Talking with Stiles Renee Najac,
Community Liaison with Orange County Cornell Cooperative Extension

TAKE-AWAYS

  • The food donation market and the $ sign market both have a role in growing the local food system.
     

  • Time-stressed farmer's need more help from "match-makers" who can connect them to institutional markets.
     

  •  Farmers need help making the most intelligent use of their resources; that doesn't necessarily mean growing more. 

Contributor: Javier Gomez

As Orange County Cornell Cooperative Extension's Community Liaison, Stiles Renee Najac is a consummate connector. She brings a very grounded perspective to her work creating and managing relationships between local farms and urban communities in her county. She describes her work as, “increasing access to fresh fruits and vegetables in low income areas by connecting farmers and agencies and by introducing the community to the food system that is happening right around them.”

Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) was founded a little over 100 years ago as a federally designated land grant university program. For much of its history, the Extension’s operations involved creating a network of satellite offices across New York State, and placing agents at these offices who were responsible for sharing nationally recognized standards and practices in farming and agriculture.

According to Stiles, CCE has scaled back the research, education, and outreach activities that once took place across its various satellites. Those activities have been absorbed by professors of the university instead. However, through it’s Resource Educators and Community Liaison positions, the Orange County CCE has focused more on building networks that benefit local farmers and consumers.

Stiles offers insights into the economic impact of the donation market.

and shares more about the relationship between farmers and nonprofit agencies serving low-income communities, and the strategies being employed to bring these groups together.

How does CCE go about creating relationships between farmers and distributors, and the people and agencies in cities?

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STILES RENEE NAJAC:

 

Connecting agencies to our local food system is an ongoing process. There are definitely barriers, but there is not a lack of desire. The agencies want to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables for their clients. They write grants, not for massive amounts of money, but it’s something.

 

However during the growing season farmers are incredibly busy, and don’t necessarily have time to add more activities. They’re looking for the largest sale for the most money. They want to work with agencies, but it just doesn’t always work for them.

 

You almost need a mediator like me involved to figure out a way to match the appropriate farm with the appropriate agency. For example, if an agency only needs 100 pounds of peppers it makes sense to match them with a farm that actually wants to sell 100 pounds of peppers, instead of the agency reaching out to another farm that won’t even consider something less than 1000 pounds of peppers. And then after you find the best match, there’s the logistics of the sale to handle as well.

 

I have this one farmer I work with who refuses to sell to agencies. He only donates. Which is actually very frustrating because in order to establish these relationships you really do need the exchange of dollars.

Right. The agencies need to demonstrate they’re putting their grants to use.

STILES RENEE NAJAC:

Exactly. There is a food system that exists outside of money and there is one that exist with money, and if we are going to turn these markets into a legitimate part of the market then you need to accept some sort of money.

So then would you say that to an extent donating is not helpful to the development of our local economy?

STILES RENEE NAJAC:

I really see it as two separate economies. One with dollar signs and one without them, and it’s so difficult to say if one negatively affects the other.  For example, in the dollar sign market there are different standards. In order for something to be sold. There needs to be a list of ingredients, appropriate packaging, the way it looks, that kind of thing needs to be in place. In order to legitimize the connection between the farmer and the agency, the farmer needs to treat the agency like a customer.

So that means treating the agency like a legitimate client and not a charity?

STILES RENEE NAJAC:

Yes. Now the farmer is held to the dollar sign market standard in that sale.  On the other hand, there is the non-dollar sign side. In the emergency food market the standards aren’t the same and the quality might suffer, but that gives us the flexibility we need to harvest the produce and bring it directly where it’s needed.  So I’m hesitant to say the markets have a negative impact on one another because I see them as two separate purposes.

It also sounds like that flexibility in the donation market is helping infrastructure and relationships to develop faster than the regulated dollar-sign market.

STILES RENEE NAJAC:


Right. This is the emergency food system. We wouldn’t be able to do it if it couldn’t be flexible and responsive. I would like to say that there is still monetary value to donations through tax credits and deductions, and farms do work that into their annual budgets and business plans. Some do grow food specifically to donate.

I work with one farm where they were already donating produce, but actually calculated it would be a better use of their time and resources to donate more of the lower-graded produce and earn tax credits than spend time trying to sell it.”

How much engagement do you get from smaller farms versus larger farms? Are there ways in which larger farms might see it as worth their while to donate food, or get involved in the local food market?

STILES RENEE NAJAC:

The majority of the farms I work with are on the smaller side, and I work directly with the farm owner in that situation. On a larger farm I’m further removed from the owner and I’m working with the farm manager or market manager. What’s interesting about that is the large farm operator might not even realize how much they’re donating. They know it’s happening, but they don’t know I’m coming every Monday and I’ve picked up thousands of pounds in donations. They find out at the end of the year. I keep track of everything farmers donate, and so at the end of the year I’ll send them a thank you letter saying: “Thank you for your 2,000 pounds of radishes and 10,000 pounds of corn.” And they would go, “What? I grew all that and donated it?”

 

What’s great about that though is that after that experience farmers have done things like build new refrigerators, add new wholesale markets, or cut the amount of produce they are growing. Which is great because our goal isn’t really to encourage farmers to grow more and donate more. We want a healthy food system to exist with intelligent use of resources.”

© 2018 by Hudson River Flows. 

For more information about Hudson River Flows contact arterianchang@gmail.com

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