This week we're thrilled to feature the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance, a network of farmers in the area around Tallahassee, Florida. They got started just a few years ago now, and already have a lot to be proud of.
Their two main projects are a Growers' Circle for farmers and gardeners to learn from each other, and an online farmers market to support the economic success of small farmers. Below, read more about what they're doing, and how they make it work!
The Growers' Circle has a triple bottom line - good for people, planet, and profit. Most workshops are led by local farmers with expertise in a particular area, so by bringing farmers together to learn from each other, it builds a more robust sense of community. In addition, the Growers' Circle meetings cover topics that can both improve a farm's bottom line and help a farm become more sustainable. This has been well received, and the Red Hills Small Farm Alliance is now working on a survey for local farmers to find out what topics they want to see.
Coming up on it's third season, the Red Hills Online Farmers Market has been hugely successful already with nearly 50 farmers listed. The way it works is each week farmers post what they have available on the website, and customers browse the offerings and place their orders online. The farmers can see what's been ordered and harvest accordingly. They deliver all the orders to a pick up central location at a set time. Farmers tend to like the set up because there's no waste at the end of the day like there is at a slow day at an in-person market; farmers only harvest what they get paid for. Customers like it because they can plan their weekly shopping further in advance.
The online farmers market supports economic success of small farms by offering another way to connect eaters and farmers. The market also helps raise awareness and promote each farm that participates. One of the founders, Louise Divine of Turkey Hill Farm explains it this way, "Successful small farmers need to learn to self-promote but some farmers aren’t outgoing enough to promote themselves much, or reach out to restaurants themselves. So the farm alliance is in charge of promoting all of us. And that’s where we have the biggest room for growth. "
So how did they make this all happen in such a short time?
They started small. Louise Divine, Katie Harris of Full Earth Farm, and few other women had the idea, but started on a small scale and all volunteer. The loose goal was to connect with other farmers and to help develop the farming community in northwest Florida and southeast Georgia.
They applied for and received a grant of $1,500 from their local Slow Food Chapter to cover the costs of applying for nonprofit status, and to purchase the software from Local Food Marketplace for the online market. They did all the coordinating of the market on a volunteer basis, but now their budget supports a part-time manager.
Red Hills Small Farm Alliance collects modest membership dues with different rates for farmers, friends of farmers, and funders. In the interest of including as many small farmers as possible, they decided not to require that members follow organic practices, but Louise sees it as an opportunity: "We welcome everybody, and encourage people to use organic methods. People join and then they ask about our methods, they want to know." In return for the fee, members can attend workshops and participate in the online market.
Last fall RHSMA members surprised themselves by winning two more grants, this time from the USDA. The first is to help the organization stay connected with the food network community and help with a new open air market, and the other will help them develop marketing tools for their members.
Louise says that pulling off a project like this isn't about having the money or community organizing skills. She says "A lot of money is not so much what you need. Money is such a fluid item, it comes it goes, it comes back. Don't get me wrong, we’re very happy that we got the grants, it is pushing us faster." She is also careful to emphasize that she and Katie are primarily farmers and not exactly what you'd call organizers.
Louise explains "What you have to have is very strong and committed core group who believe in what you’re doing. In this case we’re connecting a core group of dedicated farmers with dedicated eaters. The farmers who list products regularly and the people who shop regularly are the ones that keep it going."