By MATTHEW D. ERNST
(This is the third of a five-part series spotlighting businesses that earn their incomes from different kinds of agricultural retail ventures.)
EDMONTON, Ky. — When Larry Martin moved to Kentucky from Michigan in 1995, he never imagined his dream of starting a full-time blueberry farm would turn into a way for Kentucky schools to purchase local frozen blueberries.
But this year, the Kentucky Blueberry Growers Assoc., a for-profit business managed by Martin that develops blueberry markets in the Bluegrass State, started sending frozen blueberries to local school systems. The 25,000 pounds of blueberries, delivered in June and July, grew on 26 farms.
“That’s not a big number when you compare it to frozen blueberries from states like Michigan,” said Martin. “But we’ve got a lot of bushes in the ground in this part of Kentucky, and I’m kind of proud in getting the farmers a good price for their berries this year and sending many of our blueberries to 14 local schools.”
Farm-to-school programs in this region have often bumped up against seasonal reality – when much local produce is being harvested, students are out of school for the summer. But the rise in summer school feeding programs, and creativity by farmers and farm businesses in adding value to regional produce, have helped solve some of those challenges.
Tina Garland, who provides support to Farm to School programs at the Kentucky Department of Agriculture, said the key to developing successful markets between local growers and school systems is all about communication.
“The Kentucky Blueberry Growers have done a tremendous job in meeting school foodservice directors’ needs,” she said. “The blueberries come frozen in 10-pound bags, ready to use. The foodservice directors can then use them at any time.”
In Kentucky, many such directors are able to tap into a program called “Restaurant Rewards,” a Department of Agriculture program providing rebates to foodservice customers who use products grown in-state. Such programs reflect an increased interest in growing and eating locally.
Today’s most successful farm-to-school programs incorporate core educational components, said Julie Fox, program director for the Direct Marketing Team at The Ohio State University South Centers in Piketon.
“Never has the opportunity been so great for farm to school,” said Fox. “You’re really doing something significant, helping young people learn to eat ealthy and where their food comes from.”
In Ohio, a program administered by the Cuyahoga County Board of Health resulted in school salad bars with produce from a local farm, said Fox. Students completed educational curricula about where the food came from, and the farmer visited the cafeteria while greens from the farm were served. Schools in the Cleveland area have also tended gardens as part of the program.
Kentucky secondary schools have also promoted awareness of how food is grown, incorporating local products, through a Junior Chef cookoff. “The competition requires students to develop recipes that meet national school lunch guidelines and use five products that can be sourced locally,” said Garland.
Sullivan University, a Kentucky school offering culinary training, has committed up to $70,000 in scholarship money for the winners.
“We also see a lot of FFA programs growing produce as part of their curriculum and even selling that to school foodservice,” said Garland. “Family and consumer science teachers incorporate a curriculum we’ve developed, and the Department of Public Health works with events to taste-test local products. It’s good because everybody is working together.”
Like others involved with crops newer to Kentucky, Martin realizes growers should not rely on farm-to-school sales alone. He does see the market as an important part of the marketing mix.
“It is our association’s biggest wholesale market right now,” he said. “But our growers are also selling berries off the farm, U-pick and at farmers’ markets.”