Program offers instruction, assistance to help farmers scale up to reach wholesale markets

By Lauren Abbate, BDN Staff

Posted Dec. 9, 2016, at 6:31 a.m.

WALDOBORO, Maine ― Three years ago, then-farmhands Christelle and Jon McKee packed up their eight goats and left Oregon with the ambition of starting a farm of their own.

As to where the couple would plant their roots, they were torn between two coastal states on opposite sides of the country: Maine and Washington. The strong farming communities that were prevalent in each coastal state were alluring to them.

The couple ultimately decided on settling in Maine because of the proximity to Christelle McKee’s family in New York and the multitude of programs that were available for beginning farmers. In 2013, they started Copper Tail Farm.

After realizing it was going to be difficult to sell goat cheese at farmers markets given the array of competition they were up against, Christelle and Jon McKee diversified themselves by making a unique product called cajeta ― a caramel sauce made from goat’s milk.

But still, farmers markets require a lot of time, and Christelle McKee couldn’t guarantee that she would sell enough product to make her time worthwhile through that type of direct to consumer selling model. They needed to try something else.

“We wanted to branch out into wholesaling, and we didn’t know what the best way to approach it was,” she said.

Enter Maine Farmland Trust program Farming for Wholesale 101.

The program is in its third year and aims to help small farmers reach wholesale markets. Typically these farmers have been selling directly to the consumer through farmers markets and community-supported agriculture.

Wholesale markets include grocery stores, co-ops, food distributors, institutions, restaurants and food-hubs. According to the 2014 Maine Food Strategy Consumer Survey Report, 97 percent of Maine residents purchase their food through these types of establishments.

“The program was born out of needing something to help farmers scale up,” Alex Fouliard, program coordinator, said.

Christelle and Jon McKee learned about the Maine Farmland Trust program through their status as journeypersons with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which helps beginner farmers discover programs within the state that they may find useful.

Through Farming for Wholesale 101, the couple had access to 15 hours of one-on-one technical assistance that focused on the business side of their farm. At the beginning of the yearlong program, participants also attend two daylong workshops in January and February, which Christelle McKee said were beneficial in terms of meeting with other farmers who also are experiencing growing pains when trying to reach wholesale markets.

“My favorite thing was the technical assistance, I think that was amazing,” she said. “But also just being there each day in the class, talking to other farmers that were in the same position.”

Copper Tail Farm was one of 22 farms to participate in the 101 track of the program over the course of the last year. There is a $500 cost with participation, however, if a farm completes the program, they receive $1,000 of seed money at the end of the year. Applicants must apply to enroll. This year’s deadline for applications is Dec. 31.

Over the year, participating farmers work one on one with counselors and advisors who provide technical assistance specifically geared toward what they need to work on to tap into wholesale markets.

The assistance can be used to work on identifying which of their products are most profitable and suited for wholesale, determining how they can expand production, developing price points and marketing strategies along with making contacts within the wholesale markets.

“There are a lot of famers that have started recently that are fairly direct markets focused. Those farmers are finding that as they grow, they run into some difficulties,” Jed Beach, a farm business counselor working with Farming for Wholesale, said. “What a lot of those growers find is that they hit kind of a wall, and they’re working harder and harder and making the same money. The tools that we provide in this program really help people get through that wall.”

While cajeta is Christelle and Jon McKee’s staple product, they also make goat’s milk soap, caramel candies, fudge and yogurt in their small creamery at their Appleton home.

Beach worked with the couple to develop an efficient pricing model, which led them to realize that they were substantially low balling the price of their yogurt. Beach also provided them with a working spreadsheet document that includes formulas for production costs and pricing.

“He kind of laid it all out for us. It was awesome,” Christelle McKee said.

Being new to the area, Christelle and Jon McKee also benefited from the networking built into Farming for Wholesale 101. They were provided with a list of wholesale contacts, ranging from markets to restaurants, that might be interested in buying their products. The list came complete with contact information and how best the people on the list liked being contacted, which Christelle McKee said boosted their confidence when approaching businesses.

But Farming for Wholesale isn’t just for beginning wholesalers, the program has a second track, Farming for Wholesale 201, which aims to help farmers that presently have wholesale accounts increase their operations.

Chris Cavendish of Fishbowl Farm in Bowdoinham has been selling his salad greens to wholesale accounts for the last four years. The move to wholesale farming came 10 years after running his farm under the direct to consumer model.

“The lifestyle wasn’t suiting me,” Cavendish said, who wanted more time with his family and less time spent at markets.

After a year of selling to wholesale accounts, Cavendish participated in the first year of Farming for Wholesale. However, after already being in the wholesale sector, Cavendish felt he needed wholesale expertise that was at the next level.

This past year, Cavendish participated in Farming for Wholesale 201, which he said in conjunction with the technical assistance in the 101 track, has benefited his wholesale operation greatly in terms of figuring out where he should be focusing his farming.

“With help from the program and Jed Beach, we’ve been able to understand essentially where to focus my attention and resources in regards to my profitability,” Cavendish said.

The application process for the two-year 201 track is more competitive than the 101 program, with only two to four applicants being chosen. The deadline for applications was Dec. 6. During the 201 program, selected participants will have the ability to apply for a grant of up to $50,000 to go toward infrastructure and equipment that would critical in growing their wholesale business.

Christelle and Jon McKee hope to apply for the 201 program track at some point in the near future. But for now they’ll be working on expanding their backyard farm, adding more goats and increasing the size of their creamery and barn.

“We have a lot of work to do,” Christelle McKee said.

While the growth is daunting, each component of the Copper Tail Farm expansion is included in the spreadsheet that Beach prepared for them, making the couple all the more confident that they’re expanding for wholesale the proper way.