‘Yard to table’ farmers offer glimpse inside growing small businesses

Sept. 23, 2019

By John Hult, for SiouxFalls.Business 

For a new business owner, Marcella Prokop spends an awful lot of time talking about plans that won’t make her any money.

Things like hosting free tours, like community-building in shared spaces or offering resources for other farmers.

Which isn’t to say the owner of Blackshire Farms near Luverne, Minn., and her husband, Sean McFarland, don’t speak with entrepreneurial passion about the mechanics of their hard cider apple orchard, vegetable garden or nascent beekeeping and hemp operations. Indeed, no small-business owner would willingly commit the time, toil and treasure necessary to make a living on their own terms without a least a modicum of passion.

What it does say is that the family’s ideals are woven so tightly into the fabric of Blackshire Farms that there’s little daylight between questions of purpose and questions of profit.

Want to do what they do? They’re glad to help. Trading in trade secrets is what small-scale farming is all about, after all.

“We don’t view farming as a competition,” said Prokop, who recently hosted a dozen visitors to Blackshire at the midpoint of Dakota Rural Action’s Yard to Table Month.

“Many entrepreneurs and people in ag are worried about their competitors, intellectual property, being the first to market, etc. The way we see it, we won’t succeed because our neighbors failed. Just the opposite: Our success may hinge on our neighbors’ willingness to help us.”

That culture of support isn’t just about ideals. It’s a business necessity, its adherents say, because support systems for agriculture in South Dakota tend to focus on large-scale conventional operators, even as organic or “sustainable” foods have become the fastest-growing sector of the food economy.

Making connections and building a catalog of cooperating farmers also serves as a selling point when groups like the DRA’s Homegrown Sioux Empire approach local restaurants, schools or grocers to pitch the idea of buying produce and products from its members, either directly or through collectives like the Dakota Fresh Food Hub. Also important: businesses that serve as pickup points for food hub customer orders from regional farmers.

DRA organizer Matt West sees those steps, which have ramped up in the past five years, as key to moving local food from a niche to a cultural expectation for Sioux Falls consumers.

Farmers markets and subscription-based Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, deliveries can be labor intensive and tend to appeal to a smaller subset of the population, but local food on the menu at popular restaurants, on school lunch tables or on the shelves of grocery stores makes it easier for consumers to buy local and for farmers to stay afloat.

The connections have turned into results. Restaurants in the Vangaurd Hospitality regional chain, for instance, have started buying more vegetables through the food hub recently, which West counts as a big win for backers of local food.

“Right now, with our local foods campaign, we’re literally meeting up with restaurants and talking about connecting them with local producers,” West said.

 Hard cider, honey and hemp

Freshness is part of the appeal of local, of course, but there’s also uniqueness. As Blackshire visitors walked through the orchard that has been planted over the past two years, for example, they learned about the couple’s plans to bottle European-style hard cider in 750-milliliter bottles.

Unlike the sweet hard ciders brewed from conventional apples for sale in the U.S., the Blackshire products promise flavors more closely aligned with champagne, leveraging the nuances of more than 100 varieties of apple too tangy for a lunchbox but ideal for sugar-free fermentation.

The trees will begin to produce next year. Within the decade, Blackshire could be churning out 100,000 bottles a year, which the Prokop and McFarland expect can be sold at a premium and fit snugly into a local restaurant’s wine shelf.

The cider was really a way to “make every acre count,” on the couple’s small farm and to avoid overextending themselves, Prokop said.

“These days, it’s almost impossible for a prospective farmer to go out and purchase land and equipment and farm conventional crops and ever recoup initial investments,” she said.

Blackshire Farms – “black” like “soil,” and “shire” like an English stronghold – incorporated in 2016 and began selling tomatoes and zucchini to Sioux Falls restaurants the following year. Orchard planting came next, followed by an experimental hemp crop this year, from which buyers on the East Coast will produce CBD oil.

The honey and wax produced by the bees they’ll need to pollinate the orchard – at least 10 hives – will become another opportunity for value-added products.

The couple is drawn to the specialty products in part by the same interest in locally sourced, environmentally friendly food that has driven the shift toward sustainable food nationwide, but it didn’t take long to see that the business side of a moral stance could pencil out nicely – especially once businesses are familiar with the product.

“When you’re talking about offering something fresh that was picked that day from a local farm, they (big companies) can’t compete with us on price,” she said.

 South Sioux Falls farm aims for year-round production

Like their friends at Blackshire, Bobbi Jo Horsted and her husband, Ned, of Nom Nom Gardens are in the formative stages of a small-scale operation. Their 13-acre farm south of Sioux Falls has a 1-acre vegetable garden and 120 free-range chickens. They sell the eggs in the Sioux Falls area and plan to move into produce sales soon.

The couple moved south from the city five years ago, initially hoping to expand their farming hobby into something large enough to feed one another and maybe a few friends. But they are currently at work on a 17-foot-by-96-foot geothermal greenhouse in which they will plant citrus trees, as well as other fruits and vegetables for year-round sale. The wet weather wasn’t kind to the farm this year, but farmers markets will be a first step next year on the business side.

“It’s really more of a testing phase right now to see what will work for us,” said Horsted, who hosted a recent tour of her family’s farm as part of Yard to Table Month events. “We’re really just building things up at this point.”

The urge to grow their own food came partially from Horsted’s study of anthropology. Food production has aligned closely with community for far longer than it has with commerce, she said, and communities that eat what they grow don’t worry nearly as much about the safety or nutrient content of their food.

“In other places around the world where they grow more of their own food, they don’t see the kinds of health issues we see,” she said. “I looked at the ingredients on a box of cereal my (3-year-old) son wanted the other day and thought to myself ‘I don’t know what half this stuff is.’”

As with Blackshire, the Horsteds have leaned heavily on the support of Homegrown Sioux Empire as they’ve moved from urban agriculture to acreage living, and they also expect to expand with education and outreach in mind.

“Some people think it’s really weird to be such good friends with your competitors, but we have to stick together and support each other,” said Horstead, recalling the outpouring of support for Cherry Rock Farms in Brandon after recent flooding. “I’m so thankful to be a part of that.”

Farming is a lot of work, and it’s not always simple to recoup costs – even without flooding to contend with. She stopped delivering eggs because it was getting too expensive, for example. The food hub, which collects produce for sale from a variety of growers, eases the burden.

Horsted said she and her husband expect that at least one of them will need to work off the farm – a reality for farm families both large and small. A steadier income stream from the farm – perhaps even a primary income stream – is a long-term aim.

“This is not something you’ll make a lot of money from, but it’s definitely a goal,” she said.

More farms, more tables

West helped pull together this month’s Yard to Table activities and spends much of his time working to connect urban and small-scale farmers to others interested in wading into sustainability, whether through growing their own food or selling it to others.

As with small-scale farming, organizing in the local foods area doesn’t happen on bankers’ hours.

“That’s really interesting,” West remarked as Blackshire’s Sean McFarland talked about grafting root stalks from one apple tree to another to pass along favorable traits. “Would you be interested in teaching a class on this at the library?” 

The hunt for opportunities like that is important to the mission of his group, West later explained. For all the hype surrounding sustainability in recent years, South Dakota soils are still largely the province of conventional agriculture.

That’s the business side of small-scale support. When a DRA member hosts a hog roast, he said, there’s a good chance those who partake in the feast will be handed a business card from another farm where they might turn for their next free-range chicken, hog or side of beef.

Those connections also pay off when it’s time to compile a list of possible suppliers for local restaurants or contributors to the food hub.

As a collective, small-scale farmers can offer an easier sell.

That’s how the Vanguard Hospitality partnership blossomed. Morrie’s Steakhouse and Turks & Caicos Cabana Grille first offered eggs from Fruit of the Coop a business owned by DRA member Stephanie Peterson.

She helped connect Joshua Jackson, the executive chef at both establishments, to farms like Prairie Coteau for specialties like garlic and grass-fed lamb and to the Dakota Fresh Food Hub for a wide array of products.

Now, Jackson lists food hub sourcing and notes the names of local farms on the menu for Turks & Caicos features.

“It started (with eggs), and from there we started talking about how we could get more farm-to-table food into our restaurants,” Jackson said. “We like to support the local farmers, and I like to be able to tell a story.”

The story is a selling point, but the flavor value of freshness  food hub produce is sure to have been picked within days of serving  is not lost on Jackson.

“Sometimes, it’s a subtle difference, but with something like garlic, it’s night and day,” he said.

As far as groceries go, stores like The Co-Op Natural Foods and Pomegranate Market have long backed smaller producers, but larger players also have gotten involved in recent years.

Iowa-based grocer Hy-Vee began tagging products grown or made within 200 miles of its stores with Hy-Vee Homegrown labels in 2017, a move vice president of produce operations Mike Orf described at the time as “one of the biggest bets we have invested in over the last few years.”

The program is still buying local from 250 farmers and greenhouses across the company’s eight-state footprint, according to spokeswoman Christina Gayman, and Homegrown-labeled products are on shelves at every Sioux Falls store.

“Some of those relationships happen organically, while others are direct relationships that the company or market-area stores initiate,” Gayman said.

Schools are another potential market, West said. DRA organized a Farm to School task force four years ago, compiling fact sheets and resources similar to those produced by other states, to take another step toward teaching the virtues of local food to children, as well as to connect producers to school lunch programs.

Taken together with restaurant outreach, sales to grocers and online Food Hub sales for local pickup at Stensland Family Farms’ west-side Sioux Falls ice cream parlor, the work is beginning to form the basis for the institutional buy-in its members need to expand beyond farmers markets and door-to-door deliveries.

“Meeting the consumer where they’re at is difficult because you can run yourself ragged,” West said.

The potential of an easier sell through collective effort, in turn, allows entrepreneurs like Marcella Prokop and Bobbi Jo Horsted to do more of what they love: teaching others how to take part themselves.

Yard to Table month concludes Sept. 29 with the eighth annual Tour de Coop. To learn more, click here. 

‘Yard to table’ farmers offer glimpse inside growing small businesses

“We don’t view farming as competition.” Instead, these leaders in the “yard to table” movement say trading trade secrets is what small-scale farming is all about.

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