By Wayne Wengerd
This article appeared in the December 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.
Most of us Amish baby boomers grew up on family farms. We were farmers. We were born on the farm, or somewhere close by. The farm provided food and shelter. It was where we gathered for worship. We got married on the farm. Our elders died and were buried on the farm. We lived and breathed farming. It was what we knew and did. Everyone expected that we would someday own and operate our own farm.
In addition to providing the family’s income, the farm was considered the ideal setting to raise and nurture children to adulthood. Those of us who grew up on family farms can attest to this. One of our first responsibilities was tending animals. At a young age we were introduced to the cycle of life. We quickly learned the facts of reproduction, the miracle of birth and the stark finality of death.
A short 50 years ago, 90 percent of Amish families in North America were farmers. They lived and retired on the income from their small family farms. Today, less than 10 percent farm for a living. This transition from farming to other occupations is cause for concern — even alarm — within the community. The further we stray from our agricultural heritage, the more we acquire the social ills of the world around us.
Adapting to Change
On January 20, 2003, a group of 20 Amish farmers and business owners from Holmes County, Ohio, assembled to discuss these concerns. How did we get from there to here? What happened? What changed? What has this transition from farming to other occupations done to us, to our culture, and to our way of life? Is this where we want to be? If not, are we willing to do something about it? And, finally, what can be done? What will it take?
After much deliberation, the group reached some conclusions. Fifty years ago, the way we farmed was not so different from other American farmers. Most farms were small and diversified. Today, though, the trend is to ever-larger factory-like farming operations. Most Amish communities also face a lot of development pressure — from outside and from within the community. Land prices today make it impossible to buy land and pay for it by conventional farming. We concluded that our small family farmers can’t compete in the conventional farming arena.
The high cost of land means that our farmers need to produce more value on fewer acres. To be sustainable, farmers need to be able to pay for land with the income from farming. This requires a premium for their products. The question, then, is this: who is willing to pay a premium? And what are they looking for? Seeking answers to these questions, the group conducted a feasibility study. Our research indicated that 50 percent of Americans really don’t care what they eat as long as it is quick, cheap and good-tasting. These are obviously not the customers we are seeking.
Our research indicated about 20 percent of the remaining 50 percent care about what they eat — enough that they will pay a premium. They want good, wholesome, safe food from people they know and trust. In other words, they want to know who is making their food. The Plain Community has the land, the people, the skills and the knowledge to make what these customers are seeking. Our rich farming heritage has been developing for centuries and goes all the way back to Europe.
A Working Model
How do we connect the Plain Community to the consumers who are willing to pay a premium? Ideally the consumer buys directly from the farmer, and the farmer sells directly to the consumer. This model works for some, but in real life it usually isn’t practical for both. Like my brother Henry Jr., who operates a certified organic dairy on the home farm, says, “If I wanted to sell direct to the consumer, I would build a store. That’s not my goal in life — not what our family wants to do. We want to farm, to milk, to care for our cows.”
Historically, when faced with great challenges, the Plain People respond by working together. Barn raisings, work frolics and mutual aid are typical examples of group efforts within the Plain Community. In this case, our community created Green Field Farms Co-operative to be the bridge between our farmers and the consumer. It is an effort to work together as a group, pooling our resources to accomplish what otherwise was not possible.
Green Field Farms is a legally organized, member-owned business entity situated in Holmes County, Ohio. Membership is limited to Plain Community members who use traditional horse and buggy as their primary mode of transportation. Members purchase equity in the co-op and must be approved by the board of directors. Financing of operations comes from a local bank with collateral provided by board members. A percentage of profit is retained for growth; the rest is paid back to producing members.
The co-op is governed by a 20-member board of directors, which meets quarterly. The reason for the large number of board members is to provide broad community representation. Five board members are elected annually to serve as the executive committee and officers of the board. The executive committee meets two or three times a month and is responsible for providing vision and leadership for the co-op. Numerous committees are appointed and assigned to lead and direct projects as needed.
Keys to Cooperative Success
Determine the need and/or problem. Don’t waste time fixing what isn’t broken. Our problem was easy to identify: our farmers were unable to compete in the modern farming arena.
Define the objective. Determine what you are going to do — and why. We wanted a premium for the items produced on our small family farms in order to preserve our way of life.
A collaborative effort can accomplish what is otherwise impossible. Don’t underestimate the power and strength of community. Avoid being a lone ranger. Collaborate with people that share your values and principles. Get everyone to pull in the same direction.
At some point, thoughts and ideas must be put into shoe leather. An action plan needs to be developed. Action items need to be identified and prioritized. Define what needs to be done, in what order, by whom and when.
Vision & Mission:
The vision is “why” — the reason we exist. The mission is “how” — how we will accomplish our vision. Write them down. Keep them short and to the point. They will be your guiding documents when making decisions.
Organize as a legal entity. By-laws and operating agreements need to be developed to specify organizational structure and functions. Consult with legal counsel that has experience in such matters. They can assist with state filings and other legal requirements.
Determine who is eligible for membership. Think about who is best able to achieve your vision and goals.
Choose someone to lead that has leadership ability, is good at organizing and communicates well. The board of directors should govern and provide vision to the organization. Develop a qualification policy for directors.
Do market research. A simple feasibility study identifies your potential customers and what they are looking for. It avoids wasting time and energy trying to sell to customers that don’t have interest in your products.
Food safety is paramount. Develop written production standards and a practical record-keeping process. Today’s customer wants to know how their food is made. They are concerned about how you treat your animals. You need documentation to back up your claims. Clearly document how products are grown and processed.
Build relationships or partner with other organizations that share your vision. Legal, financial, accounting, insurance and marketing resources will be needed. Don’t forget processing and packaging. Build on existing relationships; develop new ones as you grow. Don’t burn bridges — you will have to cross them again someday.
Develop a data bank of resources you can tap into when needs arise. Challenges will come and you’ll need help. Someone or some organization can probably help you.
Choose your organization’s name with care; put some thought into it. Remember, someday you may want to sell the business or move it elsewhere. Make sure the name easily transfers or is portable. Steer away from using a person’s name or being too location-specific. Choose a name that is easy on the tongue.
Strive to develop a strong brand that will be recognized in the marketplace. Create an eye-catching logo that’s easy to identify on the store shelf. Choose a design that works equally well on a sign, a business card, or a pen. Ideally, your brand is a composite of your name and your logo.
Marketing & Sales:
Define your customers and determine what they want. Focus on filling their needs. Listen and provide solutions to their frustrations and problems. Tell them what makes you different. Always sell your story, not your product. Make it easy to do business with you. Price your product to make a fair profit. Generating sales is mostly about offering a good product, being nice and working hard.
It is tempting for directors to volunteer time and effort for the daily operations of the co-op. This might be needed when starting out, but as the organization grows it is important to hire staff to do the work. Directors should focus on leading and directing. Hire good people and pay them well. If you can’t afford to pay your people, the organization is not sustainable.
Incoming products and packaging are owned by the co-op. All real estate and equipment is leased from a separate entity, owned and controlled by a group of 10 local investors. Growers are paid for incoming product twice a month. A percentage of the sale price is retained by Green Field Farms to finance marketing and administrative costs.
Day-to-day management of the business is overseen by Aden Yoder, the co-op’s operations manager. Office staff take care of bookkeeping and accounting. They also act as the vital communication link between members and the office. Field men take calls and make regular field calls with growers. They are trained specialists and have resources to provide solutions to most grower problems.
Certified organic vegetables make up over 50 percent of sales and are our flagship product. A broad variety of seasonal organic produce is grown and packaged on member farms. Product is picked up at the farm and shipped to the 12,000 square foot co-op warehouse. After being cooled and sorted, produce is loaded out for distribution throughout the Midwest and along the East Coast.
Other items on the growing list of products offered by Green Field Farms are raw milk cheeses, brown eggs, kale chips, puffed spelt, maple syrup and maple water. The product line continues to evolve as more farmers are added. All products are grown on member family farms meeting USDA certified organic standards. Training, record-keeping for traceability and regular third-party audits ensure food safety throughout the process from farm to store.
Growing high-quality, nutritious organic produce requires good management practices on the farm. Well-balanced soils are essential to growing shelf-stable, nutrient-dense healthy produce. Since problems cannot be fixed by using chemical inputs, organic growers must rely on other techniques such as crop rotation, green manure, compost and biological pest control. In response to the needs of produce growers, Green Field Farms developed our own in-house soil amendment program. This provides control of product quality from soil to store shelf.
Soil samples are collected from individual fields and sent to an outside lab for analysis. The lab reports are returned to our office and analyzed by our trained field specialists. They make recommendations for a custom blend of soil amendments to balance the soil for the intended crop.
Bulk soil amendments are stored in our warehouse, custom-blended and delivered to the farm in bags or totes, or are bulk spread directly onto farmers’ fields. This program has proven a valuable resource for produce growers and area farmers. The program is available to both members and non-members.
The Plain Community’s dairy farming history goes back hundreds of years to when our forefathers grazed their cows on alpine meadows in the Swiss Alps. Today, our communities are still dotted with hundreds of small family dairy farms. In the last decade, many of our dairy farmers transitioned to certified organic — a natural fit for these smaller family farms.
With a goal of providing an outlet for organic milk, co-op members took a leap of faith a couple years ago, following our dream of processing and marketing Green Field Farms-branded fluid milk. In June 2018, the first batch of milk was processed and packaged in a new, locally owned, state-of-the-art processing facility.
The plant was designed, sourced and built from the ground up utilizing local talent and labor. To preserve the naturally occurring nutrients in milk, Green Field Farms milk is processed using low-temperature vat pasteurization. The milk is non-homogenized, keeping it closer to its natural state and making it easier to digest. Milk is packaged in glass bottles to better preserve quality and freshness. Instead of adding to landfill waste, we collect, sanitize and reuse the glass bottles.
The biggest challenge is always how to get products to the consumer before they rot, spoil, or expire. Someone must pick it up at the farm and take it somewhere. Most of it must be processed and packaged before anyone will buy it. Product must be distributed to multiple locations so a multitude of customers can see and buy the products. And finally, someone must stock and sell products. Keep in mind that no one is willing to work for free! All the players in this game want to be paid for their work. This is called marketing.
Green Field Farms’ marketing program requires that all branded products be grown by member farmers. Customers want to know who is making their food. The name “Amish” is often exploited by outsiders. How should we convey the message that it was truly grown on an Amish farm without exploiting who we are? The horse and buggy “Seal of Authenticity” assures the customer that what they are buying was grown on a Plain Community member farm.
Marketing products produced by our Plain Community farmers was the primary purpose for creating Green Field Farms. We employ and train our own marketing and sales staff. Marketing and promotional materials are developed in-house. Sales people work from the office and/or travel to customer locations as needed. Co-op members and staff help with in-store product demos.
The co-op provides resources for our growers, and Green Field Farms-branded products are recognized for high quality in the marketplace.
A diverse group of people came together, combining their talents and resources in this effort to preserve a way of life. Observing young families working together at home and on the farm, and being able to pay for their land by working the soil, is reward enough. It is the way Plain People respond to challenges.
By Wayne Wengerd. This article appeared in the December 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.
Wayne Wengerd is one of the founders of Green Field Farms — a cooperative of organic farmers that started in 2003 in the Holmes County, Ohio, Amish community. Wayne served on the Board of Directors for 14 years. He is also the founder of Pioneer Equipment, Inc., a company that manufactures horse-drawn farm machinery in northeast Ohio. He currently fills an advisory and consultation role for both organizations and is actively involved in numerous philanthropic projects throughout the community.
For more information on Green Field Farms, call 330-263- 0246.