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Growing demand.

Byline: JOE HARWOOD The Register-Guard

SELLING DIRECTLY to the public the cucumbers, sweet corn, broccoli and cabbage that he grows always seemed like a good idea to Randy Henderson.

He could control his own destiny and supply locally grown produce to a large metropolitan area a few miles from his 400-acre Thistledown Farm on River Road just north of Eugene.

After 20 years, the roadside stand operation that also offers tomatoes, herbs, apples, peaches, pumpkins and filberts, is running strong.

Although he didn't know it when he started, Henderson's business plan of marketing directly to the public has become one of the few options left for many Willamette Valley farmers with medium- and small-sized operations.

"You get a bunch of farmers together these days and the thing most talked about is what are we going to grow to make a dollar," Henderson said. "We can grow anything here, there's just no market."

The number of fruit and vegetable canners and freezers in the Willamette Valley has dwindled for years in a string of plant closures and bankruptcies, leaving few ways to ship produce to national markets. That confounds farmers, who note that the valley soil is among the most fertile in the world.

Meanwhile, the world grass seed market is saturated, and Oregon mint producers are feeling pricing pressure from cheaper mint oil imported from China and India.

With these traditional outlets and options, a growing number of area farmers are adopting Henderson's entrepreneurial business model of selling products directly to the public.

And many are finding success in the broad range of opportunities that fall under the label of direct-from-the-farm marketing.

"Farm direct is definitely something that is growing," said Garry Stephenson, a professor and extension agriculturist with Oregon State University's small farm program.

"There is a very large market out there that can offer some real possibilities for small farmers," Stephenson said. "People like supporting local farms and spending money that stays in their local economy."

Consumers are particularly keen these days to buy produce that's fresh and local, rather than resort to canned or frozen produce that is grown in other states or countries, experts said.

Roadside attractions

Some farmers, like Henderson, have done well operating roadside stands at the farm. They've found that customers are willing to make the drive for fresh produce and to connect with the grower.

Others have found they can support themselves and their families by selling at thriving farmers markets in Eugene, Albany, Corvallis, Salem and the Portland area.

Still others line up business with local restaurants and stores to supply fresh in-season produce. An escalating number of farms are adopting a cooperative system in which customers buy a subscription for a portion of the season's produce. In such cases, customers typically receive a large box of produce every week through the summer and early fall.

Yet many farmers aren't sure how to break into a direct-sales niche. To give farmers the sales and marketing skills they need, the Oregon State University Extension Service and other agricultural interests will sponsor a conference at Eugene's Valley River Inn on March 1.

The workshops will include tips on sales skills, how to sell to restaurants and institutions, and the business planning aspect of farm direct marketing.

Organizers of the conference are hoping to attract farmers, farmers market managers, food retailers, restaurateurs, community members and food policy advocates.

Henderson said he always considered growing crops for the fruit and vegetable packing companies as risky. Those packing companies sell their frozen and canned products to national and international markets.

"I didn't like being under the thumb of the processors," Henderson said.

"The problems they have had repeat themselves every few years," he said. "There's been a long line of them that have gone broke and taken people's money with them."

Agripac's demise

Global competition and processor consolidations have wreaked havoc on produce farmers in Oregon and across the county.

The Agripac grower's cooperative went bankrupt in 1999. Chiquita Processed Foods bought Agripac's operations in Oregon and Washington, but then closed several processing plants, including canneries in Eugene and Salem. Agripac and Chiquita were hurt by declining consumer demand for canned and frozen produce, and by consolidation in the retail grocery industry that left giant grocery chains able to squeeze produce marketers for lower prices.

"I think this direct sales stuff is about the only thing left for a lot of folks," Henderson said.

Nationwide, the direct market approach has been on the grow. Between 1992 and 1997, the number of farms engaged in direct marketing increased 8 percent, to 93,140 farms, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. More recent data isn't available, because the next Census of Agriculture, for the 1997 to 2002 period, isn't due out until 2004.

But indications point to continued growth.

The number of farmers markets in the nation increased by 63 percent between 1994 and 2000, according to the USDA. In Oregon, farmers markets have almost doubled over the past decade, said Laura Barton, a trade manager for the Oregon Department of Agriculture's development and marketing division.

In 2001, there were 50 farmers markets in the state. Last year, they totaled 67, Barton said.

The Lane County Farmer's Market has become so popular with people seeking fresh, local produce that it has outgrown its long-time home in downtown Eugene in the Park Blocks. Last year the market posted sales of $1.4 million, said Noa O'Hare, manager of the market.

The market, which operates Tuesdays and Saturdays from April through October, services about 160 producers and growers. The problem is, there are only about 60 spots.

"We've grown to capacity," O'Hare said. "I think that speaks to the popularity of the market and the community support we have here."

Restaurant avenues

Aside from the farmers markets, roadside stands and U-pick operations, there are farmers selling their products directly to stores and restaurants. Barton said restaurants that buy local farm products are increasingly advertising that fact to their customers.

"I think people really want to know where their food is coming from," she said.

Greener Pastures Poultry in Noti has found a niche in directly supplying restaurants from Eugene to Portland.

The cooperative venture among four local poultry producers grows and processes pasture-raised chicken and turkeys.

Aaron Silverman, general manager of Greener Pastures, said the firm has been successful because it listens to the restaurants it serves and makes sure the quality and size of the birds meet the restaurants' needs.

"Our customers have been very involved the the development of our products and how they are packaged," Silverman said.

The business processed 7,000 birds in 2001 and 15,000 in 2002. This year, Silverman estimates the firm will process about 20,000.

Silverman, who also raises about 10 acres of vegetables and herbs for restaurants, said he's been able to avoid losses by carefully monitoring customer needs and not overproducing.

"What we produce depends very much on what their needs are going to be," he said.

Cooperative approach

A more recent innovation is the subscription farms that deliver boxes of produce to customers throughout the growing season. The niche is known as community supported agriculture, or CSA.

There are now 10 such farms in Lane County; Winter Green Farm in Noti is the largest.

Co-owner Jack Gray said up until about 1991, Winter Green was a member of an organic produce cooperative that sold primarily to wholesalers. "But there was too much variability and vulnerability in distant markets for a farm our size to compete," Gray said.

Winter Green owns 79 acres, rents another 75 and also raises grass-fed cattle.

Gray said he and his partners eventually decided that the best way to prosper would be to serve local markets.

"Philosophically, we like the CSA," Gray said. "You're growing for people you get to know and those people know you and where their food comes from," he said. "We need them to be able to grow it and make a living, and they need the food."

Winter Green grows about 40 different kinds of vegetables along with strawberries and blueberries.

The farm sells a subscription for about $350 a season and delivers boxes of produce each week to distribution points around the area from June through October.

Gray said the growth - Winter Green now has about 275 customers - has been steady but in recent years has hit a plateau. "We want to increase that," he said.

Need for growth

Pretty much every farmer involved in direct marketing is seeking to do the same thing.

The biggest obstacle, many agree, is educating the public that fresh, local produce is available at multiple locations and then convincing customers to support those outlets.

"If people don't start looking at their food on a local level - that means buying local - agriculture is going to be in trouble," Gray said. "It seems that everyone wants the farm next door to be a beautiful open space, but they don't want to pay for it."

Silverman said many consumers tend to focus on getting the lowest price possible, rather than on getting good quality and knowing where the food comes from.

"It helps when there is a regional awareness to the importance of buying local," he said.

"It shifts the emphasis a little bit from being a price-oriented market to more of a quality-oriented market," Silverman said. "Once you're looking at where it comes from, you're looking above the price sheet."

Oregon farmers tend to be at a competitive disadvantage to lower-cost producers in the Midwest and overseas who have lower land and wage costs.

Gray, as a member of the Lane County Food Coalition, is spearheading a project to survey local farms that sell direct and then compile a "Buy Local" directory for consumers.

"I think if people realized the importance of buying locally, more people would do it," he said. "But it's hard for farmers to educate people."

Henderson said it's important to support local growers, if for no other reason than to keep valuable farmland from falling to developers.

"The biggest competitor farmers around here have is ignorance, not each other," Henderson said.

FARM DIRECT MARKETING CONFERENCE

What: Conference will provide information on the methods and benefits of selling farm produce directly to the public

Where: Valley River Inn, Eugene

When: March 1

For more information: Call (541) 766-6750 or go to smallfarms.oregonstate.edu/

Related link: www.lanefood.org

- Oregon State University Extension Service

CAPTION(S):

Randy Henderson, owner of Thistledown Farms, moves filbert starts in preparation for planting. He has been selling produce locally for 20 years. Henderson pinches buds on flowers at his farm north of Eugene. FARM DIRECT MARKETING CONFERENCE What: Conference will provide information on the methods and benefits of selling farm produce directly to the public Where: Valley River Inn, Eugene When: March 1 For more information: Call (541) 766-6750 or go to http://smallfarms.oregonstate.edu/ Related link: www.lanefood.org - Oregon State University Extension Service
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Title Annotation:Direct-to-market farmers eager to find buyers for their produce; Business
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 2, 2003
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