Todd Rothe ’10 is the food systems manager of the Hulings Rice Food Center and will be teaching Sustainable Food Production in the fall as part of the newly-created sustainable agriculture minor.
Buckles: How have attitudes around food changed in the last two decades?
Rothe: I remember sitting at the old Ashland Farmers Market back in 1999 and having to explain to people what the term “organic” meant. Now, you can find local and organic products everywhere. Ten years ago the main concern was whether there were enough producers to feed our communities. There has been progress made to meet that challenge. Now the challenge is on the consumers to make very conscious choices to ensure they are actually supporting small diversified farms, ideally local at best, and not corporate conglomerates—organic or otherwise.
How realistic is it for Northland College to reach the goal of eighty percent for local foods?
I believe we were somewhere around sixty-five percent at the peak of last fall, so yes, I think it is possible. To sustain that kind of percentage through all nine months of the school year begs some serious questions. Like? For one, there is a limited supply of poultry products and some dairy products. Do we go outside of our one-hundred-mile radius to ensure we are filling the gaps in supply? Do we redefine how far away something can be and still be considered local? On the other hand, are there products that we remove from food service that are not, and will never be, local? Bananas, for instance, or soft drinks? We have two years left and a bunch of figuring out to do. It is a lofty goal, to say the least, but the fact that we have come this close puts Northland College in the lead nationwide.
How much in the lead?
Top ten, for sure. When we submitted our numbers for the STARS report, they asked us for further verification because they considered forty-six percent local foods a “data outlier.” It raised a red flag. We had to send them copies of invoices to prove we were for real.
How do you manage and prioritize the gardens, the farmers, the high tunnel, food processing, the entrepreneurs using the kitchen, the development of an academic program, and the compost?
The compost alone is a full-time puzzle. Lists. I love lists and live by them. If you visit my office there are sticky notes and clipboards all over the place. Farming is much the same way. Nothing is ever very consistent. So I need a master list to fall back on when I have been taken off-task. I also have a great team of people that make me look good.
You also operate your own farm. What’s your best advice to budding farmers?
Write a business plan. I think the most common misconception about farming is that a person only needs to know how to grow plants and raise animals successfully. The more difficult, and not so romantic task is tracking your numbers—knowing where you are gaining and losing financially. A business plan forces you to map everything out, from identifying market potential to planning crops, to profit margins. It serves as the map for your journey to build a new business enterprise.
I wrote a business plan for my farm, River Road Farm, in 2011 after taking a nine-month course in farm business called, Farm Beginnings. I figured out, line item by line item, what the startup costs would be and how much gross revenue was needed to achieve a modest profit.
How did that go?
Fast forward six years and the staple crop at River Road Farm is salad mix, which we grow seven months of the year. The financial statements within the business plan, the projected profit and loss statement, allowed us to reflect and make adjustments. We now sell our products to the Lake Superior CSA, Chequamegon Food Co-op, Northland College, and distribute to restaurants through the Bayfield Foods Producers Cooperative. The farm has achieved a 400 percent increase in gross revenue from year one to year five, so that feels pretty good. It’s not all puppies and sunshine though, there have been some wrenches thrown in our gears too, along with some major setbacks, but that’s farmin’.