Molter Family Orchards, Part II

At the People’s Food Co-op the other day, a sign proclaimed that they’d sold $540,000 worth of local products in 2014. The bulk of that (I assume) was produce and meat from local farmers, so you can begin to see why Aaron Molter said, as I quoted at the end of the last post, that “the Co-op really, I mean it changed how we do everything.” How? Well, one of the challenges Aaron and Kari talked about was how to “right size with the market,” in other words, how to figure out how much demand there is for different kinds of produce they grow or can grow and how to get their production in line with that demand. This isn’t easy, in no small part because you have to decide what and how much to grow before you know whether people actually want it, or how much of it they’ll want. As a grower, then, you have to find the right “balance of risk and demand” as Aaron says. The Co-op helps with this because they provide a venue that allows growers to figure out what’s working. “It’s a direct link,” Kari says. “I can call in and [ask] ‘how does this look? how did that move? how was the packaging?’” This means they can get “immediate feedback,” unlike with the bigger chain stores they sell to. “And,” she adds, “it’s nice that it’s local,” because that means they “can go into the store and look at it” and so see for themselves how it’s doing. The Co-op makes this possible for many growers besides them, and Aaron is generous with his praise: “the Co-op has done a great job of … developing growers to fit into what they’re doing … and given them an opportunity at least to figure it out for themselves how to sell to other people… I think what they’ve done is so rare.”

The Co-op is only one store in one small Midwestern city, of course, but Aaron and Kari are optimistic that it might be a harbinger of something bigger. “I think,” says Aaron, that “the good, the best news is that the consumer demand, the local demand for more variety and more substance and where it’s coming from is going to spur, I think, smaller stores. It’s going to sprout out new vendors and new stores. I just don’t see how these bigger guys that have just sucked money out of the community for years how it’s going to keep going.”

Not that bigger stores are all bad. Some chain stores like Whole Foods and Earth Fare are doing a fair amount to try to buy from farms near their particular locations, and the Molters are able to sell some stuff to them. I ask how it is dealing with stores like this. As you might guess, it’s challenging. As one farm with only so much to offer, it’s not always easy for Molter to fit with the buying needs of stores who want as much ease and predictability as they can get in their purchasing.  “I mean, I look at what we do,” Aaron says, “it’s like peaches, OK great. Well, we have peaches for three weeks or two weeks. Well, guess what, they’re trying to have peaches for 50 weeks. So why would they even want to deal with us? … As a vendor, if you were buying that, would you even want to deal with it?” But he’s not at all resentful: “I understand in the bigger picture how for them to get reliable sources for produce they have to make certain deals with certain vendors,” meaning bigger farms or distributors that aggregate from many farms. And he even seems grateful they have the chance to work with them at all: “I’m just tickled that they would even try, you know?”

Part of the issue here is that right now, farms like Molter pretty much have to work on an individual basis with anyone — person, grocery store, restaurant, institutional food service — who wants their produce. But there are alternatives, if not yet here in the immediate area. Later, when we’re talking about models of aggregation and distribution of produce from multiple growers that might be good for smaller farms, Aaron mentions “talking to one of the Whole Foods guys over the winter” who told him that, when they don’t get all the stuff they were expecting from growers they have agreements to buy from, “they use the Chicago market…when they’re short [to] cover [the gap].” That is, they’ll “go down and buy stuff” from the non-contracted, often smaller growers who bring their produce in to the market. And that gives growers who aren’t large enough to have the fixed contracts with Whole Foods a venue to sell without going through a middleman, thus giving them a price that they can live with.

I get an even better picture of this kind of wholesale system when Aaron and Kari talk about the Eastern Market in Detroit (which also has a large retail side, i.e., a farmers’ market anyone can shop at). Aaron says, “the amount of wholesale and the amount of stores that go down there every day and buy stuff from local farmers is I mean I, it has to rival anyone I’ve seen.” And you don’t have to be a huge farm for it to be worth your while: “you don’t need to take down a semi-load to do it, because there’s ten guys that have the same thing, so your small farm may only have twelve cases [of whatever], but that other guy can get ten there or five there and get what they need.” But as good as it sounds, the Eastern Market provides its own challenges, as I learn when Aaron and Kari correct my belief that they themselves go there. Why not, given how good a venue it is? “It’s the logistics” Kari says. I assumed they meant the drive from one side of the state to the other, but “it’s not the distance,” according to Aaron, it’s that “it starts at midnight and … it ends at 7.” You probably don’t need to be reminded that farm work mostly takes place in daylight, so staying up all night to drive and sell doesn’t fit so well with that. Plus right now Aaron and Kari have two small kids, who, like their crops, also need tending during daylight, and that’s hard to do without any sleep. So for now at least, it’s just not possible for them to make the trip to Detroit. But “it’s intriguing,” Aaron says, it’s something they hope to pursue in the future.

Better, though, we all agree, would be to see something built on this model here in Kalamazoo. And why not? We’re well-located for it—we’re on an interstate, at the nexus of Chicago, Detroit, and Grand Rapids, with South Bend, Ann Arbor and some other small cities nearby–-and we have lots of farms in the farm country around us. (Maybe the next Co-op initiative?)

Another element connected to all of this is the actual moving of produce from grower to buyer. Farmers’ markets and CSAs provide two models for how this can happen, and they allow for a real connection between growers and eaters. But with institutional and commercial vendors, just getting stuff there on time and in the right quantity is the main thing, which means that good old-fashioned trucking is what’s needed. I can’t help but think that there’s got to be space in the local food economy for small operations to take over much of the delivery business, freeing farmers to spend more time doing what they do best: growing stuff. Whether the margins are big enough to cover that cost I don’t know, and we don’t discuss it, but I am surprised to learn that there are already lots of small trucking companies around. Aaron says, “It’s amazing how many … food distributing people are in business…like a lot of times we only see the Syscos of the world or Gordons, but there’s a ton of guys in the middle somewhere, small guys with one or two trucks. So there is distribution.” The problem is that “where they pull from, those farms are really big.” I ask if it’s just a matter of making the connection with the smaller farms, and Aaron says “they could, but to figure that out …the problem is their machine runs 24-7, so I don’t think they have a lot of time to outreach. We’ve had one or two call us in the past, saying ‘a lot of our customers are looking for local stuff … [and] I’m trying to find it, I’m a buyer.’ But I mean, their clock, we called yesterday, they start receiving at 3 in the morning and they stop at 1 in the afternoon, and then their trucks leave at 10… I mean it’s just a weird cycle they’re on in order to [make sure]… your stuff is fresh at the grocery store at 1 in the afternoon. So I don’t know if it necessarily lends to going out and reaching out to growers.” Still, I think to myself, this is exciting! One of the key elements may already be in place that would allow for real growth within the regional food economy, if only it could be reconfigured a little. That certainly sounds easier than building it from the ground up.

Thinking still about the marketing and distribution side of things, I ask about restaurants as customers, since the local food movement has been from the beginning spurred by chefs wanting fresh, quality produce to cook with. Without anything like the Eastern Market, though, local restaurants pretty much have to establish connections with growers on an individual basis, just as grocery stores do. And that’s a challenge, as Kari notes. Sourcing locally means chefs “really keeping with the seasons and changing their menus,” which she knows is “no small feat!” The question is, she says, “can they adjust, bounce back?” She imagines the chef who says “last week we had tons of Brussels sprouts so we had this big menu for that, well, oh my gosh, they had all this rain, or something happened, and we don’t have any for this week, you know, can we adjust or get them somewhere else?” For families planning weekly menus around what comes in each week at the farmers’ market, adapting to weekly fluctuation like this isn’t such a big deal, but for a commercial operation, it most definitely is.

And from the farmer’s perspective, there’s the question of scale. For a farm like theirs, Kari says, there’s the question of “proximity, how much are they ordering … you know, minimums for me to drive an hour.” Is it worth it for, say fifty, or a hundred, or two hundred dollars? Because that’s gas, wear and tear on the vehicle, and, maybe most of all, time not spent doing work on the farm. So right now the Molters are only doing “a touch” of restaurant business, as Aaron puts it.

For some farms, however, it might be worth it to do what the Molters right now are not. This ties into a theme that winds its way throughout our conversation, that of getting new growers established so the local food economy can expand. A small start-up, focusing on just a few crops, might well find it worth its while to sell smaller amounts to individual restaurants, and that might be a good way to build a solid foundation for their farm’s growth. As Aaron sees it, the progression would be something like this: “you could start with…five or six crops that can be grown all year round in [a] hoop house…‘Cause it’s great income, easy, you turn your money superfast, it’s 30 to 60 day crops that you can turn in successions … And then there’s another circle of maybe some crops that take up more space…and maybe they’re 70 day crops but they got a little more value, and then the third one is the trees and stuff,” but, he adds, and we all laugh at this given how they began, “I would never tell someone to start farming trees.” That’s what they happened to have started with, but for most newcomers, “it’s not feasible: the amount of money it takes, the equipment, the risk” — “and the space,” Kari adds — “it doesn’t work.” But if you think of these different kinds of crops as added in a sequence over a few years, with trees as a last step in a process of growth, it just might make sense and provide a way of thinking about building a farming business.

Growing like this — and marketing and selling of course, the importance  but surprising neglect of which Aaron and Kari both comment on — involves a learning curve and a lot of risk, so in Aaron’s view “there has to be some type of class or school or something” that would teach people who want to farm how to (there’s a little of this in KVCC’s new program, and MSU also does this). I ask whether a classroom is a good place to learn to farm, and whether an apprenticeship model isn’t maybe better, but he notes, and Kari agrees, that apprenticeships have a serious downside: “you can pick up bad habits from people.” Still, they’ve discussed if and how they might themselves bring on would-be farmers who would learn from them. Right now they see a tension between the need to have workers just do a job that needs to be done and the educational aspect. Kari says “we talked about this a lot last year, we would literally want to have almost like a curriculum for them…you know, it’d be like you’re here, I don’t just want to have you drive a truck, or I don’t just want to have you plant seeds, you know…I want you to understand why we’re doing it now, and what’s in the soil, and why.” But for now, that’s one too many things to take on. It’s clearly something they think a lot about, though. “I’d love to help other people,” Aaron says, “I think we’re trying. God knows everyone has helped us. We want to return the favor, that’s for sure.”

And that’s a good note to end on, though there are many interesting bits I didn’t mention. Kari gave me a tour of the fields before I headed home, and I got to see the plums and kale and squash I’d soon be eating and hear more about the growth of their operation over the last few years and where they’re headed. I had so much to think about on the way back. What stuck out most, especially going past so many other farms, is that, however different and important farming is from other human activities, it is a business, and an incredibly hard one. It’s unpredictable and uncertain in just about every possible way. You need the ability and drive to work hard to even have a chance in it. But you also need what I felt so much of in talking with Aaron and Kari, a sense of gratitude and generosity. We eaters need that too, of course, and I for one am grateful I get to come home and fill my belly with food they’ve grown.

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