Small operations are important to Kentucky’s and Tennessee’s fruit and vegetable production.
“We have a few larger growers, but on a daily basis, a lot of our growers are smaller,” said Billy Krause, operations and sales manager for Crossville, Tenn.-based Tennessee Vegetable Packers.
John Mixon FarmsGrowers with smaller operations can help fill demand from niche outlets such as restaurants, farmers markets or local grocery stores, Kentucky and Tennessee industry members say.Krause said he has invested a lot into those smaller operations because they are important to the future of the industry.
“We’re trying to build those relationships and it’s not an easy thing for guys to get started in this business, so even if a grower is only able to take care of five acres right now, we’re willing to work with them,” he said.
However, just because an operation starts out small, doesn’t mean it will stay that way.
“Some of those smaller growers have gone from only about 5 acres to 50 or even 75 acres,” Krause said.
Jim Walker, president of Louisville, Ky.-based Creation Gardens, has also seen many smaller operations grow into larger farms.
“We don’t work with small operations as much as we work with what I’d call a ‘growing farmer,’” he said.
He has seen this trend develop as demand for local product grows.
“The grower might have been a small family farmers when we started working with them early on, but now they have expanded to become more commercial and can be considered a powerful producer in the region,” he said.
Brian Knott, president of Grow Farms, Louisville, Ky., said helping smaller growers is important.
“That’s part of our mission statement,” he said. “We value those small family farms, and those small family farms are growing each year.”
Knott said he works with growers that grow just one crop on as few as 10 acres, or growers who grow six or more crops on as many as 150 acres.
He sees the demand for local produce as a perfect fit for these smaller operations.
“I think everyone just likes to support their local growers and keep their dollars local. It’s important for the community and good for the grower as well as good for the consumer,” Knott said.
Lee Pittman, owner and president of Dixie Produce Inc., Chattanooga, Tenn., said having a lot of smaller growers can help supply a bigger variety of local produce.
“There are a lot of small-scale farmers in the mountains that grow a lot of different items, so we source with them as much as possible when we can, and try to get those items out to local foodservice customers,” he said.
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.