Connecting all the supplier and distribution dots for consumers and producers to enjoy the benefits of the farm-to-fork movement can be challenging, but Virginia Cooperative Extension is doing just that in the commonwealth.
“When you think about local foods, a starting point for most people is farmers markets, community supported agriculture programs, or community gardens,” said Eric Bendfeldt, community viability Extension specialist. “We want to try and support other initiatives, like farm-to-school and farm-to-university. We also want small to midsize farmers to get into more retail outlets.”
The Virginia Farm-to-School Week initiative, which started in 2009, is a collaborative effort among Virginia Cooperative Extension, the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the Virginia Department of Education to increase the amount of fresh and nutritious Virginia-grown products offered in schools. The initiative is a way to promote opportunities for schools and local farmers to work together. It also connects nutrition directors with farmers and the Department of Education.
When the Harrisonburg City Public School System began participating in the program in 2009, it allocated 10 percent of its budget, or $9,000, to the local foods program. Now it allocates a whopping $100,000 to the initiative.
And it’s not just through schools that local produce and food products are finding their way onto plates. Virginia Cooperative Extension has been instrumental in bringing foods produced in rural parts of the state to retailers in the more urban areas of the commonwealth.
For example, a group of Shenandoah Valley beef producers recently started the Shenandoah Valley Beef Cooperative to increase sales opportunities and create awareness of its stewardship practices. Virginia Cooperative Extension helped the co-op market its beef products to consumers as high quality, natural, and certified, using the Beef Quality Assurance program as well as a website (www. shenandoahvalleybeefcoop. com) that is used for marketing. The website tells the story of the families who produce the beef, their humane farming practices based on livestock consultant Temple Grandin’s ranching philosophy, the stewardship of land, and the generations of farmers who have worked the land.
Extension has played a critical role in making other retailers aware of the co-op.
When the co-op first started, it was selling one or two animals per week. Now the co-op sells 10 to 15 animals per week and counts the Washington metropolitan restaurant chain Clyde’s as one of its clients. Soon, the co-op will be selling its beef products to the Washington Nationals baseball team.