15-week course seeks to help female food producers start or grow specialty food businesses
Twenty-four Oregon women are participating in a Farm2Food Accelerator program meant to help foster a new, climate-change informed farming network.
The Farm2Food Accelerator is 15-week online learning program meant to help women who either grow specialty crops — or have business ideas — get businesses off the ground. It’s a joint program of the Oregon Department of Agriculture (ODA) and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) Foundation. The 2022 session kicked off at the beginning of November.
By teaching the selected recipients about economically viable farming practices and sustainable technologically-informed operations, the accelerator aims to create a more localized food ecosystem which can prove resilient to the coming impacts of climate change.
As global temperatures rise, agriculture appears more and more likely to define Oregon’s future. A November NASA study published in the journal Nature Food projected a 20% overall decline in global crop yields by 2030.
Oregon’s mild climate means local farmers may be spared the worst of those effects — but it likely won’t be spared altogether .
“We are pretty lucky here in Oregon. Our climate could have some built-in resistance to the impacts of climate change,” says professor Dave Stone, director of the Food Innovation Center at Oregon State University, who teaches accelerator business owners as part of the program. “But we will still have to grapple with new pests, scarcity of water, and wildfires. Just look at what smoke has done to wine grapes. It’s important to have representation across the board so we can share solutions.”
Dave Stone, director of the OSU Food Innovation Center. Credit: OSU
Farming is still a male-dominated industry. According to USDA data reported by Pacific Standard in 2019, male-owned farms earn nearly twice as much as those run by women. A 2019 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found female farmers were more frequently denied loans.
According to a 2011 report from the United Nations, farms could feed 150 million more people annually if women were given equal access to land, financial services, education, and technology.
“Farming operations have tight margins as it is, and many aren't able to move forward after many generations. We are looking for ways to sustain these operations,” says Stone. “Women are becoming a bigger percentage of the farming population and they need their own cohort.”
The program focuses on supporting women who grow or produce specialty crops — such as tree nuts, fruits, herbs and spices — or who source specialty crops in the products they make.
Maria Rice, who owns Chow This! Pickles and Salsa in Milwaukie, had to shutter her business during the COVID-19 pandemic due to a variety of factors — including the rising cost of glass imported from China.
But she hopes to resume operations later this year using techniques she learned at the 2021 national Women’s Farm2Food Accelerator, a program to help female food producers expand their footprint in the industry.
Rice tells OBM she found colleagues to share ideas, techniques, and crucial business connections.
“All cowboys are male. It’s still considered a man’s business. It’s not easy starting a farm and there are so many questions,” says Rice.
“How do I get my stuff to market? What are the registration fees and what are the rules, do I need to know? For example, my salsas are refrigerated and if it does not meet refrigeration temperature requirements they throw it all away. It’s really important we stay connected with each other.”
Stone and his colleagues at the Food Innovation Center teach food science to the participants, while other food accelerator programs — including Union Kitchen in Washington DC — teach about visibility, marketing, and other aspects of owning a food business.
By expanding agriculture to include more women, the accelerator hopes to foster more innovation and excitement in the farming business. With family farms faltering across the world, women taking an interest in farming could help develop the new ideas which will define farming for future generations.
“Farmers are already lifelong learners. It’s a population that’s very ready to hear the message of adaptability,” says Stone. “Just when I think I’ve heard every idea, someone says something that surprises me.”
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