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Sustainable Agriculture

Farmers Network Creates "Heritage Acres" Highway to Missouri Stores

When commodity prices tumbled in the late 1990s, a diverse group of Missouri farmers began to look beyond the traditional marketing channels. With help from a SARE grant, they developed a far-reaching distribution network to deliver sustainably raised products to independent grocers and retailers. Now, some 200 Missouri producers send their harvest under their “Heritage Acres” label to 42 stores throughout the state.

“We realized, no matter how smart, hard-working or efficient we were, there were external forces beyond our control,” said Russ Kremer, Missouri Farmers Union president. “We decided to create a cooperative type of marketing and distribution system where we could pool our resources and get food to a new marketplace.”

The farmers raise everything from beef, poultry, pork, and dairy to fruit, vegetables, and value-added products. Their label carries the assurance that livestock is raised by Humane Society “certified humane” standards—animals are provided with more room, fresh air, and a diet without additives—and that vegetables and crops are grown sustainably with few synthetic chemicals.

Network leaders calculating potential farm profits for Heritage Acres farmers identified savings in production costs as well as a steady sales price. For example, the 29 “ natural” pork farmers in the network should save about $10 per hog produced while netting about $45 more than average conventional prices. Most farmers sell about one-third or one-fourth of their harvest to network warehouses and processing plants. The network itself, which rents a central warehouse, should break even in 2005, its third year, Kremer said.

Heritage Acres products have helped 32 rural groceries and 10 independent St. Louis-area retailers, which were largely left out of mainstream distribution channels, keep their doors open.

Now, the stores and restaurants use Heritage Acres food to “differentiate ourselves,” Kremer said. The SARE grant helped the project leaders study successful models in other states, identify and test potential markets, and run consumer focus groups. They were struck by the unanimous support for family farms. “They wanted food grown by farmers in their community,” Kremer said.

Community development has been a major focus of the network, which has created new jobs with better wages in rural communities, both at the network’s three offices and cooperative grocery stores. “We believe family-farm agriculture and community-based processing are the foundations of sustainable communities,” Kremer said.

 

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