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In Niche Agriculture, Carving Identity and Withstanding Hard Times Keys to Success

By: iStockAnalyst   Sunday, July 27, 2008 2:53 PM

By James Haggerty, The Times-Tribune, Scranton, Pa.

Jul. 27--Stephen Pryzant's client list includes world-famous celebrities and some of the nation's top chefs.

"I've sold stuff to Martha Stewart," he said, standing in a row of pens in a metal barn in Damascus Township that houses his Berkshire pigs that are prized internationally for their pork. "Did somebody tell you about Bruce Springsteen?"

About two miles away in Wayne County, Rick Franciosa loaded coolers packed with fresh poultry and eggs on a truck to sell at a farmers market.

"We're very small-scale, high quality," said Mr. Franciosa, a New York City transplant, like Mr. Pryzant. "It's a real struggle. Every week, we don't know if we're going to make it to the next week."

Niche and artisanal agriculture is drawing more interest as consumers diversify their palates and the local-food movement expands. Specialty farmers find varying measures of success, though, and they face the same difficulties as their more traditional counterparts.

"Niche markets, for the people who can figure them out and hit the quality standards and other interests of the customers, are pretty good," said James W. Dunn, Ph.D., an agricultural economist at Penn State University. "They have their own challenges. You have to be willing to go your own way and figure out what your network is going to be because it's not the usual people at the cafe."

Actually, it depends on the cafe. Patrons at some of the nation's premiere restaurants, including Daniel and Gramercy Tavern in New York City and Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, eat pork from Four Story Hill Farm, which Mr. Pryzant and his wife, Sylvia, started in 1992.

The couple initially raised veal calves but shifted their concentration in 1998 to Berkshire pigs, a rare English breed with a devoted following, because veal markets were too volatile. The couple also raises chickens and ducks.

"When you can't pay the propane company, even on an extended plan, you know you've got to do something," Mr. Pryzant said. "In terms of pork quality, the Berkshire is considered the best in taste. It has a unique product identity."

Identity can be critical to success for specialty operations.

Emily and Jay Montgomery invested more than $100,000 in 2006 to establish Calkins Creamery at her family's dairy operation, Highland Farm, about 10 miles northwest of Honesdale. Mrs. Montgomery, who has a degree in food science, started making raw-milk cheddar, gouda, havarti and natural-rind cheeses in April 2007. Calkins has doubled business in the past year, she said, selling 350 pounds weekly.

"A lot of it is word of mouth," Mrs. Montgomery said, as she stood inside the 1,500-square-foot artisanal cheese plant's walk-in cooler. "We have a hard time keeping up with the accounts we have."

The business has 45 retail customers, up from 12 a year ago, and uses about 30 percent of the milk generated by the farm's 80 Holstein cattle.

"Sustaining the farm is a big thing for us because a lot of farms are going under," she said. "There's a really big local (food) boom right now."

The boom is evident in membership in the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, a nonprofit group based in Centre County that provides educational and business programs to small farmers.

"We have over 4,500 members right now," membership director Michele Gauger said. "It's basically doubled in the last four or five years."

Direct-to-customer farm sales in Pennsylvania increased about 2 percent between 1997 and 2002, to about $54 million, according to the most recent U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

But success in specialty farming is unpredictable. While direct-to-consumer sales increased in Pennsylvania in the most recent data, the number of farms in direct sales dropped more than 11 percent to 6,082.

"If you can figure out where the people are and how to get your product to them, there's the opportunity to make a nice living at this for some people," Dr. Dunn said. "It requires a different set of skills for the person. They have to sell as well as produce."

Selling is an issue for Hal Reitzig, who operates Red Maple Farm Alpacas near Lake Ariel with his wife, Barbara.

"It's a slow-going concern," said Mr. Reitzig, a retired airline pilot who bought his first alpaca in 2005. "We are still in the buildup stage."

Alpacas are related to llamas and are valued for their fiber, which is used in woven items and is compared to cashmere with the warmth of wool. The Reitzigs have nine alpacas, collect about 70 pounds of fleece annually, sell it at a farmers market and ship it to an alpaca co-operative.

But alpaca fleece is not widely manufactured into domestic products, and there is no steady market for it.

"My wife and I have expectations that are down the road, not immediate," said Mr. Reitzig, who also sells real estate.

Mr. Franciosa, who has operated Quails-R-Us ... Plus for about five years, knows expectations and reality don't always intersect.

He and his wife, Linda, raise thousands of chickens, quails, guinea hens, turkeys and game birds and work year-round to produce premium poultry and eggs. Their feed and fuel costs have nearly doubled in the last year.

"We're selling everything we're raising," Mr. Franciosa said. "We get pretty good prices at the farmers markets, but we're still looking for the right combination to keep in business."

Even the right combination, though, doesn't protect farmers from adverse weather, rising input costs and livestock and crop losses.

"This is hard work," Mr. Pryzant said as he walked along a row of pigpens. "The costs of raising them now is insane. The idea is to keep them alive, keep them healthy and get them to the slaughterhouse."

The roundtrip to the slaughterhouse for Ron Kipps is 300 miles, and he's watched profits evaporate from rising costs.

"My fuel bill is average $1,700 or $1,800 a week," said Mr. Kipps, who operates Elk Trails Bison Ranch in West Clifford. "This year, we're going to be close to break-even. There's still not any profit."

His bison herd in Susquehanna County peaked at 550 in 2001 and today he has about 120 bison and the same number of angus beef cattle.

"For our direct costs with slaughter expenses and fuel expenses, we have in excess of $7 a pound," he said. "Moms aren't going to buy $8 ground meat to put in their meatballs."

Because of costs, he phased out about 95 percent of the restaurants he supplied and sells about 500 pounds of grass-fed bison and beef each Saturday at a farmers market in New York City.

"We don't have anything in our pockets, but the satisfaction from it is priceless," Mr. Kipps said.

Judy Smeltzer has the satisfaction of seeing organic produce gain a foothold in the mainstream.

"When the red lettuces were introduced, we had to keep explaining, 'Yes, it is supposed to look like that,' " said Ms. Smeltzer, who operates Harford Farm and Flower Market with her husband, Geof, in Susquehanna County.

The couple began raising organic lettuce, greens, heirloom tomatoes and other produce in Harford in 1991 and has seen sales triple since they came to the Scranton Co-op Farmers Night Market in 2000.

"There's a demand out there, and we can't fill it," Ms. Smeltzer said. "Everyone now says, 'Buy local.' That's a wonderful thing. It played right to our strong suit."

Contact the writer: [email protected]