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New Program Links Oklahoma Farms and Schools

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In case you haven't heard, Oklahoma Governor Brad Henry signed legislation this past summer creating the Oklahoma Farm to School Program within the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry (ODAFF). The program is the result of a collaborative effort between the Oklahoma Food Policy Council, a joint project of the Kerr Center for Sustainable Agriculture and ODAFF; the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, the Oklahoma Fit Kids Coalition and supportive Oklahoma legislators.

The overarching goal of the program is to link Oklahoma farms and schools, creating new marketing opportunities for farmers and alternative sources of nutritious fresh fruits and vegetables for inclusion in school meals and snacks.

The potential for significant sales exists. According to Kerr Center President Dr. Jim Horne, a combined 700,000 meals are served every day in Oklahoma public education facilities. According to one estimate, farmers could sell $6 million worth of fruits and vegetables to Oklahoma schools.

To get the program up and running, the legislation mandates the creation of a Farm to School Program director within ODAFF. The program director's job will be to develop the program statewide by providing information and assistance to both farmers and school food service directors.

Many growers have voiced skepticism about the marketing opportunities made possible by the Farm to School Program because the growing season doesn't coincide much with the school year. No one is suggesting that Oklahoma farmers can supply all the fresh fruits and vegetables schools use. However, many crops that are currently grown in the state can be harvested in the spring and/or fall.

Watermelon is a good example of a crop that can be fall-harvested. A 2005 Farm to School pilot program involving six school districts spent more than $20,000 on fall-harvested, Oklahoma-grown watermelon. According to a 2002 survey of school food service directors, other examples of field-grown fruits and vegetables that could be marketed during the school year include cucumber, onion, lettuce, muskmelon and strawberry. Pecans are one crop not mentioned in the survey that would be perfect for Farm to School.

Season extension technology, including plastic mulch, row covers, hoop houses and greenhouses, offers Oklahoma growers increased opportunity to take advantage of the Farm to School Program.

To date, the vast majority of hoop house research conducted by Noble and university horticulturists has focused on culture. The limited amount of economic analysis done on hoop house crops suggests that many vegetable and fruit crops can only be produced profitably when direct-marketed. Growers contemplating marketing to schools need to appreciate the fact that profit margins will be much less when selling wholesale to schools.

So, can hoop house crops be grown profitably when marketed to schools? To answer this question, Noble will initiate a hoop house economics study in fall 2006. The objective is to determine the breakeven cost as an estimate of profit potential for hoop house fruit and vegetable crops grown as single crops or in various combinations grown in succession. Hoop house budgets generated from this project will assist our cooperators and growers in the southern Great Plains in making sound business decisions about participating in Oklahoma's Farm to School Program.