If a farmer picks a pepper and no one buys it, does the farmer still make money? It’s not quite the philosophical equivalent of the falling tree conundrum but the answer is much simpler: no buyer, no money.
“It doesn’t matter how good your products are, if you don’t have buyers, you’re done,” said Rodrigo Cala, who with brother Juan Carlos owns Cala Farms in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, where they grow certified organic vegetables. “The reality is, the only way for a small farmer to survive is to have another job.”
Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) back up Cala’s statement: Small family farms, those with less than $350,000 in gross sales, earn only 10 percent of their household income from the farm, with the rest coming from an off-farm source. Though city and neighborhood farmers markets are one outlet for these smaller-scale farms and organic startups, the growers are harvesting for an unknown customer, with uncontrollable factors such as weather playing into just who will show up to buy. A rainy weekend or two can ruin drive-by traffic that ordinarily stops at a roadside stand while the folks tour country roads.
According to USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), national net farm income – a key indicator of U.S. farm well-being – is forecast at $62.3 billion in 2017, down nearly 9 percent from last year. The 2016 forecast represents the fourth consecutive year of decline from 2013’s record high of $123.7 billion and would be the lowest since 2002 in both nominal and inflation-adjusted dollars. Net farm income, calculated on an accrual basis, is down 50 percent since 2013. Farm sector production expenses have also fallen over the period.
That report on the U.S. Farm Income Outlook for 2017 also notes “The U.S. farm sector is vast and varied.” One of the “variations” in agriculture – a sort of back-to-the-earth movement – brought with it something unique: an emphasis on traditional growing methods, small (and even urban) farms, and the use of technology to connect those small farms to the markets that will help them grow and prosper.
Marketing methods that bring grower and consumer together seem to be proliferating.
One effort to salvage this situation, FarmMatch, founded in Wisconsin in 2012 by Max Kane, aimed “to connect consumers worldwide with local farmers, buying clubs, farmers market and restaurants that offer fresh, sustainable, organic foods.”
Users of the FarmMatch listing service, such as the Cala brothers, like the simplicity of matching customers with producers. The FarmMatch site uses maps to show those entities (along with delivery sites for community-supported agriculture). The user simply enters a ZIP code to find the connections to food sources and outlets. There’s even a payment method for users to employ.
Another more recent entry into helping growers and markets get together is in Bloomington, Minnesota, where Doug Harvey has launched Farm 2 Chef Direct. Growers list their products on the searchable web portal and chefs can place their orders directly, then set a pickup time or arrange delivery.
Harvey, a board member for the Minneapolis Farmers Market who also owns Fireside Orchard in Northfield, Minnesota, said the site fulfills a need both for restaurants and farmers, who are each “just so busy they don’t have the time to do this on their own. The feedback that we’re getting is that this is long overdue,” Harvey said.
Helping to make that connection is St. Paul-based Shared Ground, a farmer-owned cooperative of five urban and rural farms, including Cala’s, that aims to make environmentally sustainable farming a true living wage job in part by offering a consistent source of local produce to area restaurants and other wholesale buyers.
“It’s a very important part of my operation, working with Shared Ground,” said Cala, who explained that while it’s crucial for small-scale farms to have relationships with restaurant buyers, those relationships are difficult to develop for farmers who focus so much time and energy on growing their crops that they’re unable to cultivate a market for their produce. And Cala, who emigrated from Mexico, pointed out, it is difficult “not just for Latinos, but any small farmer, no matter the color.”
“Most farms don’t have a website, so who do you contact if you’re a chef looking to source local ingredients?” asked Rebecca Jackson, Shared Ground’s co-op manager. “We’re able to offer our buyers a huge variety and volume, and take some of the legwork out of it for the restaurants and for the farmers.”
Shared Ground’s focus is minority, immigrant and beginning farmers, who Jackson said often face additional language and cultural barriers.
And elsewhere in the country…
In the Northwest, known more recently for technological development in the computer industry than for fresh produce, agricultural efforts have been bolstered since the mid-1970s by old-fashioned print media: The result is a Farm Guide produced by the recently formed Tilth Alliance. The Alliance is a merger of three Seattle-area entities: Seattle Tilth, Tilth Producers and Cascade Harvest Coalition. Tilth is an old English word that means the quality of cultivated soil for farming and comes from the root word “to till.” It also refers to the cultivation of wisdom and spirit.
Mezza Luna Farms owners Ian “Farmer” Fels and his wife, Victoria Roos, list not only their produce with the Tilth Alliance, but their internship program as well.
Nash’s Organic Farm was started by Huber Nash in 1979 with a couple of vacant lots. Today, Nash’s farms many more acres and is famous for their Nash’s Best! brand of carrots, as well as other vegetables. Their association with the Alliance has been a boost to marketing.
According to Sheryl Wiser, manager of business partnerships for the Alliance, the 2016 merger of these three groups realized that the most effective way to get more people growing and eating healthy food is to unite farmers, eaters, gardeners, cooks and environmental advocates to champion a sustainable food culture.
The Tilth guide has now grown from a full-page listing in the Seattle paper in 1998 to a catalog of 272 farms and markets, with a press run of 100,000 copies.
A listing in the guide costs $175.
Wiser said the guide is also on the organization’s website and is available in a mobile app.
Micha Ide, Bright Ide Acres, said, “We’ve been part of the farm guide since the inception of our business in 2014. We frequently have customers who tell us they first found out about us either through searching the online version or flipping through a hard copy of the farm guide.
“We love to give the guides out at farmers markets to encourage shoppers to buy locally. It’s a wonderful resource and we are grateful that the Tilth continues to publish it!” Ide continued.
Efforts on behalf of local farmers even have a bicoastal reach. Wiser said that the model for some of the Alliance’s early energies was Jersey Fresh, an advertising, promotional and quality grading program launched in 1984 to help New Jersey farmers inform consumers about the availability and variety of fruits and vegetables grown in their state. Jersey Fresh is the state’s effort to bring “Jersey Fresh” to all who want it, working with restaurants, schools, colleges, big box stores, local communities, hotels, hospitals and more.
The combination of traditional sweat-of-the-brow farming and up-to-date use of computers and the internet is a winning one for both sides of the food equation.
“Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous and they are tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.” That wisdom comes from Thomas Jefferson, one of our nation’s most famous agrarians (and, yes, presidents). He lauded the importance and virtue of the cultivators of the soil. Although his home, Monticello, was the site of innovative agriculture – and ours was still an agrarian society – this was the common sentiment.
It’s hardly news that farming as a way of life is vastly different than in Jefferson’s day. But industrialization has brought great change to the United States … change that would have amazed but might not have perplexed Jefferson. He certainly would have availed himself of the latest marketing opportunities. And 240 years later, given the power of online marketing, every American grower should do no less.