UBC Farm: From a Student-Run Initiative to Leading a Farm-to-Institution Movement

Posted by Sara Dent on August 05, 2014

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Introduction

Since its re-invention in 1999, the UBC Farm has evolved from a small-scale market garden, run solely by dedicated students and volunteers, to a fully operational, organically managed, mixed vegetable production farm which supplies three weekly markets, an 80-person Community Supported Agriculture Program, and numerous direct sales to restaurants, including a total of $20,000 in sales to UBC Food Services on UBC Campus in 2013.

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UBC Farm Market Stand 2001

In recognition of UBC’s advanced Farm to Institution programming, UBC became the first ever University recipient of the Golden Carrot award, bestowed by Farm to Cafeteria Canada in 2012 in recognition of Farm to Institution excellence.

From humble beginnings, the UBC Farm has witnessed a process of scaling up, which situates UBC as one of the most advanced Farm-to-Institution campuses in Canada. Leveraging this experience as a working farm on an urban campus, this UBC Farm-to-Institution model can contribute significantly to a regional dialogue and growth of other institutional food procurement movements. Analyzing this process of change can offer insight into how small scale producers can take steps towards initiating their own farm to institution programs.

The Process

The UBC Farm first engaged in sales to the UBC campus in 2003, when Sage Bistro, a fine dining restaurant on campus, began procuring small volumes of salad greens, heirloom carrots, micro greens, and other specialty items, totaling sales of nearly $1,100 in 2003. In these earlier years, Farm to Institution procurement on UBC Campus was characterized by these niche, low volume, and high value products; with another example being the UBC Farm Butternut Squash Pizza featured on the UBC Campus Pie R Squared menu in the fall of 2006.  This era of supplying to UBC is described by UBC Farm Director, Amy Frye, who was managing direct sales at the time, as inconsistent: ”Campus would buy 30 lbs of salad mix one week for an event, and the next week they wouldn’t need any”. This was hard for the Farm to plan plantings around and ensure they could sell their product. Similarly, Frye indicated the UBC Farm had its own consistency challenges. Because production systems were still being developed and were managed primarily by students and volunteers, the quantity and quality of produce was hard to guarantee. This made it hard for food service outlets to plan their menus around and know they could rely on receiving produce.

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UBC Farm Director, Amy Frye

Although these early forays into institutional sales were beneficial in terms of increasing awareness of the UBC Farm, they were not representative of demand which would fundamentally shift procurement practices on campus, or production practices at the farm. It would not be until larger volume purchasing, the kind that began in 2006 in UBC’s dining halls, that the UBC Farm’s institutional scaling up process would effectively take off. Initiating sales with the dining halls was a critical moment, as it gave rise to more steady and consistent demand. The farm’s production practices were also becoming more efficient. This improved produce quality and quantity and allowed for a more consistent supply of produce that food outlets could count on.

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UBC Farm Annual Field Production Coordinator, Jacob Slosberg

Jacob Slosberg, Annual Field Production Coordinator at the UBC Farm details a shift in the types of product that are being marketed to campus outlets. “Salad mix was some of the first produce we sold, and we sold it to Sage Bistro, a high end restaurant on campus. But now we have started to focus more and more on getting bulk quantities of food into the dining halls; we’re focusing on bulk items rather than the items of high value. Our operations have also changed in that we are focusing on storage crops, especially beets, carrots, potatoes, squash, and fall greens, because they are the things we can grow in larger quantities and they store well. We can grow them in the growing season, and then store and continue to sell them throughout the year”.

Continual Cycles of Improvements

The transition of the UBC Farm from a farm specializing in niche crops, to a farm with an increased focus on less expensive, bulk storage items – which are suitable for institutional purchasing – can be understood as a series of incremental improvements in a continual process of change. Each year the UBC Farm team examines operations in order to identify where infrastructure or operational changes could result in increased production and sales capacity, a process which has become essential in order to keep pace with increasing institutional and market demand.

Investing in Infrastructure

Ryan Weemhoff, UBC Farm Sales Coordinator, details the purchase of certain post-harvest processing machines as an important steps towards scaling up UBC Farm’s capacity to supply to institutions. A root washer, which was purchased several years ago, “allows us to wash roots in bulk, instead of by hand – this significantly allows us to scale up. This year we also have a new salad spinner, so that too will decrease our time for processing and therefore increase our institutional selling capability”.

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UBC Farm Sales Coordinator, Ryan Weemhoff

Jacob adds to this, “A big change was having the big cooler installed, to store all of the storage crops we grow. We’ve had it for two seasons now, and before we wouldn’t have been able to store crops, so they would rot in the fields sometimes. This meant we also had to grow less”.

Consistency

An improved capacity to produce, process, and store larger volumes of produce has improved the UBC Farm’s ability to provide a consistent supply of quality produce, something which has been identified as a fundamental element to the success of any Farm to Institution program, and something that was elusive in the era of sporadic institutional demand. Jacob acknowledges this has been a significant challenge to overcome, stating “the reality is that, having a regular supply of whatever item you are trying to sell to the institution is a challenge for small farms, it’s all about consistency and the ability to deliver what was ordered… you have to be organized, confident with what you have. It’s not an off-the-cuff opportunity.”

Logistics and Communication

Speaking to the reality that farm-to-institution relationships are not spur of the moment endeavors, it’s not surprising that many of the advancements required to scale up in order to sell to institutions have been related to logistics, planning, and communication. Jacob describes this advancement as an, “increase in person-power, in terms of dedicated communication with chefs and buyers, as well as increased management of staff… so it’s not just scaling up quantities but also interactions, and making a concerted effort to manage this”.

Ryan also emphasizes the importance of a clear dialogue with institutions, with particular attention paid to the heightened regulations surrounding food safety, an issue not as widely felt in niche market sales. “Talk to the institutions, and ask them what their requirements are, and learn them. Different Institutions have different requirements, relative to what safety regulations they happen to have, so it’s learning from what you customers want, and then trying to meet those demands”.  Ryan also adds that, aside from food safety particularities, simply, “having a weekly order sheet and availability to take orders” can be a critical factor in determining the success of a farm-to-institution program.

Barriers Still to Overcome

Food Safety

Understanding scaling up as a series of incremental improvements in a continual process of change, the UBC Farm still faces a number of barriers. As the UBC Farm advances further into consistent institutional supply relationships, the issue of food safety has been identified as one of the most pressing issues to date. Although always a priority, food safety policies are the most stringent at the public institutional scale, and a higher standard is required than for selling directly through farmers markets or CSA programs. Ryan explains, “many of the national and multinational distributors require HACCP for institutional sales, especially hospitals. Currently we don’t have that, and we’re not sure exactly how the regulations work… But food safety, relative to the highest standards, is probably the biggest limiting factor that we have”.

Cost and Distribution

In addition to issues related to food safety, distribution and price also continue to top the list of challenges facing farm-to-institution programs. Jacob elucidates, “matching up prices with what we want to charge with what they want to pay is a challenge”. Amy supports this, stating, “we have come to a point of meeting in the middle for pricing, because I feel, at the end of the day, sustainability has to make financial sense for both parties”.

Jacob further adds, “[d]elivery schedules are also challenging, because on campus there are 17 different delivery locations which we can deliver to, and they receive different deliveries to different places, multiple deliveries each week, since they don’t have the storage capacity for a week’s worth of produce. But do we have the capacity to deliver multiple times per week? Institutions really don’t have time to invest in multiple suppliers, and so if it is a small farm trying to work with an institution, they don’t have a lot of incentive to. Simplicity is a big incentive. Having fewer suppliers, more distributors…some kind of local farm distribution makes more sense”.

Ryan lends to support to this, “the biggest barrier for institutions is they are buying directly from large suppliers, and they need a consistent supply and consistent quality, so sourcing from small scale organizations is challenging, and that’s where we have to rewrite the way they work. Probably, in order for this to work for other small-scale and medium-scale producers, I assume we would need to get a distributor, or a one step removed system, relative to a food hub or a collective.

Advice for New Farmers

Low Hanging Fruit

In terms of best places to start, both Ryan and Jacob agree: storage crops. Given that they can be harvested and washed in bulk, and then stored long past the end of the growing season, storage crops (beets, potatoes, carrots, and other roots) offer benefits that can increase production capacity and extend the growing season. In terms of ease for selling to institutions, particularly institutions with stringent food safety regulations, Ryan suggests, “any product that needs to be cooked, because if it’s passing from us to an institution and there is any sort of bacteria on the product, based on what was naturally occurring in the soil, that would be taken care of with cooking, and especially, anything that’s cooked that you can produce on a bulk scale, for us that is beets, carrots, potatoes, other roots”.

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However, farmers need not feel that storage crops are their only option, because with the right equipment, Ryan adds, farmers can, “pretty easily transition to salad mix and greens because of tools such as the food safe salad spinner, particularly if the greens are rinsed in a sanitation solution, which sanitizes the greens to 99.9%”.

Record Keeping

Ryan also advises that new farmers should start implementing best practices in terms of note taking and data tracking, “if you can get your book keeping in a row, not financial book keeping exclusively, but also tracking what is going on, what actions are happening in the field, what actions are happening in the harvest room, and protocol for different things, safety protocol, food safety protocol, to have those written out and followed is probably the best. A lot of farms start off and will just be surviving and not necessarily keeping those records – but those records will be important. If you’re good at taking records, that is a skill which will transfer really easily. That is the best thing you can do”.

Build Relationships Early

Jacob presses the need to “cultivate the [institutional purchasing] relationships strongly, and the time to sell produce is not when you’re harvesting it, or after you’ve harvested it. The time is before you’ve planted. Be honest, genuine, be conservative. You don’t want to over promise and under deliver.” Amy adds to this, “assess the demand, and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Choose something you will have a consistent volume of”.

Jacob also offers advice for how to initially make contact with institutional purchasers. He explains, “if there’s an organization that I want to sell to, I’m going to pick up the phone, and I’m not going to be deterred if they don’t call back once, twice, or even three times. Maybe even four or five times. Also, you just don’t know what will turn into what, when you start a relationship, you just don’t know what it end up will as, so just be aware of that. If [a connection or relationship] seems as though it is not important, be open to change”.

Conclusions

In just under 15 years, the landscape of local food procurement on UBC campus has changed significantly. Through an analysis of both the co-development of UBC Food Service’s institutional procurement practices and the UBC Farm’s food production  practices, a Road Map can be sketched out, illuminating certain paths towards sustainable food procurement in public institutions. This case study, which is situated within the Vancity EnviroFund Scaling Up project, aims to share these experiences, so that it may be possible for other institutions and producers to adapt these lesson in order to launch their own Farm-to-Institution procurement relationships. To learn more about the UBC Farm-to-Institution Framework, read part I in this story, Scaling Up: The Evolution of the UBC Dining Hall.

This case study is the second of three case studies which will be published in ‘Scaling Up: Bringing local to a global campus’ a Road Map to Action project made possible with funding from the Vancity enviroFund grant program.

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