As we’ve thought about long-range possibilities for providing for our family’s needs, we’ve become ever more convinced that it will be prudent for us to center our efforts around food: growing it, eating it, bartering it, moving it, selling it. Partly this is because we are ever more committed to walking an agrarian path, and while not everyone in an agrarian society need provide for themselves by farmng, most probably will and the rest will be wise to grow a good deal of their own food. So centering our energies on food will help us and the generations that follow to stay on that path. There is also the fact that in these uncertain times one of the more certain things is that people will continue to need to eat; to the extent that we are able to get good food to them at a fair price, we will prosper.
From an agrarian point of view, though, the current economic mechanisms are badly broken and there is no good way for a farmer to get food to customers. Here is a summary of the less than good ways we’ve considered and decided against. Keep in mind that my assessment of these approaches is fairly superficial, since we’ve had no practical experience with them ourselves. And clearly many folks have had success pursuing each one of them. Still, in order to choose a path for ourselves we’ve had to evaluate these possibilities as best we can, based on reading and talking to folks and just plain ruminating.
Selling to a wholesaler. By this I mean where the farmer grows a crop and sells it to a buyer who will then sell it to someone else. If this makes sense at all these days, it really only makes sense for people who will grow huge quantities of one or a few crops using fertilizer and pesticides, since that is what your competition (i.e. your neighbors) are all doing. This is so different from our ideal of subsistence farming that to do this would require a whole separate operation whose purpose was only to make money, an approach we are trying to get away from.
Which is not to say that we would not consider selling our surplus to a wholesaler, or even growing extra of some crop in order to do so. But for the most part prices in this market are so low that the small surplus quantities that a highly diversified farm would produce are hardly worth a wholesaler’s time.
Selling to a retailer. This is what our friend and mentor Jerome Lange does, selling primarily to Good Foods Market in Lexington but also to folks who resell at local farmers’ markets. And Jerome has been kind enough to let us try our hand at growing some of the easier crops he has a market for; this year through him we’ll be selling garlic, acorn squash, cherry tomatoes, and maybe mesclun lettuce and cilantro if we can get those under control.
Selling to a grocery store, though, presents its own challenges. For one, to meet their customers’ expectations of having pretty much everything available at pretty much any time, they have to fill in the seasonal gaps that are inevitable for local growers by ordering from a national produce distributor. And given that, they must resist the constant temptation to simplify their managerial lives by just ordering everything from that distributor. Meanwhile, the weirdness of the current economic arrangement means that the distributor will often be able to offer certain produce from far away at a much lower price than the local farmer can afford to sell at.
More important, maybe, is that grocery stores in general foster an attitude in customers that works against the interests of the farmer, namely it is good and proper to expect to eat what you want when you want it, rather than to eat seasonally. This has encouraged many small-scale farmers to push the envelope by finding ways to extend the season for a crop both earlier and later. I have nothing against that per se, except for some vague qualms about where we cross the line into unnaturalness. But I do have a strong sentiment against making money by encouraging and then catering to cravings that are out of sync with nature.
Finally, there is the matter of markup. You will get more of the final retail price than you would from selling to a wholesaler, but the grocer will still add 70% or more to the price you charge them. There’s no question that, given how they do business, such a markup is needed; in most grocery stores the produce section hopes only to break even, and if the store could get rid of it without losing customers they would do so in a heartbeat. Still, once you think through what that 70% is going towards—bright lights, wide aisles, fancy displays, availability at 8:30pm—you can’t help but ask yourself if there isn’t a way to eliminate the frills, splitting the savings between you and the customer.
Again, we’ll be doing this when it makes sense (supplying stuff through Jerome, possibly looking for local outlets that might resell some stuff for us) but it isn’t where we want to place our focus.
Direct sales: farmers’ markets. Although superficially these are ideal—sell what you have when you have it, keep all the profits—in practice they don’t work the way I want them to, for reasons I don’t totally understand. Our reasons for staying away from this are mostly based on powerful anecdotal evidence: Jerome worked one in Somerset for seven years, and although he counts it as good experience he says he’d never do it again; our friend Steve has worked hard for years to establish himself at the Lexington farmers’ market, doing mostly what we would do ourselves, yet is still only scraping by; many of the farmers we heard give presentations at the SSAWG conference this year were folks who used to sell at farmers’ markets but no longer do.
There are some obvious drawbacks to working a farmers’ market—long hours spent not working the farm, customers who expect real bargains, competitors whow are willing to dump their goods just to be done with them. Often to increase variety of produce available the market operators will allow in vendors who merely resell produce, which they sell at painfully low prices.
Maybe the most surprising drawback was something I heard at SSAWG: most of the customers at a farmers’ market are not there to buy but simply to wander around. Put another way, they are not there to do their grocery shopping but for the experience—a day out, a nice colorful walk, or whatever. Most of the buys are impulse buys. The successful vendors tend to be the ones selling something exotic, like flowers or garlic braids or gift packages of herbs, rather than those selling staples.
Direct sales: roadside stand. This is another superficially ideal arrangement—sell what you have when you have it, keep all the profits, complete control over what is sold and how, no nearby competition—that suffers from a few important drawbacks. Most important is that it would have to be somewhere besides on our property, since we have the otherwise desirable circumstance of nearly zero traffic passing by; that would mean finding a suitable facility in some other more heavily trafficked spot, renting it, stocking it, and staffing it.
Direct sales: on-farm sales. Even better than other direct sales options as far as exercising control and keeping all the money. However, at SSAWG we heard a few folks talk about why this didn’t work well for them: having to interrupt work to be available for customers (which means being engaged in interruptible work); having customers show up outside the hours you try to establish; having people find you at all if you are in a remote location. The interruption factor is a killer, I think. We had friends who almost went crazy selling milk directly, with people showing up in dribs and drabs and at odd times and wanting to visit when they came. The solution (a good one, if you can trust your customers) was to put the milk in a refrigerator in an outbuilding where people could come at any time without disturbing the hous
ehold. The folks we got milk from here in Kentucky use the same arrangement.
Direct sales: Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). This is a novel arrangement that was developed in Japan and has been gaining ground over the years here in the US, where a farmer will gather together a number of subscribers who agree in advance to pay a fixed amount for a percentage of the produce the farmer grows that year. The lofty ideal is that customers are funding the farmer, sharing in both the bounty and in any disappointments (e.g. a particular crop fails). Details of the financing vary; sometimes the year’s payment is expected in advance, sometimes the customer agrees to fixed monthly payments for the year. Many folks at SSAWG who had tried and given up on other approaches have gravitated to this one.
There are drawbacks, of course. The main one is getting subscribers and keeping them. The one study cited at SSAWG said that year-to-year about half the subscribers drop out, and nobody quibbled with the number. People quit for obvious reasons: fickleness, boredom, expectations not met. Farmers report that their biggest problem in keeping customers happy was in providing the variety that people wanted; despite the ideal, folks are turned off when a crop actually fails and the farmers will often scramble to cover it with produce obtained elsewhere. A subtler problem is providing the customer with too much of a given item; after a few instances of having to clean rotting, uneaten produce out of the refrigerator it is likely someone would begin to feel they are wasting at least some of their money.
The main problem to me with this model is one I only ever heard mentioned obliquely, which makes me think it is an elephant in the room: the customer pays a lump sum for what is available and has no real say in the mixture of stuff they receive. As close as I heard to an acknowledgement of this was one CSA farmer who said their customers liked it when they provided a “swap table”, where anyone could leave things they didn’t want for folks to take who wanted them. Personally, I would prefer to decide for myself what part of the season’s bounty I will partake of, and the CSA arrangement would be quite likely to make me feel guilty about not eating some of those “good for you” things in my basket that I just plain didn’t like.
Most important to us, though, is that a CSA farmer must grow a wide variety of crops throughout the year, requiring a larger and more diverse operation than we are interested in running at any point in the forseeable future.
Those are the main avenues through the food supply chain we considered as we thought about how to proceed. In the next installment I’ll explain how we’ve taken our favorite bits and pieces of these approaches and cobbled together our own idea.