Feb 19, 2015
Organic growers face challenges and opportunities

David Coveyou, owner of Scenic Farm in Petoskey, Michigan, who works with farm manager Laura Judge, discussed how they “cultivated farm resiliency and transitioned to organic production” during a presentation at the 2014 Great Lakes Fruit, Vegetable and Farm Market EXPO in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Coveyou Scenic Farm is a 140-year-old family farm just outside Petoskey, in the far northern portion of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. The farm, which sits on 330 acres today, has been agriculturally focused for more than five generations.

“The farm has gone through a number of transitions over the decades and has had an ability to adapt and continually transform,” Coveyou said. “The farm still plays a key role in the local community, with organic vegetable production a major part of our diversified crops and a major contributor to our diversified sales channels.”

Coveyou uses the word “resiliency” to describe a farm.

“Most people speak about farms these days as wanting them to be ‘sustainable. ‘ But what that means can be very different to the person hearing the word,” he said. “To some people it refers to the growing practices used on the farm and how ecologically aligned they are. To others it refers to the desire to maintain the open spaces and rural views for the larger community. Many farmers may view the word to imply the ability to make enough money to keep going while others may look to it to mean how to keep the farm in agriculture generation after generation. Sustainable may mean something else entirely to you.

“I think of resiliency most when I think of weeds,” he said. “Some weeds can handle really poor soil, drought conditions and someone uprooting them only for them to keep growing. That’s resiliency: the ability to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.

“It’s that ability to adapt, to transform one’s operation that keeps the farm a farm,” Coveyou said. “We can plan for the known – and even the likely – but it’s the threats of the unforeseen and how we structure our mindsets as well as our farm business that allows us to stay the course.”

Coveyou outlined how the farm, originally homesteaded in 1874, had its roots in the logging trade, with a sawmill operation being its winter focus. A diversified crop and livestock operation was also in place in the summer.

Honey production had its day through the 1920s as one of the Coveyou brothers, Elias, created an entire business around his apiary focus.

“This northern Michigan region grew a lot of potatoes from the 1930s through the 1960s, with our farm evolving to be one of the larger growers in the local area,” Coveyou said. “My father’s design and construction of a potato digger that self loaded into trailers at a time when that was all very new eliminated the need to hand pick up potatoes from the ground, saving enormous amounts of labor and allowing increased scale.”

Market economics and disease led to the end of the potato era by 1964. Seed grain production remained the focus up through the early 1990s, but with many of the local farmers going out of business in the 1980s and ’90s, this business model didn’t have staying power.

“In the late 1990s I was faced with the opportunity to transform the farm once again or let it go out of agriculture on my watch,” Coveyou said. “We have some unique challenges and opportunities with where we are located. Above the 45th parallel our seasons are short – but that also increases the desire for something fresh and local.”

He said the farm chose to move away from the farmer-to-farmer and farmer-to-processor arrangements of the past and move into the farmer-to consumer model.

“Additionally, to reduce our vulnerability we planned to diversify our growing to minimize risks with four main thrusts: spring and fall potted flowers, organically grown produce, seasonal decorations (Halloween and Christmas) and an on-farm retail store.

“Diversification of what we grow and sell helps minimize risks but also increases our work load and management challenges,” Coveyou said. “Organically grown produce is our anchor, but the spring flowers, fall mums and pumpkins and Christmas wreaths allow us to be selling to local consumers over a larger period of the year.”

He said the farm uses a number of different sales channels to increase its revenue stream, but also mitigate the risks of selling to a single customer.

“We don’t have any customers that account for more than 10 percent of our sales. We sell our produce and flowers directly to customers from our on-farm market, four farmers’ markets, restaurants, retail food co-ops and stores, institutions and through a CSA and open market membership programs.

“The open market program is similar to a CSA with one set fee, but in this case a customer can come to the farm any day of the week, as often as they want and take all the produce their household can consume,” he said. “This large number of sales channels is more than we desire but is needed to help us generate enough scale in our small community.”

“There is a difference between making a profit and making a living, and that has to do with scale,” Coveyou said. “We don’t have jobs off the farm and we need to be able to generate enough profit dollars to cover our farm overhead, production costs and capital investments, as well as live. Structuring how we do things around systems that are scalable helps us expand without needing to change the methods we use.”

He said the farm’s organic vegetable seeding, transplanting, irrigation and processing/packing area are “all scalable as we grow.”

“In addition to scale, we have focused on trying to put into place systems that help reduce our production or operating costs. Our on-farm market is repurposing an old wooden livestock/hay barn. This structure adds a lot of character to our market but also provides significant retail space.

“When we added our walk-in coolers and produce washing/packing area in the basement of the barn, we chose to invest in the lowest operating cost cooling system available and designed a geothermal run system. Similarly, we chose to put in a solar PV array that now provides all the electrical needs for the farm.

“Our movement to a variable speed drive irrigation pump was driven by the desire to decrease our operating costs,” Coveyou said. “Our vegetable transplant and flower greenhouses are heated by wood pellet furnaces that run at a fraction of the cost of fossil fuel-based systems. Implementing some of these newer technologies adds to the farm’s resiliency by giving it an advantage of running at lower operating costs.

“As we reinvent the farm once more, we constantly look for ways to keep our production and operating costs low,” he said. “Our transition to selling directly to consumers evolved to embrace growing produce without synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. It’s how we desire to eat and aligns well with our values.

“Our passion for improving the food system in itself adds to the resiliency of the farm,” he said. “When it’s more than a job but a passion, then we have a stronger will to see success.”

He said the farm became certified organic in 2014.

“Most of our markets did not require us to be certified. Our relationships with our customers and the confidence they appeared to have in us allowed us to grow and sell at market prices that were similar to certified organic,” he said. “We came to the point of believing that since we grow organically and that we have many of the systems required for organic certification in place, that it would not be a big step to become certified.

“We feel the biggest challenge was working with the fact that our transitional acreage requires us to document and store produce with a little more effort,” Coveyou said. “We have now put in place more detailed field maps and have implemented changes to how we store produce in the walk-in cooler and better product labeling, but our planting records and harvest log have been changed only minimally.

“We only hear very positive feedback from new and old customers and our sales continue to climb year over year. We have been able to add a local organic co-op account due to our being certified, but in reality most other channels (restaurants, institutions) did not change their purchasing patterns and still prefer fresh and local over certification.

“We were not able to raise our prices with certification, but still feel that we gained a strength and respect in the marketplace for endeavoring to obtain the certification,” Coveyou said. “We hope our attempts at structuring our farm results in a resiliency that allows us to quickly adapt to the unforeseen.”

Gary Pullano

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