Building resilience on the family farm and in the community
After growing row crops and raising livestock in Greene County, NC for more than 28 years, Neil Moye, his brother David, and their families knew they would need to add something innovative and unique to their farm in order to provide a viable opportunity for their children to come back and be employed on the farm. RAFI-USA had the opportunity to interview Neil Moye to learn the story of Simply Natural Creamery and the steps they took to build resiliency on their farm and in their community.
Value Added Producer Grants provided a springboard for their successful family business and as a community employer
When Neil’s son expressed an interest in returning to the farm to work full-time, the first challenge was adapting a farm business that had supported two families to a business that could support three; without an increase in acreage. Even with a farm already producing row crops, pigs and chickens, the Moyes knew these enterprises were not enough and they would have to increase the farm’s income to allow them to bring Neil’s son back to the farm. In 2012, they added a dairy, but it quickly became apparent that just producing milk for the conventional markets was not going to be financially viable over time. They needed to get a higher price. In 2014, the Moyes applied for a USDA Value Added Producer Grant (VAPG) that allowed them to add a processing plant on their farm to bottle their milk, make ice cream and sell through an on-farm retail store. Their early success showed that there was a wholesale market for their ice cream beyond their direct sales, so they applied for and received another VAPG in 2016 to grow the ice cream business.
The Moyes credit the VAPG awards with helping them expedite the process of getting into wholesale markets and being able to sell their ice cream to multiple grocery store chains. As Mr. Moye explained, “It’s all got to start with an outlet.” The VAPGs provided the operating capital that allowed them to establish their business, get into the wholesale markets, and hire more people. Before the processing plant, they employed four people. Now, they employ 75-80 people from their community in order to supply the wholesale markets and run the processing plant and retail store.
The dairy and processing plant also opened up opportunities for their family beyond what likely would have been possible through row crops alone. After attending college, their children were able to come back to help run the processing plant and wholesale operation.
Resilience Starts With the Soil
For the Moyes, building local markets is part of a resilience strategy that starts with the soil. Their grass-based dairy is nested in an operation that uses no-till planting to avoid over cultivation of the soil and prevent sediment runoff, double crop planting to get multiple crops off the same acre of land, water terracing to help with soil erosion, and grass waterways. All of these conservation strategies reduce the farm’s susceptibility to weather events, whether it be too much or too little water.
Although Simply Natural does grow some grains to feed their dairy herd, their emphasis on pasture-raised cows reduces their susceptibility to changes in commodities markets and potential loss of feed in a big storm.
Although conservation practices reduce their susceptibility to weather events, the Moye family still has crop insurance for their corn, soybean, cotton and wheat to insure against major storms. During a year like 2018 with several devastating hurricanes, Mr. Moye said “crop insurance would basically be the lifeline to ensure that [a farmer could] go forward the next year, [particularly those who don’t] have any other source of income other than row crop. [Crop insurance] saved a lot of farmers this year in crop loss/disasters due to weather. Farmers are already operating on a very thin margin. Crop insurance is the only safety net when you don’t have a crop to harvest.” Learn more about how crop insurance can promote conservation practices, to further build resilience.
Continues with Markets
Access to local retail and wholesale markets has been key to the Moye’s success.
Farmers work hard to produce their products. Yet, by the time a product gets to the end user there is often a big difference between the price the farmer receives and what the end user pays. As Mr. Moye says, “it seems like the farmer is not getting their fair share of the upside of that sale. I think we all need to look at how to be better marketers of our product, figure out how to make contacts and get more of it sold directly to the end user.”
He believes that if farmers could focus more on getting their product to an end user rather than going through brokers or co-ops then their margins would get better, though he recognizes that’s a lot easier said than done. He said that when farmers respond to narrow margins by getting big, they lose the ability to serve the smaller scale specialty markets that could provide a higher return, and keep them from having to get out.
As has been widely publicized, tariffs and low commodity prices are greatly affecting many dairy farms across the country. Without the ability to process and sell on the farm, dairy farmers sell milk to a co-op which is shipped to a processor. The price the farmer receives for his milk is based on national markets and regional pools which are impacted by the tariffs and other international issues that are far beyond the farmer’s control. The Moyes, on the other hand, sell 100% of their milk directly to end users in their local community, and are able to control their own price. At a time when failing dairy farms are in the news, Simply Natural is thriving.
And Benefits the Community
While their on-farm processing has helped the Moyes build their business and bring the next generation back to the farm, it has also had significant benefits for their community. Typically, milk has to travel hundreds of miles from the farm to a processing plant to a distribution center before coming back to stores near where it was produced. If there is any kind of transportation issue, such as during a hurricane, and milk cannot be moved from the farm or processing plant, then there is no milk to deliver to consumers. Often, when the trucks cannot get through, dairies are forced to dump milk that cannot be picked up in time.
In the days following both Hurricane Florence and Matthew, the local community saw the benefits of having Simply Natural Creamery close by. By being grass-based, they were able to keep feeding their cows and milking throughout the storm and recovery. With on-farm processing and tractor-run generators, they were able to keep bottling their milk while the trucks that pick up milk for conventional markets would not have gotten through. With their own processing, Simply Natural Creamery continued to deliver within their 75-80 mile delivery radius between Raleigh and the coast when supplier’s trucks couldn’t get through, often running their milk to local stores day and night. During and after the storm when food was in short supply, Simply Natural Creamery’s milk was often the only milk in the stores in their area, with people lined up waiting to get milk. Simply Natural Creamery provides an inspiring example of how conservation practices and programs like VAPG and crop insurance can help family farmers gain access into direct and high value markets, become less vulnerable to fluctuating prices and international trade wars and increase their ability to weather natural disasters. It illustrates that successful, viable family farms can, not only allow the next generation to continue farming, but also build resilience in the surrounding communities.