Monday, October 19, 2009

To market, to market

Have I mentioned my concern about the long-term economic viability of organic farms? I've asked a lot of farmers about it. I've asked food activists and co-op produce buyers about it. I think I probably even mutter about it in my sleep these days. (Maybe the grumbling's what keeps the bears away from my campsite through the night. And here I thought it was all of the dirty laundry I had lined the inside of the tent with.) There are thousands of devoted organic farmers all around the country working long, laborious hours to get healthy, responsibly produced food to their communities. Most of these are small or medium-sized operations that have barely a handful of people to help with planting, mulching, weeding, and weeding, and weeding -- rainy year -- and harvesting. Who has time for marketing? (There have been workdays when I've been so exhausted at the end of the day I could barely spell the word markzzzzzz....) And yet, I learned from Matt, who along with his partner Pat runs Coyote Run Farm, the fledgling sustainable food system will fail without it.

On the ride from the food security conference in Des Moines to his farm in Lacona, and as I helped out with chores around the farm, Matt and I talked a good deal about some of the financial challenges facing farmers. Now, nobody goes into farming for the money, just like nobody goes into teaching for the money, but it should be an occupation that earns enough to support the farmer and her family. It seems that many these days are starting or joining organic farms because "it's the right thing to do" for the community and are finagling ways to make ends meet for the short-term expenses. I don't disagree with this impulse, but I worry about how the farms are going to support themselves in order to buy land, build a home/ barn/ greenhouse, acquire fencing and irrigation supplies, afford insurance and repairs, be able to pay enough people fairly to help with the work, and not be in debt for the rest of their lives. (This is, of course, not even taking into consideration a collapse of the market or acts of god.) At least they're not beholden to fertilizer, pesticide, and seed companies every year, as conventional farmers are, but it still takes a chunk of change to start and maintain a farm.

Some are given land through various means (grants, land trusts, generous family members, benevolent wealthy folks hoping to have their land used for something worthwhile), but most have taken out loans to buy or lease the farmland. Others are homesteaders or those who grow extra food on the side, who consider sales at the market or to a few CSA members an opportunity to earn a little extra cash but not something to depend on for their livelihood. Many have second jobs or off-farm partners. (Matt acknoledged that he is fortunate enough to have a position as part of Drake University's Agricultural Law Center with a schedule flexible enough to accommodate his farming endeavors while Pat works full-time with the land and animals.) Food production takes a lot of work -- have I mentioned the weeding? -- and because of the relatively small scale of these operations there is not much money coming in. How can these smaller farms compete with the big guys who sell conventionally grown food at an unsustainably low price and have at their disposal a seemingly limitless advertising budget? (I mean aside from a more equitable governmental farm subsidy system, which is fodder for a whole other series of blog posts....) It takes something like 10 years to establish a farm, Matt suggested, and at the rate we're going most of the small farms starting up these days won't be around that long.

Organic farmers consider themselves food producers, land stewards, activists, but very few see themselves as small businessmen and women. Terms like scaling-up, marketing, consumers, and networking smack of the large-scale, bottom-dollar capitalist system that got us into the current food crisis we are trying to fix. (No, I'm not a Communist, but thanks for asking.) I'm not suggesting that we corporatize regional food systems, but I do think that some basic economic principles apply if these small businesses are going to flourish. The most successful farms that I have worked with -- in terms of financial stability -- seem to have a few things in common. These are the very things Matt enumerated as crucial components:

1. A consistently high-quality product. Folks may be willing to pay a fair price to try something once because it's in line with their philosophy, but they'll only continue to buy it if it's good.
2. A niche market. You need to sell something they can't get elsewhere. In the case of Coyote Run, there are rare (and delicious) heirloom vegetables, free-range eggs, and heritage turkeys.
3. Loyal customers. This means that when competition arrives, customers don't want to go elsewhere.
4. Getting the word out. People need to know you're around and know what you're selling.

Aside from a listing in Local Harvest, Buy Fresh Buy Local, or another general organic farm directory, very few small farms do much by way of marketing their products beyond having a sign at their stall at the farmers' market. Some farmers simply refuse to pony up the $50 for the Buy Fresh Buy Local directory listing and market stall sign. I've worked with some farmers who have complained about being pestered to join up with their local chapter, their reasoning often stemming from a belief that they don't really get anything out of the $50 membership and/or a resistance to being affiliated with a larger group that is not in line with their values. (Incidentally, local chapters seem to vary widely in their practices. It seems that some do much more outreach and market development.)

More people are buying more local, seasonal food than they have in quite some time. The agricultural tide may be turning. Even the USDA is launching initiatives like "Know Your Farmer." It's hip to eat locally these days. (If it wasn't, mainstream media wouldn't keep running stories on it, and the food co-op in Decorah, Iowa wouldn't be able to sell organic carrots from Iowa for more than the organic carrots from California.) There is a growing market out there. But as with most trends -- and I speak here as if I'd not talked my way out of the requisite economics course in college, but Matt confirmed my hunch here -- the "locavores" will decrease in number in the not-too-distant future unless farmers are able to make a good enough case for continuing to support them. It's as much about farmers and eaters getting to know (and trust) each other as it is about the actual food being sold.


  1. So what is local? For a landless city-dweller like me, food must be imported from the outside world. How far away can it originate and still be considered my local foodshed? (The Farmers' Markets in DC have vendors who drive in from Pennsylvania, WV, and even NC). I want to do the right thing, but where do I draw the line?
    As for organic food--it's better than conventional, all things being equal. And even without much advertising, the Organics industry has a niche market (see: Whole Foods). But as you and Michael Pollan have both pointed out, organic food can be a mass produced monopoly (ex: Horizon milk) or it can be transported from Peru--that doesn't make it sustainable.

  2. Funny you should mention a lack of clarity about what it means to be "local." It is exactly one of the things Matt and I spoke about (him quite articulately and me rather ham-handedly). I'd better get cracking on that blog post....


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