David Troyer starts the day with eggs. About 200 dozen will do.
They come from the 2,500 chickens that live behind his small lumber mill near the milking barn. The green label that eventually appears on each carton means these eggs have a story to tell.
It’s about the investment of a farmer – apple-cheeked, reserved and pleasant. His farm is small – just 40 acres. Troyer’s long, gravel driveway slowly climbs past the barns to a modest white house. The cows are the mellow hue of dried earth; a young boy is barefoot; the rolling hills are lush.
The eggs are a heritage. They represent a family able to stay on the farm. Isn’t that worth something?
The families of Green Field Farms hope that it is. The cooperative of approximately 90 Amish and conservative Mennonite farmers based in Wayne County has united to engage discerning consumers. It’s a response to an age of mechanization and the consequent loss of Amish families able to make a living from agriculture, from 90 percent in the 1980s to less than 10 percent today.
The idea is simple: the horse and buggy label on Green Field Farms products – fruits, vegetables, eggs and cheese – actually reveals something about the families who grew the food.
“Today there are a multitude of things being sold with the Amish name slapped on it. In many cases, there is no Amish connection,” said Wayne Wengerd, a Farm Bureau member who is general manager and on the board of the nonprofit cooperative.
After all, Champagne sparkling wine comes exclusively from France, and Gorgonzola cheese from Italy. Don’t Amish foods deserve a similar distinction? Green Field Farms members think so. After all, it is their identity, their values and their reputation for quality.
The challenge is that Troyer is a busy man; there are logs to cut, cows to milk, chickens to feed and a family to raise.
“There’s no way I could have sold 200 dozen eggs a day,” he said.
Here is where the cooperative comes in. Green Field Farms will ensure a truck comes to pick up the eggs. It will find a facility where they can be inspected, washed and packaged, and it will convince the grocer to put them in the cooler. The cooperative takes a cut to pay the processors, and Troyer can focus on farming.
In the end, though, success depends on Green Field Farms’ appeal to consumers. That’s where a label may be unfortunately limited. Sure, it provides insight into how the food was produced – everything is raised using traditional methods. It even speaks to the farmers’ principles of simplicity and community. While that may command a premium price, it is a broad brush stroke.
To share a meal with dairy farmer Robert Yoder, for example, is to hear an artist explain the complexity of a misunderstood work. At a glance, his farm is quaint, perhaps lacking the advantages of modern agriculture. But just let the man speak.
He has an obsession with healthy soil and fresh grass. He talks about nutrient-rich manure as if it were a forgotten miracle. His round face beams like a child’s as he imagines the honeyed fragrance of hay in the winter.
“You open a bale and it smells like summer again – one of my favorite things,” he said.
Yoder is well-read. He’s as eager to speak his mind as he is to share his homemade ice cream. He’s skeptical of some farming practices, exuberant about others. He runs a farm of purpose, not of circumstance. It is a masterpiece. And Yoder, though a humble man, is certainly larger than a label.
Likewise, it would be a mistake to assume the Green Field Farms’ strategy is somehow antiquated. Its members cite reports on the latest consumer trends. They have clearly defined their market. They reference feasibility studies. The cooperative has even enlisted the help of a Columbus-based public relations firm to help build brand awareness. It’s a sophisticated effort to save a simple way of life, and there is no guarantee of success.
“There have been many attempts in the Amish community to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish,” Wengerd concedes.
Cooperation goes a long way
The good news is the payoff could be huge, as the cooperative model has a history of producing food industry giants.
The Land O’ Lakes brand, recognized by many as a brand of butter at the grocery store, is an outgrowth of the Minnesota Cooperative Creameries Association formed in 1921.
Cranberry juice maker Ocean Spray began in 1930 as a collective of three cranberry farmers who wanted to expand their market, and it eventually grew to provide a new market for Florida grapefruit farmers. Welch’s grape juice, Sun Maid raisins, Florida’s Natural Growers citrus products – each the result of a farmer cooperative.
Green Field Farms does not appear to be positioning itself to conquer the food industry yet. Rather, Wengerd said the ultimate goal is to allow Amish farmers to buy land, farm profitably and provide opportunities to future generations. According to the cooperative’s guidelines, its Amish certification label is designed to “avoid exploitation of our heritage for commercial reasons.”
And while Green Field Farms is a new venture, working cooperatively is a deep-rooted tradition among farmers, particularly for the Amish. Yoder confirms this as he drives a pair of horses along the edge of his pasture.
“Neighbors are important in the Amish community,” he said – paused – then modified his statement. “They’re important everywhere, people just don’t realize it.”