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Jim Crawford Visits Penn State to Discuss Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative

Posted: February 23, 2010

On Friday, February 12th, there was standing room only as Jim Crawford, owner of New Morning Farm and president of Tuscarora Organic Growers, presented the spring semester Sustainable Agriculture Seminar organized by the Sustainable Agriculture Working Group and co-hosted by the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology.
Jim Crawford displaying rhubarb and lettuce grown at New Morning Farm.

Jim Crawford displaying rhubarb and lettuce grown at New Morning Farm.

In addition to his seminar, “Tuscarora Organic Growers Cooperative: Twenty years of helping small growers compete in a big market,” Crawford visited with students, faculty and staff to discuss his 38 years of experience as an organic farmer.

Crawford began farming in 1972 on rented land in West Virginia. A few years later, his wife, Moie, began farming alongside him and in 1976 they purchased their current 95 acre farm in southern Huntingdon County, Pennsylvania. Forty five acres of the farmstead is used for vegetable production, but a third of that land is kept in soil building cover crops each year. Each season New Morning Farm grows 50 different vegetable varieties with 200 plantings a year to ensure a steady supply of fresh produce.

To keep up with the complexity of such a diverse cropping system, New Morning Farm employs 20 seasonal farm workers, half of whom are part of a well developed apprenticeship program. Crawford views the apprentices as his management team rather than just grunt labor. "My apprentices are well educated and highly motivated. They all have college degrees,” he told a group of faculty, staff and students in the Department of Horticulture. “During the first month of the season management responsibilities are divided among the apprentices so that every person has a job and every job has a person.” Crawford tells his apprentices, “each of you has the ability to make the farm profitable and successful” and he offers year-end bonuses when they do so.

Vegetable production at New Morning Farm was not always profitable, however. “When we started farming in 1972, we were very inexperienced,” Crawford told Penn State students over lunch. Jim and Moie were gardeners beforehand but had to learn how to scale-up production through trial and error and learning from other organic farmers in the community.

To keep their farm economically viable during the start-up phase, the Crawfords developed cooperative marketing arrangements with neighboring farmers. Crawford remembered how at the time, “farmers were selling tomatoes to the local cannery for 15 cents a pound.” Having recently moved from Washington, DC, Crawford knew that those same tomatoes could be worth much more if sold directly to consumers. So he started offering premium prices to buy tomatoes and other produce from his neighbors which he then sold alongside his own products at farmers markets and to restaurants in Washington, DC. The arrangement increased revenue for everyone and allowed the Crawfords to keep New Morning Farm in business.

In 1988, Crawford and a few neighbors formalized their marketing arrangement into the Tuscarora Organic Growers (TOG) cooperative. At the start, TOG had nothing but a tool shed for office space, a telephone to contact buyers, and an employee of New Morning Farm who could spare a few hours each week to run it all. The first year saw sales of $30,000 and revenue has increased almost every year since then. Now TOG has 30 farmer members, over $2 million in sales each year, 10 to 15 seasonal employees, and a 5,000 square foot facility housing office space, coolers, and storage.

Before each growing season, TOG’s production manager works with the cooperative members to coordinate how much of each product to grow and when it should be ready for harvest. This process helps to even out product availability throughout the seasons. With over 200 products that the cooperative markets, this level of planning is complicated, so the cooperative developed a customized computer software package to streamline the process. In addition to participating in production planning, members of the cooperative adhere to stringent packing and quality control guidelines so that buyers receive a consistent and high-quality product. On average, 75% of the revenue from product sales is returned directly to the growers and about 25% is retained by the cooperative to pay for its operational expenses. At the end of the year, any profits are distributed according to the wishes of the members.

Most of TOG’s produce is sold to restaurants and grocery stores in the Washington, DC area. Demand in that market for local and organic produce usually exceeds supply, accounting for TOG’s growth in sales. “Washington is like a big college town,” Crawford explains. “The consumers are very educated and socially aware. They actively seek out our products.” Twenty stores and over 75 restaurants buy from TOG, including many of DC’s high-end restaurants. Wholesale buyers are attracted to TOG because the cooperative features a wide variety of local organic products including specialty vegetables like beet greens, heirloom tomatoes, rainbow colored carrots, and baby summer squash. The cooperative makes it all available with the same convenience and reliability of conventional produce distributorships.

In concluding his seminar, Crawford explained the numerous benefits that TOG members receive through the cooperative. “First and most importantly is market access.” Wholesale buyers prefer to work with TOG as opposed to individual farmers because they can access a wider variety of products, can be assured of product quality and availability, and only have to handle a single account in doing so. The farmer members also benefit from economies of scale. The cooperative provides storage, transportation, marketing, clerical, and logistical services that individual farmers would otherwise have to shoulder on their own. Cooperative members can reduce input costs by pooling orders for supplies such as black plastic, drip irrigation tape and planting stock. Another benefit is that farmers can buy products from the cooperative to fill gaps in their own product line. For example, New Morning Farm prefers not to grow its own melons and instead buys them from the cooperative to take to farmers markets. Finally, TOG members network with each other to share ideas and learn new production practices, increasing the level of professionalism within the cooperative.

Given Crawford’s years of experience, enthusiasm for his work, and innovative contributions to sustainable agriculture and the local food system, it is no wonder that every seat was taken during his afternoon seminar. The Sustainable Agriculture Working Group thanks everyone who took the time to attend the seminar and other events and especially thanks Jim Crawford himself for taking the time to visit campus and share his experiences with us.

The Sustainable Agriculture Seminar Series is funded by Northeast SARE and Penn State’s Energy and Natural Resources Institute.