Thursday, August 14, 2014

Does Small = Sustainable?

Several weeks ago, a friend and farmers’ market customer brought someone to the ranch who is interested in starting his own sheep operation in Mexico.  As we were talking about production practices and animal husbandry, I asked him about how big his ranch was and about how many animals he expected to raise – he has 5 acres and wanted to start with 20 sheep.  While I’m not familiar with the economics of sheep production in Mexico, this question turned the conversation towards the concept of scale.  I mentioned to my friend that I would need to have 600-800 ewes in order to produce enough net revenue to pay myself $40,000 per year.  She was astounded that a California foothills sheep operation would need to be so large, just to pay its owner the median annual income for Placer County.

This week, I came across an article from the New York Times Sunday Review entitled "Don't Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers."  The author, Bren Smith, a farmer from the East Coast, has had experiences very similar to mine (and, I suspect, to many small-scale, direct-market farmers).  You should read the entire article, but here are a few of the highlights for me:

At a farm-to-table dinner recently, I sat huddled in a corner with some other farmers, out of earshot of the foodies happily eating kale and freshly shucked oysters. We were comparing business models and profit margins, and it quickly became clear that all of us were working in the red.”

“The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living. After the tools are put away, we head out to second and third jobs to keep our farms afloat.”

“And while weekend farmers’ markets remain precious community spaces, sales volumes are often too low to translate into living wages for your much-loved small-scale farmer.”

“Especially in urban areas, supporting your local farmer may actually mean buying produce from former hedge fund managers or tax lawyers who have quit the rat race to get some dirt under their fingernails. We call it hobby farming, where recreational ‘farms’ are allowed to sell their products at the same farmers’ markets as commercial farms.”

“On top of that, we’re now competing with nonprofit farms. Released from the yoke of profit, farms like Growing Power in Milwaukee and Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., [or closer to home, Soil Born Farms] are doing some of the most innovative work in the farming sector, but neither is subject to the iron heel of the free market.”

“As one grower told me, ‘When these nonprofit farms want a new tractor, they ask the board of directors, but we have to go begging to the bank.’”

“The food movement — led by celebrity chefs, advocacy journalists, students and NGOs — is missing, ironically, the perspective of the people doing the actual work of growing food. Their platform has been largely based on how to provide good, healthy food, while it has ignored the core economic inequities and contradictions embedded in our food system.”

Smith offers several suggestions for addressing these challenges.  Some, like affordable health insurance for small-scale farmers and programs to turn tenant farmers into landowners, make sense for our situation in the Sierra Foothills.  But I keep thinking that many of our challenges locally come down to questions of scale.

Fundamentally, farming is subject to a number of constraints.  An acre of land will only produce so many vegetables (or so much pasture).  One person can only pick so many tomatoes in a day.  I can only sell so much meat each week at our local farmers’ market – and I can only go to so many markets each week.  In other words, scale is a complicated question.

Sustainable agriculture rests on three basic elements – environmental sustainability, social sustainability and economic sustainability.  If we truly desire a sustainable local food system, we MUST start paying attention to the economic underpinnings of farming.  If 100 one-acre vegetable farms are losing money, is this a sustainable way for a community to grow it's food (compared with 5 twenty-acre farms that are generating profits)?  A local food system comprised of farms that can make a living wage for owners and workers alike is more sustainable over the long term - by all measures of sustainability.

We also need to consider our customers in all of this.  Why don’t more people shop at farmers’ markets?  How can we make buying local more convenient for our customers while maximizing marketing efficiency for individual farmers?  How can we retain the community feel of a farmers’ market while increasing volume for farmer-vendors?  My experience suggests that the answers to these questions are not quite as simple as we’d like to think.  We need to start by being honest about the economic realities of growing food.

As regular readers of Foothill Agrarian (all four of you!) know, scale and sustainability are recurrent themes in my writing.  Here are some links to previous posts dealing with these topics:
As I look over this list, I'm struck by the fact that most of my posts offer more questions than answers.  I hope others will join in this discussion - perhaps through conversation we'll begin finding some answers!


  1. How about a permanent space to sell local ag products (like a permanent farmer's market), similar to local art cooperatives, with farmers manning the space like once a month on a rotating basis

  2. Great suggestion, Greg! Do you think Auburnites would frequent such a market if it was located at the DeWitt Center?

  3. I'd have to ask Anne, but if we could one-stop-shop local fruits/veggies/meat at our convenience, rather than once a week at the farmers market, I think we would be repeat customers. Dewitt is a little inconvenient, but not bad.

  4. We are trying to deal with this by grouping together. We are now trying a marketing co-op: a few farms that share a geographic area (within 5 miles of each other, in some cases, even closer) have similar production practices, and can communicate well... it is working so far, but the time investment has to equal increased sales and a bigger market share, or we can't keep spending time on something that doesn't return any more than we could each be doing on our own.

  5. If you get a chance, go to the original article I cited and look at the comments. The top comment is from Joel Salatin, who suggests that his is the model for small farmers to follow. On my more cynical days, I wonder how much of Joel's "farm" income is from book royalties and $5,000/day speaking fees.