Photo of the owner in field

Sure, you can grow it, but can you sell it? The local food movement has offered many opportunities for small farmers to succeed; first through farmers markets, then through community-supported agriculture programs, and then, for a few, through wholesale markets. Each requires a different marketing style.

Going the wholesale route requires different skillsets. When Thomas Sargent and Robert Eversole decided to switch from a CSA to a wholesale business plan for their Crooked Row Farm in Fayette County, it meant concentrating on just a few crops rather than 65 and also making sure all the proper certifications were in place to be able to sell to institutions and restaurants. Instead of planting “pretty much everything you see in a seed catalog,” Eversole said, the two focused instead on salad greens and cherry tomatoes, supplying restaurants and educational institutions, including UK’s Dining Services.

 “I think farm to institution is like the sleeping giant of agriculture,” he said.

Lilian Brislen, executive director of The Food Connection @ UK, housed in the UK College of Agriculture, Food and Environment, no doubt agrees with him. The Food Connection provides education, outreach, and resources to support farmers like Eversole and local and sustainable food systems. UK is one of the very few universities in the country set up to not only provide local food to its dining services, but also support the farmers who are supplying it.

“One of the goals of this contract (with Aramark) is not just to get the food onto campus, but to fill those value chains,” Brislen said. “We’re really targeting getting folks into wholesale markets and using our dining commitments to pull their products through the marketplace.”

Part of that work is to guide producers through a system of certifications and regulations. Specialty growers trying to move into wholesale are often stymied by the need to be GAP-audited. GAP, Good Agricultural Practices, is a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that covers food safety issues, such as employee hygiene, fence inspections, and facility and equipment sanitation. Many retailers, restaurants, and institutional dining services, including Aramark, require their suppliers to be GAP-audited.

Bryan Brady, UK extension associate housed in The Food Connection, is an expert on GAP practices. He and Paul Vijayakumar, food safety extension specialist with the college's Food Systems Innovation Center, train farmers in GAP. Vijayakumar is also the lead trainer on a new Food and Drug Administration regulation, the Food Safety Modernization Act—Produce Safety Rule. GAP is not a government regulation; FSMA is. The FDA requires growers who average more than $25,000 in annual gross produce sales over the past three years to take that training.

“FSMA is standalone,” Vijaykumar explained. “It meets minimum science-based standards for safety. It’s a federal requirement because of the significant bacterial outbreaks in produce that (the country) has experienced. It does not guarantee any market openings.”

On the other hand, GAP could open markets, so farmers find it advantageous to go through
the training.

“The number one thing that prevents people from accessing wholesale markets is having a third-party food safety audit or GAP audit,” Brady said.

Eversole and Sargent attended UK’s four-hour training, but despite their good intentions, for a while they went no further.

“Our plan was to certify that summer. Fast forward a whole year, and I still hadn’t done anything with GAP,” Eversole said.

Enter Brady, whose job also includes on-farm assistance.

Eversole said Brady made it seem like they could do it. He ran them through the questions they could expect from an auditor and helped them ready their books, Standard Operating Procedures, and logbooks.

“We spent a considerable amount of time just getting ready for the audit and still wanted to postpone it,” Eversole said. “The audit is $650, so it’s not cheap. You don’t want to have to do it again. Can you imagine if Bryan hadn’t been there to ask these last-minute questions and help prepare us?”

After all the preparation (and stress), when they were audited, they had only one discrepancy on the whole farm. To Eversole, the process ended up being worth it.

“No one has required it yet, aside from Aramark, but I like to think it gives us a shoo-in,” he said. “I think it made a difference when we pitched to Clark County schools and to restaurants. It helps set us apart.”

-- Carol Lea Spence