Developing Personal Relationships
Any institutional food system that wants to begin supporting local farmers must have a designated person who goes out and forms the relationships with producers. AVI’s Sustainability Director, John Marsh, lies at the heart of Kenyon’s local food movement. His position as defined includes several components: identifying local producers, transporting much of the food, and working with various administrative and financial matters on a regular basis. Marsh’s personal qualities are well suited to the job. He’s a talker: he genuinely enjoys conversing with people, which is critical when it comes to forming and sustaining relationships with our producers. Whether asking a producer about their kids or the progress of their tomatoes, or inquiring about the chemicals sprayed on their neighbor’s cornfields, Marsh is both approachable and easy going. As a farmer himself, Marsh can relate to our producers, and he knows what to ask them and how to keep a genuine relationship going. As Marsh puts it, “You gotta be able to talk the talk and walk the walk, or they’ll see right through you.” The importance of having a dependable and qualified individual to foster relationships with our producers cannot be over emphasized, especially for ensuring reliability and quality of local food sources.
Communication with local producers involves several components. We must communicate to the farmers what we need, when we need it, and how much of it we need, and they communicate with us what they have to sell, how much of it they have, and how much it costs. Often times, this communication between the farmer and an institutional buyer involves an element of translation; this is particularly the case in our relationship with the Amish.
Many of our local producers are Amish, as Knox County lies within one of the largest Amish communities in the country. While not every institution undertaking a local food’s initiative may have Amish producers in their surrounding region, we find that the Amish are reliable to work with and cultivate top quality produce. As they’re ideologically opposed to the use of telephones and the Internet, we are forced to communicate with them face-to-face or by mail. We either stop by their homes to coordinate food purchasing and acquisition, or we coordinate by word of mouth with their family members or other friends within the community. As we have learned, face-to-face communication is crucial in all of our relationships with the farming community.
An integral part of communication involves planning: to ensure that producers are reliable in their supply and quantities of food, the Sustainability Director must be communicative with the producers about the needs of the institution. In a conventional food system, we can place an order for specific quantities and types of food on short notice and know that the food will soon arrive at the loading dock ready for preparation. To ensure a comparable standard of reliability in a local food system, we must plan the timing of our local acquisitions significantly in advance. This entails a great deal of communication with our producers, especially during the winter months of the year.
One of our primary suppliers of produce is an Amish man by the name of Jonathan Yoder. Kenyon initially connected with Yoder three years ago. Marsh was driving around Amish country to pick up produce, and he saw Yoder’s sign for Creekside Greenhouse on the side of the road. He stopped for a bit to talk with Yoder, and from there Yoder began doing business with the college. Over 40% of the produce that the family now cultivates is sold wholesale to Kenyon College, and according to Yoder, they’d be financially struggling without our support.
We work closely with our producers throughout every step of the production and acquisition process. Each winter, when the hard work and chaos of the growing season has ended and the farmer begins planning and organizing for the next year’s growing season, the two men sit down at Yoder’s kitchen or living room table and plan out his production for us for the following year. They take into account the varieties of produce that Kenyon wants from Yoder and construct a detailed planting schedule for him. This scheduling enables Yoder to know specifically when to plant and when to harvest, as well as even the length of the rows that he’s planting, the units of seeds he must use, and the quantity of produce that he’ll end up growing. Depending on the weather, the planting schedule provides Marsh with a pretty good estimate of when in the season he’ll be getting what types of produce, as well as how much produce he can expect from Yoder. Taking the time and effort to help our producers thoroughly systematize their production for the following season truly benefits both parties. Not only does it provide us with input and insight regarding our food acquisition for the following season, but it also enables us to maintain contact with our producers during the slower times of the year, which overall serves to strengthen our relationships with producers.
Although Marsh makes more extensive plans for planting with Yoder, working with Yoder does not guarantee an institutional commitment. As each growing season differs from the next, we never truly know exactly what we can expect from any of our growers. Thus, purchasing our produce from multiple suppliers instead of just one gives us a great deal of flexibility.
Kenyon purchases all of its beef and pork locally. The beef comes from Bruce and Fran Conard, who raise beef steers on grass, hay and grain. The pork is raised by Ervin Raber, an Amish man who also sells hogs to livestock auctions and the Knox County community. The Conards’ beef was the first local product that Kenyon began purchasing when we started buying local food. We have worked with the Conards over the years, through financial hardships, injuries, and changes in the beef market.
Working with our producers before the growing season even begins ensures a greater degree of dependability in our local supply. By supporting our producers even when classes are not in session, we demonstrate genuine interest in our producers as both suppliers for the college and as individual friends. For example, Marsh buys hay for his own farm from the Conards, and feeder pigs, milk and barley from Raber. During the harvest season, John Marsh visits Jonathan Yoder’s home two to four times a week in order to pick up produce for Kenyon and catch up with Yoder and his family.
Establishing strong relationships based upon mutual trust ensures the dependability of our food system. As Marsh asserts, “You have to be honest. You have to have integrity. You have to do what you’re supposed to do.” The only thing worse than having produce go bad when there’s not enough demand or storage space for it, is deciding not to pick up the produce up at all, and then putting the supplier in the position of figuring out what to do with it. According to Marsh, “You get what you get when you get it, and you deal with it.” Because the farmers depend on us for their livelihoods, we have to stay true to our word. As one of the major ways of finding new producers within a community is word of mouth, if a producer isn’t in our favor because we’ve lost trust, we’ll lose our credibility as an institution, and will be worse off in the end.