After deciding to start a small farm in Whatcom County, Ephraim and Laura Kurszewski knew that growing crops would only be part of the challenge.
To get a handle on the commercial side of the endeavor, they turned to a business training program for local farmers called Food To Bank On, run by the Bellingham-based nonprofit Sustainable Connections.
“We just decided to dive in,” Ephraim Kurszewski said.
Having just wrapped up their third season on the farm, which they named The Carrot and Stick after opening in 2011, the Kurszewskis see signs of a promising future.
They sold 30 shares this summer in a community-supported agriculture program, where members buy into the farm at the beginning of the growing season, then later collect shares of the harvest. The Carrot and Stick grows a variety of produce, including carrots, beans, tomatoes and squash.
Demand was high enough that the Kurszewskis were actually forced to turn away a number of prospective members. Ephraim said they don’t want to expand faster than they can manage.
“We’ve grown at the rate we’ve wanted to grow, so that’s really satisfying, that there’s that level of support in the community,” he said.
Success is not uncommon for Food To Bank On participants.
Nearing the end of its 10th year in existence, 37 farmers (excluding current first-year participants) have gone through the three-year program. Of those, 29 are still operating today, and 18 have taken on the more challenging business of selling their crops on the wholesale market.
Sara Southerland, the food and farming program coordinator at Sustainable Connections, has managed the Food To Bank On program for the past three years.
She said the goal of the program is to support a stronger, more viable and more diverse sustainable food system. But its focus on helping beginning farmers establish sound business principles has been a major contributor to its success, she said.
Food To Bank On pairs participants with more established mentors in the local agricultural community. Participating farmers are given business-plan training, and the program focuses on specifics such as developing strong day-to-day efficiency and long-range planning, Southerland said.
A six-member committee of mentor farmers reviews the applicants and selects new participants in the program each year. They look for new additions who have basic farming skills and have begun farming for at least one year, Southerland said.
“We’re trying to catch farms in that beginning window, with people that have less experience,” she said.
They are look for farmers willing to make a long-term commitment to the program, those that use organic and sustainable farming practices, as well as producers who grow niche products that are not already saturating the local market.
Southerland said within the last three years, the program has accepted more farmers that produce meat instead of produce. She said demand for local meat is on the rise.
“I think that people are realizing that it’s an untapped market,” she said.
Food To Bank On also provides participants with market access.
Farmers receive free memberships to Sustainable Connections, a nonprofit network of local businesses and community leaders focused on sustainable practices, along with a variety of trade-meeting and marketing opportunities.
Southerland said the memberships allow participants to network and leverage local business connections to grow brand identities.
They also get a chance to develop wholesale operations.
Each year, Sustainable Connections pays participants wholesale prices for food that is donated to local food banks, soup kitchens and shelters.
Southerland said this acts as a sort of practice run for larger wholesale deals the farmers might negotiate in the future. It also gives them a chance to get experience meeting demand.
At The Carrot and Stick, Ephraim Kurszewski said they were not quite ready to jump into the wholesale market once their stint in Food To Bank On ends. He’s happy to maintain the business the farm has, while handling other, more pressing challenges, including marketing and better time management.
But greater sales volume would certainly allow the farm to scale up in the future, he said.
“These are big questions right now on the horizon,” he said.
He said he has probably benefited most from the the connections made with other local farmers through Food To Bank On. The program has created a sort of informal support network, he said, which he expects will continue even after they complete their three years in the program.
Melissa Moeller, who raises chickens on her family’s Misty Meadows Farm in Everson, was initially a participant in Food To Bank On, but stayed on as a mentor after completing the program.
Moeller said that for beginners, learning from established farmers who have already developed connections and networks in the area is a huge benefit.
Yet profits are not easy to come by, Moeller said, especially when trying to set competitive prices amid the higher costs of using sustainable farming practices.
With shoppers accustomed to finding cheap and easily accessible products in grocery stores, justifying higher prices for locally and sustainably produced food presents a big challenge for small-scale farms, she said.
Moeller suggests more education and outreach to buyers could help. When shoppers buy into the ethic of local farmers, higher prices are easier to manage, she said.
Southerland said it usually takes three to five years on average for a beginning farmer in the program to be profitable, one of the reasons that Sustainable Connections provides subsidies for wholesale products.
“It’s definitely a hard way to make money,” Southerland said. “It’s a lot [of work], but it’s doable”
For Moeller, the challenge is worth it.
“I learned so much being in the program. I wanted to be able to pass that on,” Moeller said. “I think there’s a lot of room for a lot more farmers in Whatcom County.”
Evan Marczynski, staff reporter for The Bellingham Business Journal, can be reached at 360-647-8805, Ext. 5052, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Food To Bank On program is currently accepting applications for new participants in the 2014 season. Read more here.
To find more information, and to see profiles of the other participants in Food To Bank On, visit: www.sustainableconnections.org/foodfarming/FTBO.