Baskets to Pallets program is a "guide" for Southeast Michigan farmers
Vincent Sanna said he was ready to wave the white flag and quit his mushroom growing operation.
But then he found refuge in Baskets to Pallets (B2P), a year-long program that uses professional resources and tools to help farmers enter or explore the wholesale market.
The project — in conjunction with Wayne County Farm Bureau (WCFB) and the Detroit-based Eastern Market — graduated 11 farmers this month. Each farmer, whether he or she operated a small incubator farm or an 80-acre plot of land, received a micro-grant from WCFB to help fund machinery and/or other farm projects.
In 2017, members of WCFB met with leaders from Eastern Market to determine the needs of small farmers selling at the market and how those needs could be provided. Ultimately, the mission of the partnership is to connect farmers to the Michigan Farm Bureau — to provide the training farmers need.
According to Sanna, Give and Grow Mushrooms LLC — which recently experienced high levels of contamination during its growing processes — was able to maneuver through previous production mistakes because of B2P.
“This program has really helped me get into the train of thought of how I’m going to do this (business expansion),” Sanna told Michigan Farm News. “So we went ahead with the progression of processes to expand our production, which led to a complete collapse. It was a very difficult collapse to overcome. … We were without production for eight to 10 weeks, which was very detrimental to our business.
“What Baskets to Pallets has done for me (is) it helped me analyze everything and break it all down better, using more of the resources that I have at hand to justify why I went forward with the process and how I am going to break-through this complete collapse, complete failure.”
For Sanna, who used the grant money to fund automated machinery, the B2P program provided greater clarity for the Chesterfield Township-based farm in knowing what its “end results” could become.
“Now we know that even after all the expenses, all the loss that we just encountered, that it’s put us right up to that next level,” Sanna said. “We are going to be able to produce five times the amount of mushrooms that we have been in this space. … I am feeling very fortunate that I had access to this program.”
Founded in 2011, Give and Grow Mushrooms markets product to roughly 13 farmers markets. Currently, the company specializes in blue oyster mushrooms, which can be found inside high-end restaurants, casinos and farmers markets. In addition to restaurants, Sanna said he supplies Del Bene Produce Inc., a Detroit-based produce distributor.
“Eastern Market is really helpful for a lot of the small farmers,” Sanna added. “They have a lot of resources, (and) we always need resources. … They’re there for us on a lot of different levels, and this happened to be a great program to be involved in.”
Christine Quane, the regional food hub director of Eastern Market and program lead for B2P, said she borrowed the B2P model from Cornell University. Some of the goals of the program, according to Quane, include helping “a group of farmers scale up to wholesale.”
“(We) recognize that a lot of our wholesale farmers aren’t continuing on because the next generation doesn’t want to be on the farm anymore,” Quane told Michigan Farm News. “For some of our farmers, barriers to coming to our retail side of our operation were apprehension about the size of our place (and) money … so we created a program to help those guys get to our retail market.”
According to Quane, many area farmers debating on whether or not to enter the wholesale market “didn’t have the skill, didn’t have the understanding or the education, didn’t grow up in farming families, didn’t have that generational knowledge of how to wholesale, didn’t have the infrastructure, and, honestly, didn’t know where to begin.”
It’s one of the reasons why the WCFB partnered in the project with Eastern Market.
“Wayne County Farm Bureau has refocused itself to ensure it meets the needs of small and new farms in Southeastern Michigan,” said Mike Sell, president of WCFB. “The increase in demand for locally produced agricultural products has created an environment of opportunity for small and new farms and WCFB wants to help ensure the success of these farms. The B2P program is one way we can help these farms succeed. Ms. Quane has done a wonderful job launching the B2P program and ensuring its success. We are happy to be a partner with her and the Eastern Market.”
For Sanna, there were “a lot of things” he was able to learn through his participation in the B2P program.
“It brought a lot of college courses crashing down into one, but made it very simple (to understand),” Sanna said. “… A couple of the modules really help me define more of my business model, but I think the one (module) that had the greatest impact on me currently is the food safety program. It’s where we needed to go with the company. It’s the most important part where we are going to be growing currently.”
Elsewhere, B2P’s micro-grant will allow The Land Loom LLC to purchase a salad spinner, said Hannah Weber, owner of the Ann Arbor-based produce operation that specializes in year-round salads and other vegetables.
“I have kind of been using the industry standard for smaller farms, and that’s a laundry machine on the spin cycle,” Weber said. “That works fine, but it’s not officially food safe. This is a step up, and I know that my produce is washed and packed in a food-safe way.”
Like Sanna, 2018 was a challenging growing season for Weber. Still, she said the B2P program worked as a “guide” to improve overall business plans — to change her mindset of the farm’s future.
“I think being in the program and having people encourage me to keep farming was a really important piece,” she said. “Just having that network of people that know who I am and are ready to help me…(make) it a really great program.”