Griffith, Robinia Institute giving small farms a boost
WINGINA, Va. — For small farms, marketing the products grown on the farm is a job in itself and often one farmers don’t have time for.
Aided by a USDA grant, a Virginia farmer and partners are working on helping small farms market meat products to larger buyers and grow the regenerative meat value chain in the Mid-Atlantic region.
From his 400-acre Timshel Wildland farm in Nelson County, Va., Daniel Griffith runs the Robinia Institute, offering training and demonstration for grass-based meat production and regenerative agriculture.
Since 2019, Griffith has worked with hundreds of farmers and a common theme is there aren’t enough hours in the day to operate their farm and execute an effective marketing plan to grow their business. For success, he said farmers have to put in 30-40 hours a week marketing their products on top of the 100 hours a week they spend farming.
Time spent marketing takes away from managing the farm which can impact soil health and production and time spent on management and not marketing can impact sales.
“The issue of today is you either get big or get marketing,” he said.
With a $250,000 grant from USDA’s Regional Food Systems Partnership program, Griffith, Foodshed Capital and other partnering groups are hoping to do both by bringing small farmers together under a shared regenerative methodology and using their collective size to attract larger buyers.
Through his Timshel Wildlands farm, Griffith established a producer network called Common Wealth and retail sales platform called Commons Provisions. Commons Provisions acts as the network’s retail ordering and delivery service, aggregating meat products from farms and distributing them to customers who order online.
The platform returns 84 percent of the money generated by sales back to the farmers, Griffith said, compared to about 14-20 percent in the grocery and corporate food delivery models.
“Once you open the box, you’ll never see Commons again. It’ll be individual farm names,” he said. “We’re not repackaging anybody else’s meat. The other thing is your meat doesn’t go far.”
Robinia is also designated as a Savory Institute Hub, which developed an Ecological Outcome Verification protocol as a soil and landscape assessment that measures biodiversity, soil health and ecosystem function to quantify that a farm’s management practices are regenerating the land. Farmers who get EOV certification can take part in the network and Commons Provisions.
Griffith said certification is “absolutely pivotal” because it gets data back to farms so they can ensure regenerative practices are working on their farm and show where more practices can be implemented.
“Regeneration is good but to regenerate financially and sustainably is great,” he said.
So far, Griffith said 35 farms have become EOV certified.
Another component in the project is in processing capacity.
Griffith said it’s a misconception that the region needs more processing facilities built. What it’s lacking is trained meat cutters at the existing facilities to maximize capacity.
Building on a survey of six processors in the region on capacity and investment needs, Piedmont Environmental Council is piloting a meat cutting training this fall in partnership with American Farmland Trust.
Hatch Richmond, a multi-use food enterprise center, and 4P Foods, a food hub distributor are involved to provide value-added processing and market access for the increased meat production, as production and slaughter constraints are addressed.
Looking forward, Griffith said he wants to continue to build the network and add certified farms and work to secure institutional purchasers through Commons Provisions.
Griffith said it was also key to “design ourselves out” of the project once it’s fully established, letting the farmers themselves determine its course. He said it’s also designed to encourage new farmer networks to form from this one as it grows. Having several decentralized networks ensures resiliency in the food system, Griffith said.
“The idea here isn’t to run a new company, it’s to save small family farms,” he said. “If a community can feed itself from connecting with its farmers and we’re not needed, I’m out.”