New opportunities for farmers

By Errol Castens/Daily Journal Oxford Bureau

VERONA – An upscale grocery in the state capital, a nationwide online marketing system, the 10th-largest school system’s emphasis on local produce and regional marketing cooperatives may mean new opportunities for area farmers.
Those nuggets of news were among information offered to current producers and prospective growers last week at the North Mississippi Fruit and Vegetable Conference, hosted by the Mississippi State University Extension Service at the Lee County Agri-Center.
“Whole Foods is going to open up a store in Jackson,” said David Nagel, Extension vegetable specialist. “If you are interested in growing for Whole Foods, they have contact information on the web.”
Ben Posadas, MSU Extension research professor, outlined the MarketMaker network that links consumers, chefs, retailers, food banks and farmers.
Anthony Geraci, a chef who heads Memphis City Schools’ $100 million child nutrition program, said he hopes to spend $10 million on produce from the Mid-South this year and up to $40 million a year eventually.
“What we’re doing is redeveloping our menus to reflect what’s being grown here,” he said. “We’re moving away from processed foods back to whole foods.”
Geraci said his biggest challenge is finding large sources.
“When I serve zucchini for one serving for one meal for one day, it’s 60,000 pounds,” he told the farmers. “There’s a huge opportunity for us to do some business.”
James Keller, a fruit and vegetable grower from Nettleton, added, “Some of us are trying to form a co-op to where we can all sell to this gentleman.”
Judy Belue said nonprofit Delta Fresh Foods Inc. aims to help farmers in the Delta take advantage of farm-to-school initiatives.
“If you have a group, it’s an advantage,” she said. “School food service directors simply don’t have the manpower to talk to every grower individually.”
Nagel noted one counterweight to all the new opportunities. The Food Safety Modernization Act moves farm inspection from USDA to the Food and Drug Administration and could cost small-volume producers as much as $3,000 annually for compliance, with larger producers spending up to $250,000.
“There is a chance that you’ll have a bright, shiny, new inspector come to your farm to inspect your food safety procedures,” he said. “And new people want to make a flash.”
Coincidentally, the comment period on the new rules ended Friday.
The Fruit and Vegetable Conference continued all day Thursday and Friday seminars for fruit producers, vegetable producers, organic producers, agritourism promoters and beginning farmers.
errol.castens@journalinc.com