Walker said working with small family farms helps provide very specialized items.
“The smaller family farms we work with are usually very item specific, such as a Kentucky limestone bibb producer,” Walker said.
Ben Shaffar, director of business development for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture’s Office of Marketing, said the vast majority of growers enrolled in the state’s Kentucky Proud program are smaller-scale growers.
“We don’t have as many larger farmers, and a lot of these smaller operations sell at county farmers markets or to local schools through our farm to school program, or even to local restaurants,” Shaffer said.
Jonathon Mixon, farm manager of John Mixon Farms, Rutledge, Tenn., agreed that smaller operations can help fill in supply in new ways.
“We’re starting to see more smaller-type operations that are geared specifically toward supplying a certain restaurants or a local small grocery store,” he said.
Many of these operations sell directly to consumers, whether through “pick-your-own” farms or through a nontraditional retail setting.
“A lot of these smaller operations get their main source of income from farmers markets,” Mixon said.
Still, there are some challenges that smaller-scale growers have to face.
Eric Beale, president of Lebanon, Tenn.-based J.E. Beale Produce Inc., said he works with various growers of different scaled operations and that there are positives and negatives to both sides.
However, food safety remains at the top of the priority list, and Beale said some smaller grower find that a challenge.
“If they aren’t up to date on all their food safety and traceability requirements, I don’t deal with them,” he said. “It’s all about food safety. Size doesn’t really matter.”
In addition, because Beale often works with large orders, he has found that it can be easier to send a truck to pick up an entire order from one large farm, where that truck might need to fill the large order by going to several smaller operations.
“Logistically, it can be easier,” he said.
Still, there’s something to be said for those smaller-scale growers. Beale said they can be easier to work with on occasion, and he has seen demand for produce from those operations grow in the past several years.
“Some of the bigger retailers are even trying to use more smaller-scale, local guys when they can, but it can get hard when the farm is too small if they are trying to supply a big local retail giant,” Beale said.