In 2010, Florida Grower® magazine featured St. Johns County farmer Danny Johns’ potato growing operation, Blue Sky Farms. The story was titled “Changing With The Times” for his transition from chip production — where competition was driving prices too low — to table stock potatoes.
While going to table stock was a good move and is still a major part of Blue Sky Farms production, times keep changing. In the past few years, Johns and a few partnering growers have ventured into new waters to maintain their competitive edge. The venture includes dealing direct with consumers through community supported agriculture (CSAs), local restaurants, and retailers. Many new vegetable varieties have been added to the farm’s product offerings.
“We added the table stock potatoes to diversify, but the evolution continues,” Johns says. “The one constant in farming is change, so if you are going to survive in this industry, you have to be open and able to adapt to the next thing.”
One of the challenges for growers dealing direct with consumers and restaurants is producing enough volume to be a reliable supplier of goods. To address this challenge, Johns has embraced the concept of a “food hub” where a number of farms feed produce into a one-stop source in a steady volume.
The food hub Johns and several partner growers have established is First Coast Fresh. At Blue Sky Farms, Johns is growing up to 25 different crops in addition to his traditional potato plantings. Leafy greens, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, sweet potatoes, and other popular produce items are now being planted.
“We are up to about 20 acres with these vegetable crops and we double crop that land,” he says.
As for the food hub, Johns adds: “Rather than me growing 50 different vegetables, if I have a neighbor growing broccoli and another growing cabbage, why don’t I source from them? We can create a streamlined location and one-stop shop for everybody where we can supply consumers and chefs.”
First Coast Fresh is currently being supplied by five to six farms after being established three years ago. The benefit of the hub for the growers is to return more of the farm gate value of produce back to the grower by removing middle men and having more control over the prices paid for goods.
“Our volume is not as high as we want yet, but we are working on it,” Johns says. “The goal is to be a reliable, one-stop source of high-quality, locally grown produce. We also are looking to establish our own distribution capabilities through First Coast Fresh.”