By Susan Mykrantz
MOUNT EATON, Ohio — Forty years ago, 90 percent of the Amish and Mennonite families in Wayne and Holmes counties were engaged in agriculture.
Today, that number is closer to 10 percent, according to Wayne Wengerd, a Dalton area businessman and secretary of the board of directors for Green Field Farms Cooperative.
“To some of us in the community, that raises some concerns,” Wengerd said. “It is not that we feel that there aren’t other noble occupations, but we feel farming fits in well with our culture.”
He said farming promotes family values and teaches children responsibility and work ethic.
Family farms are also a place where their young people, who finish school in eighth grade, work and continue their education.
In addition, when people leave agriculture it presents issues such as farmland preservation, encroaching development, and water quality issues, Wengerd said.
“The only long-term solution is to make farming profitable,” he said. “If farming is profitable, these issues will take care of themselves.”
Many families have talked about farm profitability, but there came a point where it was time to do something about it or do something else, according to Wengerd.
A group of 20 people in the Amish and Mennonite community gathered to discuss the next step. Wengerd said about half the group was farmers and half was business people.
“The farmers invited the business people to sit in on the group to help with the legal, marketing, accounting and sales aspects,” he said. “The farmers didn’t feel they had much experience in these areas.”
After talking with other people in the community, the group made a decision.
“Our conclusion was that we as small family farms cannot compete in the conventional agricultural arena,” he said. “We cannot compete on a volume basis or on economies of scale, but we can compete on a farm-by-farm basis.”
Their solution was forming a cooperative to market products, specifically organic products, produced by farmers in the Plain communities of Wayne and Holmes counties.
Next they performed a feasibility study to identify the market: Who is out there? Are they willing to pay a premium price for the products? What type of products will they buy?
They also met with representatives from USDA, Farm Bureau, grocery chains and other groups to identify those areas of interest.
The study showed that there were people willing to pay for safe, high quality, locally produced food.
It also showed that these people want a connection with the person who produces their food.
Interest in organic food was out there and Wengerd said the cooperative had assets such as land, labor, knowledge and the agricultural heritage to produce it.
In January 2003, the groundwork was laid for the formation of Green Field Farms, a nonprofit farmers’ cooperative.
“We had to decide our purpose and mission,” Wengerd said. “We wanted to define it and put it in writing to keep us focused.”
With its mission established (see adjacent box), the board decided what agricultural products co-op members would produce and how they would be marketed.
It determined eggs and dairy products as the most viable products to start with, Wengerd said. The supply and infrastructure was already in place to produce, process and market the products.
“Anything is possible, but right now we are focusing on poultry, eggs and dairy products such as cheese, milk and yogurt,” Wengerd said.
The co-op plans to have eggs in the stores by mid-June and dairy products available by September.
It is also looking to market a limited amount of organic produce, but eventually plans to produce every fruit and vegetable, from apples to zucchini.
Supply and demand
Currently, the co-op is collecting information from interested producers so it has an idea of what potential suppliers are in place to meet demands.
The co-op is also trying to find out what consumers want and is working to keep them and retailers up to date on what it has to offer.
“Our goal is to have our supply meet our demand,” Wengerd said. “But you are always going to have too much of some products and not enough of other products. Our challenge is to meet the demand.”
The co-op is also teaching consumers to look for their trademarked seal — a horse and buggy with the word ‘certified’ underneath — to guarantee the product meets the standards set by the co-op.
“The Amish have been exploited to sell products,” Wengerd said. “We don’t want to do that.”
What the co-op does want to do, Wengerd said, is make sure people know how the product was produced and that it came from the Plain community when they see the seal.
“Working as a group, we can accomplish many things that can’t be done on an individual basis such as our insurance or a barn raising, this is just another aspect of that,” Wengerd added.
Coming together will not only produce better products for consumers, but may help save their farming communities.
“Working together, we can achieve goals that we couldn’t achieve individually,” Wengerd said. “If we help one segment to succeed, it helps everyone to succeed.”
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