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Farm to table success through diversified markets

Wendell Berry’s wishes (after reading the 1988 book "Farming on the Edge") was that our Marin conversation involve more thought about the value of locally produced food. We can respond to him with pride, that yes, we have indeed, arrived.

At the Marin Ag Summit in 2010 we all saw the statistics about how much Marin farms and ranches have grown their direct marketing efforts in the past decade. We have basically doubled annual sales from $800,000 to $1.6 million. This trend will continue to grow as more producers like Loren Poncia, Janet Brown, the Lafranchi family, and others diversify while keeping the marketplace local. On-farm sales from the Nicasio Valley Cheese Co. allow customers to experience great cheese and learn about dairying and what it takes to support a local agriculture economy with their pocketbook. Lynette Pareglio-Lafranchi, Randy’s wife, handles sales and customers. She explains “with the perfect location on the road past Nicasio, the response to our farm store has been tremendous.”

While direct marketing channels like the Lafranchis’ roadside store and the Agricultural Institute of Marin’s supportive farmers markets are foundational elements of a local food system, we need more intermediate channels to add both value and markets for our producers and processors.

Summertime Pierce Point
Summertime Pierce Point

When Maureen Cunnie, Cowgirl Creamery cheesemaker, began making their signature cow’s milk cheeses with John Taverna’s Jerseys, she wasn’t sure how to handle the seasonal variation in the milk butterfat content and taste. This challenge launched seasonally available cheeses including St. Pat’s in the spring, followed by Pierce Point in the summer, and Devils Gulch in the fall. Cowgirl Creamery turned an inconsistent milk attribute into a great cheese with seasonal variety, educating the consumers along the way. Besides the taste, each cheese has a signature herb covering that differentiates it from the others.

Allstar Organics herbs
Allstar Organics herbs
Cowgirl’s co-owner Peggy Smith comments, “when we first started, we were purchasing most of our herbs from Southwest Botanicals, but I thought wouldn’t a local organic source be a great solution?” Cowgirl already had a business arrangement with Star Route and Fresh Run Farms for the nettles that wrap St. Pats. A year or two ago, Peggy approached Janet Brown and Marty Jacobson of Allstar Organics, and a new business partnership was born. Maureen Cunnie, Cowgirl’s cheesemaker opened several large bags of the Allstar Herb mixes made to order for the other two cheeses during a visit to their cheese plant recently. “The aroma from the Thai basil mix is incredible. I can smell it outside our building. It’s so fresh, clean, and beautiful—just picked the week prior." Janet suggested we add an heirloom blend of hot/sweet peppers for our Devil’s Gulch that is the perfect complement."

Enter Anita Sauber, the county’s organic inspector. Anita worked with Allstar to expand their organic certification to cover on-farm processing. With the new federal Food Safety Law of 2011, small to mid-scale food businesses will have more paperwork to complete. Food safety and traceability is at the heart of this.

“When I realized I needed additional certification, I thought—game over, this is the worst thing that could happen,” recalls Janet as she described the process.

“Anita helped us acquire a simple on-farm post harvest handler certificate. The USDA regulations required that we develop a better batching and tracking system.  In the end, there was value to the extra steps as we now have a tracking system that allows us to better manage inventory.”

Janet adds advice for others as she described her experiences “Once you decide to grow a crop, you might do well to consider how you can add value to what you grow, and how you can take that value–added product and team up with another producer or processor to create something absolutely new, novel, and unique. The value you add is your inventiveness. The mistakes you make in the process are an important part of the learning curve to getting it just right.”

Artisan and farmstead cheese made here in the North Bay is another perfect example of a value-added product marketed both directly and via a diversified marketing channel.

“Everyone needs a business and marketing plan,” says Sue Conley, co-owner of Cowgirl Creamery and Tomales Bay Foods. While start-up producers sometimes think that they don’t need this tool, almost three quarters (74%) or 20 of North Bay cheesemakers interviewed in 2011 had a business plan for their cheese operation, and in the case of farmstead cheesemakers, they also had a business plan for the entire farm or ranch.

As one local cheesemaker reports, “I knew I could make great cheese, but if I didn’t know where or how to sell it we weren’t gong to make it. We can’t sell all our cheeses directly so we need the brokers and distributors to represent and sell our cheeses, but first you need to make a delicious and unique cheese with a great story. Marin agriculture is just that great story.”

By Ellie Rilla