Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Stuck in the Middle

Local food and small-scale farming seem to fit hand-in-glove - folks interested in locally grown food want to buy from small, family-owned farms that are part of the community.  Small-scale farmers want (and need) to sell directly to consumers - selling to the end user eliminates the need for a "middleman" who takes a cut of the value of a farm product.  While I've considered these issues in this space previously, I'm increasingly convinced that the middle - that space between micro-scale and large-scale farming - is a difficult place to be.

Micro-farms (on the very small end of the small-farming scale) are a great place for new farmers to begin.  The mistakes I made growing a quarter acre of vegetables were far less costly than they would have been had I been growing on 10 acres (let alone 1,000).  Despite this obvious advantage, micro-farms are probably not ever going to feed our community.  There simply aren't enough people interested in growing food for their neighbors on this scale to feed our ever-growing population.

On the other end of the scale spectrum, "industrial" farms are not what most consumers seem to want from our food production system.  Very large farms enjoy significant economies of scale - they can spread their overhead costs over vastly greater gross revenues.  They can purchase inputs at a discount and can negotiate substantial savings for services like processing, storage and marketing.  On the other hand, producing food on an industrial scale can potentially bring other issues from a social, economic and environmental perspective.  The food produced on this scale seems cheap, but we often fail to account for the true costs of this type of production system.

A vibrant local food system, then, requires a diverse community of medium-sized farms - enterprises that produce on a big enough scale to make food affordable but on a small enough scale to be personal.  In his book Eaarth, author Bill McKibbon puts it this way, "what [a local food system] really requires is not huge commodity producers or small, incredibly wonderful gourmet farms.  What [we] need are 1950s-size farms."  If this scale is so desirable from the standpoint of quality and community economics, why are mid-sized farms increasingly rare?

As a struggling mid-sized farmer, I think there are several reasons.  Some small-scale farmers start small with the specific intent of growing their operation.  Others start small but treat their farms as true businesses.  Many, however, are hobby farms that do not truly account for the cost of doing business.  I've had several micro-scale farmers tell me, "I don't really care if I make any money - it's something for my kids [or grandkids] to do."  While I don't discount the value of teaching a new generation about the skills involved in producing food, I do think that this approach to agriculture devalues the act of farming.  When these micro-scale farms sell their products for less than it costs to produce them, it puts downward pressure on everyone else who's operating in a local marketplace.

On the other end of the scale, industrial farms can out compete mid-sized farms.  The factory model of purchasing inputs, converting them to a marketable form, and selling them at a profit, allows industrial-scale farms to enjoy significant economic advantages.  Farming at this scale pays the farmer, in most years, a living wage.

Farming at my scale - right in the middle of these two extremes - involves full-time (and then some) work on the part of the farmer.  At least for me, our farm has not yet provided a full-time wage, let alone retirement, paid vacations or health benefits.  In other words, our farm is too big to require part-time work and too small to provide full-time pay.

The answers to this problem are elusive and challenging.  Local food security is dependent upon mid-sized farms being profitable.  Perhaps increasing processing and shipping costs will reverse the economic advantage currently enjoyed by industrial-scale farms.  Perhaps we need to recognize that in demanding cheap food, we get what we're willing to pay for.  As a mid-sized farmer who is taking a part-time off-farm job so that I can continue to farm, I hope our community continues to seek these answers.

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