When I was growing up, a half dozen farms surrounded my family’s fruit orchards. Now all of those families have ceased farming except ours and one other. The neighborhood children have grown up and dispersed; few have anything to do with agriculture. “I wanted to farm like my grandfather and dad,” one of 4 neighbor’s sons once told me, “but not at the same prices they were getting 30 years ago!”
In the middle of America’s current agricultural crisis–in which less than one percent of the population works full time to grow our corn, wheat, fruits, and vegetables–it is proving difficult for many of the nation’s family farmers to survive, at least in their traditional role as food producers. The age-old remedies for disastrous farm prices–collective price-setting associations, national fraternal organizations like the Grange, and crop-sales cooperatives-have come up short, not that they were ever overly effective anyway.
Historically, neither regional cooperatives nor national farmers’ unions have ever been united enough to restrict harvests in an effort to increase prices. American farmers have traditionally felt that the proposition of cutting back production to increase profits runs against the grain, especially in a world economy, where another farmer somewhere else always stands ready to fill the gap in supply and demand.
While no guarantee exists that the returns farmers receive for their harvests will rise in the next decade, there is a real likelihood that supermarket prices for food will continue to climb. Are there any solutions to this dilemma? For small farmers who have no off-farm income and little chance of becoming large-scale shippers, one answer may be to search out ways to remove the “middleman” and market their harvests directly to the consumer. But how can the small family farmer succeed in a sophisticated global marketplace, where a few corporate superstores can drive prices down by buying food in bulk and at the lowest cost, regardless of where it was harvested and where it will eventually be sold?
Some farmers, at least, have found ways to compete successfully: Today roughly 10 percent of the fresh produce served on dinner tables every evening in California is purchased directly from the farmer who grew it. There are almost 3,000 farmers’ markets across the nation, and more than 100,000 small farms that sell produce through them. Consumers there are not just well-to-do suburbanites, either: More than $100 million in USDA food stamps are redeemed each year at these markets. In theory, profits earned at these alfresco venues should be manna for farmers: Though a broker will pay a farmer little more than $7 for a 23-pound box of just-picked Thompson seedless grapes, for example, the farmer who sells the fruit by the pound at a local market can frequently garner upwards of $30 for the same box of grapes.
After years of selling my family’s plums, peaches, and grapes at farmers’ markets in Santa Cruz and Monterey, I know firsthand that these retail opportunities can be both a boon to and a headache for farmers. To compete in the new world of American farming, my family and farmers like us box and pack our just-picked produce, load it in a truck, leave out properties before dawn on market day, and sometimes drive more than 200 miles to a distant city–then unload, set up our tables, and sell the fresh fruits and vegetables to local shoppers for five to six hours. Afterward, we’ll drive back home, resume farming, and in a day or so repeat the process. To survive, we have learned to combine the roles of truckers, distributors, and marketers, all the while retaining our primary job: producing food.
Of course, there are problems with farmers’ markets. Farmers who grow cotton, wheat, soybeans, and other grains that require processing have few opportunities to sell directly to urban shoppers. And farm stands operated by people who pose as farmers, but actually buy their produce from others, corrupt the original intent of these grassroots farmer-to-consumer exchanges. Megafarms sometimes send salespeople in the guise of farmers to between 60 and 100 markets a week, thereby turning friendly farmer emporiums into corporate commodities outlets where the family farmer cannot compete.
But for all its abuse, direct sales can offer enormous advantages to both farmers and consumers. Having been picked ripe from the vine, bush, or tree just hours before sale, fruits and vegetables sold at farmers’ markets are plump, juicy, and fresh. Growing more flavorful heirloom varieties of apples, peaches, and tomatoes that taste wonderful but bruise too easily to ship any distance makes sense if you have an established seasonal outlet for your harvest. These tasty, perfectly ripe varieties lure buyers back to fresh produce by giving them the chance to experience the flavor and texture of regional fruits and vegetables picked when nature intended, not when they need to be shipped. By buying directly from the grower, shoppers pay less for better-quality produce, develop relationships with local farmers, become aware of the seasonal cycles of farming, and come to empathize with the challenges farmers face. The result? Stereotypes shatter, and cultural connections are forged.
In the next decade, small family farmers must find ways to move a larger percentage of their harvests directly to consumers. Mail-order sales, via E-commerce, may be one answer.
Although the Internet often initially intimidates farmers, they soon realize it can be an efficient, cost-effective way to market their produce to local homes and restaurants. This retail opportunity frequently gives farmers the incentive they need to diversify their crops and offer off-season farm specialties like dried fruits and jams, syrups, and cured olives and spices.
And rather than fighting their new suburban neighbors over issues of dust, noise, and spray as in the past, many family farmers are turning to interactive farms and “agrotourism.” These farmers increase their profits and community profile by inviting urban consumers to visit farms where they can pick their own fruit and vegetables, gather pumpkins at Halloween, cut their own Christmas trees, interact with barnyard animals, and browse through on-site country stores.
Although farmers sometimes begrudge the seeming “sellout” of their traditional farming practices and the accompanying invasion of privacy, those without the luxury of inherited wealth or off-farm capital must find niches for themselves-by specializing, diversifying, and actively pursuing opportunities in farmers’ markets, organic co-ops, and direct delivery services. And by selling directly to the growing legions of urbanites, family farmers will earn trusted allies in the fight to help America’s small family farms survive.