By Abigail Harper, Community Food Systems Educator MSU Extension
In 2015, Mark Kastner sat down to with staff from Springport Public Schools to discuss a farm to school partnership. Mark had recently received a loan from Hoophouses for Health and was interested in repaying it by partnering with local school districts. “It all started with Springport,” Mark says of that first meeting. Mark wisely brought a pint of his famous Sun Gold cherry tomatoes with him to share, and the partnership began. Hillcrest Farms provided cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, salad greens, and other fresh produce as it was available for the district’s salad bar. Farmers participating in Hoophouses for Health can repay a portion their loans by providing products to school food programs free of charge. The partnership allows both parties an opportunity to test different products and refine their processes without financial risk.
Now in his third year selling to Springport, Mark is now growing salad greens specifically for Springport through forward contracting. That means Mark knows the product quantities Springport needs well ahead of their orders, and plants the required number of beds of lettuce, spinach, and other baby greens to meet that demand. “I don’t ever plan on extra. If I plant, I am going to have a market,” Mark comments, adding that planning ahead with Springport allows him to grow extra knowing he has a market for that product. While schools may occasionally have trouble finding the product quantity they need from small farmers, forward contracting allows both parties to plan ahead, which can contribute to a more dependable relationship. In this case, Mark can plant knowing that their products have a market, and the Springport food service director knows they will have enough salad greens for their students. Mark is now supplying Springport with salad greens every week, and can do so further into the school year because of his hoophouse production. Forward contracting comes with some risk, though; the recent heat spell meant that Mark lost a bed of salad greens he had planted in his hoophouse for Springport. As a diversified farmer, Mark was able to supplement with other greens grown in the field.
After three years, both partners are seeing clear benefits. Springport food service receives consistent, high quality, local produce for their salad bar. Hillcrest Farms has the ability to pay off the hoophouse loan and now has increased growing space to produce food into the cooler months. The school partnership has helped teach Mark how to grow to scale and market to institutions; he is now selling to another school district and a local medical center. Mark also employs Springport students at his farm. Most recently, he has begun mentoring two students conducting research for Future Farmers of America (FFA). The students are measuring the impact of shortened daylight on hoophouse grown spinach, hoping to understand better what a successful winter salad green production looks like. Where does that spinach go? Straight back onto the Springport salad bar for the students to enjoy.
Farm to school is often seen as a win for farmers, a win for schools, and a win for communities. The partnership between Hillcrest Farms and Springport Schools through Hoophouses for Health is a prime example.
Visit the Cultivate Michigan Salad Greens featured food page to learn more about how to source and serve fresh, Michigan-grown greens!
Learn more about Hoophouses for Health: http://hoophousesforhealth.org