– written by Grant
Is small-scale, local, organic, sustainable farming actually sustainable?
By which I mean, can they stay in business?
If you’re like me, you’ve believed up to now that surely the values that drive such small farms will carry them through; that small farms are “good”, ergo, they must inherently be able to succeed.
But on a farm this fall, I overheard this exchange between two farmers who run small operations:
Visiting farmer: So what keeps you in business?
Huh? (picture me cartoonishly wagging my head side-to-side and looking flabbergasted)
Weddings and special events on farms are wonderful for sure, at the very least because they are expanding awareness of the foods and farming practices they offer. But to think that, for this farm at least, staying in business as a farm means needing another revenue stream outside of what we all would consider a farm’s core business – growing food – is surprising to me.
Color me naïve.
And color me as one who’s overtly ignored this reality for a while. I say this because I’ve seen a farm fail before but apparently have chosen not to make much of it. Back a few years, a much-loved dairy farm in our area had an inspection from regulators that indicated a possible problem. The agency did not prove any actual danger, but the milk was pulled from shelves. No illnesses were reported and again, there was no proof shown. In the end though, the farm could not weather the public relations fallout and shuttered. I got fairly involved with the farmer and did what I could to help him address some cash flow issues and try to get back on his feet, but it never worked.
Here was a farm professing local, sustainable values and practices … but it failed.
I heard recently that Tiny Greens, a small Illinois farm that had been in business for 20 years and even had strong wholesale accounts has closed as well. It was a farm professing local, sustainable values and practices … but it failed.
This week in Chicago, a favorite local deli that was a staunch supporter of all things local and thoughtfully raised, City Provisions, closed and the theme of the owner’s public letter was that “sustainability is not sustainable.”
Another business professing local, sustainable values and practices … that failed.
Color me a little less naïve.
Now I finally get that there is nothing about a farm with sustainable farming practices that inherently makes it “bound to succeed.” It is a business like any other (or perhaps folks will argue, tougher even) and it has to have capital, pricing, distribution and damage control ducks all in a row. (Not having an MBA, I’m sure I’m missing some items, but you get the point.) There will be bad turns of weather. There will be crop failure. There will be safety concerns that lead to publicity problems. There will be lots of bad times a farm has to weather. Just the fact that they have sustainable growing practices will not carry them through.
Wanting to learn more about the business of small-farming from a farmer, we had dinner recently with my friends Jenny and Bob Borchardt of Harvest Moon Farms. Jenny runs the on-farm operations at their Viroqua, WI, farm, and Bob manages marketing and distribution matters. They define themselves as “new generation” farmers — they did not grow up as farmers but recently left professional jobs to pursue a rural, agricultural lifestyle. Jenny worked 18 years in textbook and educational technology sales and Bob ran Cuisine Populaire, a new media company focused on the food, wine and travel sector. They went through a beginning farmer training program, befriended an experienced organic farmer in their area who mentors them, and took the plunge, just as many new, young farmers around the country are doing.
To be clear, their farm has NOT failed, but it has struggled to find a way to make organic farming a successful business. They find themselves too far from Chicago to make the farmers market and CSA model work for them — there is too much time and effort in the piece-meal delivery process and they don’t earn enough to pay themselves well. As Bob put it, “We’d just like to earn as much as our average customer.”
They are compelled to scale up so they can be delivering pallets of produce rather than boxes. They’re convinced selling large loads in the wholesale market is where the profit margin is best for them … and where they can finally earn a living wage.
Of course farms of any size face struggles to stay in business. They’re impacted by weather, by government regulations, by the degree to which crop insurance helps them and of course by the marketplace — you, the consumer, and the price you’re willing to pay.
Perhaps it’s just time that we the consumer realize that hanging one’s shingle out that reads, “sustainable farm” is not a free ride to monetary success. Given the consumer’s general unwillingness to pay more for foods, the case is likely the opposite. Sustainable farming may be lovely, but it is also more difficult.
And it is not inherently sustainable as a business.
So maybe next time you’re at the farmer’s market working on “knowing your farmer” you should ask him or her about something other than growing practices and cooking methods.
Try asking, “Are you earning enough by farming to stay in business?”
I think then you’ll find that suddenly you really do know your farmer.
And you’ll learn something more about the term “sustainable”.
• • • • •
On top of producing beautiful organic produce, Jenny is a terrific cook! Dinner started with delicata squash soup followed by red wattle pork shanks and cassoulet beans from the farm’s kitchen garden. On the side were creamed curly kale and home-baked bread with Westby Creamery butter. We also scored some homebrew courtesy of their farm chef this past summer – One Hundred Meals may be developing a side theme of drawing out the homemade beers – a trend we will not argue with!