Local food is important. And it’s not just individuals that notice the value of local food.
In 2014, The Food and Growers Association (FGA), based in Batesville, partnered with Purdue University Extension to strengthen the food system in the area. First, though, we had to study our local food system. During our research, it became clear that institutions were just as interested in buying local food as were the customers at the farmer’s market. The institutional demand is there, but our area does not yet have a supply source capable of growing and providing the quantity of food needed on an institutional level.
As we were problem-solving how to supply institutions with local food, we discussed the issue with friends and farmers. Our solution, the SIFTI program, can be traced back to one such conversation with a farmer who said, “if you want food grown locally to supply institutions, you have to train the farmers to grow it at that scale.” With that, our energy poured into developing a program to provide training and support to area farmers who want to grow specialty crops on an institutional scale.
Through the generous support of Interact for Health, in 2017 the FGA developed the Southeastern Indiana Farmer Training Initiative (SIFTI), a pilot program designed to prepare local farmers to grow enough specialty crops for Southeastern Indiana institutions. SIFTI is a partnership between the FGA and Ivy Tech Community College. Students applied to and were accepted into this certificate program. Our program featured 2 legs: coursework/curriculum developed by Ivy Tech and a mentorship program connecting the students with experienced farmers.
Six students completed the Specialty Crop Production course, including in-class time, online requirements and lab time on a farm site. The curriculum covered a broad spectrum of topics needed to farm successfully, such as soil science and modules on root crops, leafy greens and melons. Food Safety issues, such as GAPS certification and FSMA regulations, were covered in order to prepare for success. In the same vein, business planning and budgeting workshops set the tone for viable farm businesses for our students.
The mentoring structure of SIFTI served to support our students as they enter into the growing season. We sought out farmers who had at least 3 years of experience growing specialty crops on a commercial scale and hired them to guide and advise our students through their first 2 years of production. Our mentors met regularly with students to check in on their season, to answer questions and to think ahead to seasonal changes. Farming includes perpetual learning, and working with a mentor provided first-hand experience and trial and error knowledge, as well as the emotional support of having an ally who is facing similar challenges.
2017 was the pilot season for the SIFTI program. The charitable support from Interact for Health provided grant funding for planning and executing this pilot season. This funding allowed the 6 students to take the course at no charge. Based on community needs, Interact for Health shifted their strategic direction in 2017 to help battle the opioid crisis. While the FGA fully supports a focus on other directions, this left us without a major funding source for SIFTI. SIFTI has been put on hold for 2018 while we identify new funding sources and refine the program to better meet the diverse needs of area farmers/students.