Farmers market vegetables

After initially working to connect farmers with schools to provide local food, the Missouri Farm to Institution program has expanded to include a variety of entities, including restaurants, college campuses and hospitals.

Lorin Fahrmeier, state coordinator of the program, says it has evolved over time.

“When the program first came about, it was about connecting local farms to schools, selling local fruits and vegetables to school cafeterias,” she says.

The program involves farmers directly selling a variety of ag products beyond fruits and vegetables, including beef, pork and chicken for restaurants around the state.

“It has evolved into a full-fledged effort to get Missouri products into institutions,” Fahrmeier.

She says the goal is to not just connect farmers and institution for one sale, but to help them build long-term partnerships.

“We’re looking at this for long-term sustainability,” she says. “We’re in it for the long haul.”

The program involves finding farmers in different areas of the state to help meet the desire for local ag products.

“We work together with our ag business specialists and horticultural specialists across the state to get an idea of local producers and the farmers market situation,” Fahrmeier says. “We also encourage folks that are looking to purchase local to check out their local farmers market and talk with producers.”

With the coronavirus outbreak, she says the situation has placed even more priority on security and quality, reliable food.

“A lot of those schools and institutions are just concerned with getting the job done right now,” Fahrmeier says. “Producers and consumers are kind of in task mode. It has elevated the importance of relying on a good local supply chain.”

The demand is there for local products, she says, and the challenges are just getting them delivered where they are needed, and for some producers scaling up to meet increasing demand.

The national supply chain being in the news has encouraged more schools and restaurants to look for local options as much as possible, Fahrmeier says.

“I know of several local restaurants across the state of Missouri, they’ve always had a primary focus on trying to purchase as much local as possible,” she says. “But they’ve kind of shifted their focus to even more local, as much local as possible.”

Fahrmeier, who operates a diversified farm with her husband, says she enjoys getting to work with the program and help producers grow their customer base and their operations in some cases.

“Through selling to schools and institutions, they’re able to increase their profitability,” she says.

It’s also rewarding to help farmers and local customers build those bonds, Fahrmeier says.

“I get a lot of gratification out of seeing long-term relationships over food really grow and sustain over the long-haul,” she says.

Fahrmeier also helped develop the Missouri Food Finder website (mofoodfinder.org) where producers around the state can share what they grow, and institutions can look for local food sources and connect with them.

Ben Herrold is Missouri field editor, writing for Missouri Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.