Glyen Holmes is the founder of the New North Florida Cooperative (NNFC), an organization whose goal is to bring small farmers together with local schools in order to provide healthy meals for students, and to give farmers a viable market for their products. The success of his cooperative is a great example of how the farm to school movement is breathing new life into rural farms, while also promoting healthy eating habits to school children.
Glyen Holmes has been interested in and involved with agriculture for most of his life. He grew up in rural Mississippi, where he was surrounded by small farming operations. During his childhood, he and his family members worked the land on neighboring farms for additional income.
After high school, Holmes attended Alcorn State University outside Lorman, Mississippi, where he received his Bachelor of Science in Agronomy. Upon graduating, he was hired by the USDA as a natural resource conservationist. In 1992, he was transferred from Mississippi to northern Florida and took on the role of an outreach coordinator. “My job was to get to small farmers and show them some of the programs that the USDA had that farmers could use,” Holmes said.
In 1995 while living in Florida, Holmes met with a woman named Pearl Holmes, who had a farmer cooperative in Jackson County that was struggling to stay in business. Glyen was interested in partnering with Pearl to revitalize the cooperative, but he knew he would need to find a market for the cooperative’s produce to be sold at a fair price, or else the operation would not succeed.
Then in 1996, Holmes met J’Amy Peterson, Food Service Director of the Gadsden County School District in Florida. Peterson was strong advocate of including fresh fruits and vegetables into children’s school lunches, and was also a supporter of local family farming operations. Holmes recognized the potential success that could be had with a partnership between the cooperative, and schools in Gadsden County. “We were looking for a market that could be tailor-made for small farmers,” Holmes said, “and we found it in farm to school.”
Later that year, Holmes formed the New North Florida Cooperative as a pilot project to test how practical connecting farmers with schools could really be. His concept became so successful, that in 2000, he left the USDA to focus his energy entirely on working with the NNFC.
According to Holmes, the NNFC helps small farmers in three major ways: by training, processing and distributing their products. The organization trains small farmers on how to successfully grow produce that schools can use. Then, the NNFC takes the vegetables from the farmers to their headquarters in Marianna, Florida, where cooperative members cut, wash and package them. Lastly, the NNFC delivers the packaged goods to the schools they have partnered with so the can be easily prepared and served to students.
“Lots of the money that small farmers should be getting goes to processors,” Holmes noted. “We go to the schools with the produce and set up a fair price,” Holmes said. These negotiations ensure that the farmers who grow the food receive a fair wage for their hard work. The NNFC’s reputation of professionalism and quality is making more and more schools look into the program, which gives more and more farmers the opportunity to get into farming as a career.
Besides making sure farmers earn a fair wage, the NNFC gives aspiring farmers a chance to start growing by making it more affordable to participate in the co-op. “A lot of farmers can’t afford to distribute their own products. We do that for them,” said Holmes. Also, the NNFC provides essential growing and packaging equipment to farmers who may not have been able to finance on their own.
Currently, the NNFC distributes over 750,000 lbs of produce annually to schools all over central and northern Florida. Their main crops are collard greens, green beans and sweet potato sticks, which are cut like carrot sticks and can be dipped in sauces to make them more kid-friendly. Children benefit by having fresh, healthy veggies in their lunches, and the whole area benefits by keeping the money that the schools spend on school lunches in their community.
Holmes is proud of the fact that the success of the NNFC is paving the way for more farmers and co-ops nationwide to be able to utilize the farm to school model. “We were one of the first groups in the country to do what we are doing with farm to school, and now it is becoming a national movement,” he said.
Holmes sees a bright future for the farm to school movement, especially when it comes to helping minority farmers flourish. The last USDA Census of Agriculture found that fewer than 30,600 farmers in the nation were African-American, compared to the 233,000 black farmers counted in 1920. Programs like the NNFC seek to reverse this trend by providing minority farmers with a niche market, and giving them the tools they need to farm–tools they may not have been able to finance on their own.
The NNFC has spread throughout not only Florida, but also Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Texas. Holmes said, “Success comes when farmers approach the farm to school idea as group, and not as individuals,” and he is sure that if small farmers can work together, then farm to school can be an option for small farmers nation wide to make a good living off their land.