,” Howard says.

Howard came to appreciate local food while cooking at Le Fou Frog, Blue Bird Bistro and Room 39, and he parlayed his grower connections into a members-only grocery store in 2012. Members had 24/7 access to the farmers market-type offerings, usually paying for their purchases on the honor system. He also grew his own vegetables in a nearby urban garden and began catering out of a rented kitchen at BadSeed Market.

When his lease ended, Howard launched a successful Kickstarter campaign and began renovating a 1,200-square-foot space at 17th and Oak streets to accommodate a cafe and catering kitchen and a grocery that could also be open to the public during business hours. The combined venture is ideal for allowing Howard to do what he loves: growing, cooking and sharing good food.

That cheeseburger? Some customers will simply want to order one and eat it. But others might ask about the beef or microgreens (both local); buns (baked with flour from Heartland Mill in Marienthal, Kan.); ketchup (from Boys Grow, a nonprofit serving urban youth); the housemade cheese, mayonnaise, mustard and pickled vegetables; or the half dozen or so farms featured at any one time.

It’s really a conversation-starter in disguise, Howard says.

“I’m excited about the café, because people can talk about the food and talk to me,” Howard says. “That’s the fun part of it.”

Anne Brockhoff is a freelance food and drinks writer whose column Blithe Spirits appears regularly in Chow Town. Send email to her at ninemilefarm@ gmail.com.

Creating a regional food hub

There has been a lot of food hub buzz in Kansas City and Lawrence, and a regional version is now on the horizon for 2016.

It has been a long time coming. The Kansas City Food Hub Working Group, with representatives from 13 area organizations, and the Douglas County Food Policy Coalition began meeting separately six years ago. Both discussed building a food collection and distribution facility. Both conducted producer surveys. And both completed feasibility studies last year.

The takeaway? That a single regional food hub would best serve farmers and their customers on both sides of the state line.

“When we gathered around the table, we realized we were all in it for the same reason: making sure producers and farmers have a good place to go, where the value of their products is well-recognized,” says Marlin Bates, horticulture agent for K-State Research & Extension Douglas County and member of the regional food hub effort’s steering committee.

Local food is certainly big business. According to the Kansas City Food Hub Feasibility Study, demand for locally grown fruits and vegetables is worth $177 million annually, but only 12 percent of that demand is being met.

Although local food is readily available at farmers markets, through CSAs (community supported agriculture) and at specialty stores, the region in general lacks the infrastructure, organizations and systems needed to connect farmers to the places most people shop, says the Food Hub Feasibility Study: Northeast Kansas.

That’s where a food hub comes in. Food hubs typically offer a combination of services, helping small and medium-size farmers access larger retail, institutional and commercial food-service customers.

The regional food hub will probably be producer-owned and include both food aggregation and distribution, says Katie Nixon, a small-farms specialist with Lincoln University Cooperative Extension who is also on the steering committee, but other details are still under discussion. Organizers are currently looking for farmers interested in wholesale-scale production, with an eye toward a 2016 launch, Bates says.

One thing is clear. A regional food hub will create new opportunities for producers and consumers alike.

“There are institutions and corporations who would buy local food if there was a clearinghouse for such products,” Bates says. “We’re trying to satisfy that demand.”

Anne Brockhoff, Special to The Star

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