New program offers state farmers new opportunity

Oklahoma’s public school students will soon be enjoying more locally grown fruits and vegetables in their school meals, because of new legislation creating the Oklahoma Farm-to-School Program.

As part of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry (ODAFF), the Farm-to-School program will supplement fruits and vegetables from out of state with produce grown within the Sooner State.

It’s an opportunity for the state’s agricultural producers to increase their presence in a relatively untapped market, said The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation’s horticulturist Steve Upson.

“A combined 700,000 meals are served every day in Oklahoma’s public education facilities, so the potential for significant sales exists,” Upson said. “According to one estimate, farmers could sell $6 million worth of fruits and vegetables to Oklahoma schools.”

However, some growers have voiced skepticism about the opportunities made possible by the Farm-to-School program because Oklahoma’s growing season doesn’t coincide with the majority of the public school year. Upson said using season-extension technology, such as plastic mulch, row covers, hoop houses and greenhouses, can help farmers participate in growing crops for the program.

“No one is suggesting that Oklahoma farmers can supply all the fresh fruits and vegetables for our schools,” he said. “However, Oklahoma’s farmers should attempt to take advantage of this opportunity. It could mean a nice increase in revenue. Additionally, many crops that are currently grown in the state can be harvested in the spring and/or fall.”

Watermelon is one example of a fall-harvested crop. A 2005 Farm-to-School pilot program involving six school districts showed that more than $20,000 was spent on 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 included cucumbers, onions, lettuce, muskmelons and strawberries.

“Pecans are one crop not mentioned in the survey that would be perfect for the Farm-to-School program,” Upson said.

To address the profitability of hoop-house-grown crops being marketed in the Farm-to-School program, the Noble Foundation initiated a hoop house economics study in fall 2006.

“The objective of the study is to determine the break-even cost,” Upson said. “Hoop house budgets generated from this project will assist the Noble Foundation cooperators and growers in the southern Great Plains in making sound business decisions about participating in the Farm-to-School program.”

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