Has the Local Food Movement Killed Local Food Farmers?

Farmer Georgie
Dec 31, 2019 · 9 min read
Photo credited to koldunova_anna

One of the most frustrating revelations I had as a small farmer selling local food was realizing that many of my best customers were also, very often, my worst enemies.

There is this strange dissonance when you are selling local food that occurs between the farmer and their customers. Particularly when you live in a region pervasive with a strong ‘local foods and sustainable environment’ culture.

You see, most small farmers in the U.S. got a foothold because of a committed group of ‘local food’ buyers who became almost religious in their zeal to buy local food from local farmers using sustainable (preferably organic) methods. “Support Your Local Farm!” was the mantra that started in the mid-1990s and pushed the tidal wave of support for organically-grown, Earth-friendly food we are still seeing today.

Small farmers grow food. Healthy, tasty food. You know, that thing that every single living being on Planet Earth needs EVERY DAY (in fact multiple times a day, ideally) to function.

I can’t think of another industry where not only do you compete with other, for-profit businesses in the same space but ALSO non-profit businesses underwritten by morally committed, independently wealthy people who truly only want to help but really aren’t hampered about pesky little things like the bottom line. Or making a livable wage.

The reality is, small farmers shouldn’t NEED to be funded by Kickstarter campaigns, or run as a non-profit ‘educational school’, or have to join a local food hub that only is surviving because it’s overhead is underwritten by grant money, or sell classes on small-farm techniques or $200-a-person ‘farm dinners.’

Small farmers grow food. Healthy, tasty food. You know, that thing that every single living being on Planet Earth needs EVERY DAY (in fact multiple times a day, ideally) to function.

Shouldn’t that be enough?

Spreading the Local Food Love Far, Far Too Thin

This issue finally got hammered into my, admittedly somewhat dense, head at the last summer farmer’s market day I participated in.

I started my vegetable farm in 1994 at the very beginning of the ‘local food movement.’ At the time there simply WAS no local food to be had. No farmers at the markets, no CSA’s (Community Subscribed Agriculture, aka farm shares), no local farm stands and no local food sold in the grocery stores. Selling high-value, locally-grown produce raised on a small scale rather than growing commodity crops sold to the local mill on 1000s of acres seemed like it was THE answer to reviving the dying small family farm.

The very first farmer’s markets I attended in my community, it was like I had opened up an opium den. I was the only person there bringing fresh, locally grown vegetables and it didn’t matter what I brought, they were buying it.

But things changed. My farm, one of just a few in our region, became one of many. That first market year I started as the ONLY farmer there. By the next year, I was one of two farms. Within 10 years it got to the point where I was one of about eight local farmers hustling seasonally available produce.

The market traffic had grown, as the market became more vibrant and offered more selection. But at a certain point, it leveled off. Our population was only so big and market-goers will only drive so far on their Saturday off to buy a head of lettuce.

Eventually, I gave up that market and started selling instead at another regional market, about 45 minutes away. One populated with fewer farms and a very wealthy, ‘local food and sustainable-environment’ committed clientele. It was great for the first few years. With only two other farms there we killed it and it was a profitable market where I could depend on selling out many of my freshly-harvested goods and easily bring home at least $1000 or more a market. Not a lot, when you considered expenses, but it was enough.

But, again, it changed. The area became known as a ‘great local foods’ region. More and more young and hopeful (and sometimes old and hopeful) farmers started up. A local ‘farm school’ graduated many young farmers who loved the area so much, they stayed. I couldn’t complain too much, many employees I had brought to the area to work for me moved on to start farms in the area as well. I was part of my own problem. Within a few years, what I was once making at that market was not even a quarter of the sales compared to what I was typically seeing just a few years prior. Yet the market itself was thriving. We simply had too many farms.

This is not something I experienced alone. The last USDA census in 2017 revealed that while ‘small farms’ had increased in size, there were fewer farms overall. And all of them — big and small — are making less money. https://smallbiztrends.com/2019/05/2017-census-of-agriculture.html

The farm census comes out every five years. The next will be 2022. I predict it will show even starker numbers.

For me, the final straw was that Memorial Day ‘big’ market weekend. By then we were just limping along. I had shown up doggedly every weekend because I felt it was important to not disappoint and lose the loyalty of customers who expected you to be there. Hopefully, we would finally start seeing better sales figures as we came into the prime ‘summer season.’

The day dawned beautiful and warm. We had huge crowds. It should have been great. It wasn’t. Our sales sucked. Why? Because our wonderful, loyal ‘Support the Local Farmers!’ crowd was very much doing what we had trained them to do. They were supporting EVERY local farm there.

After about the 10th person stopped at our booth and told me some version of “Your stuff looks great, I’m just going to buy one thing from you so I can make sure to buy a little something from all the wonderful farmers here” and then spent $3 on a bunch of radish while they went to the booth next door for their head of lettuce — the problem was clear.

We had successfully indoctrinated a customer who was committed to buying locally grown food from small farmers. But they could only eat so much.

Small Farmers Created the Market Base that Big Business Took

But the problem, I eventually came to realize, was even more pervasive than that.

The small farm movement had created a ‘market share’ of affluential, healthy, and very committed food-eating customers that bigger, more profit-focused companies seized upon and targeted. This spawned the rise of companies like Blue Apron and the ‘meal kit delivery box.’ Small, local food farmers started from a pure love of growing food and living a farming lifestyle. They built the consumer-based that loved them for it. Then companies like Blue Apron swept in and snatched them up.

Then there was the food waste movement that began selling ‘ugly produce’ that once had been tossed. For every ‘ugly carrot’ a consumer might buy at a discount, that is one less ‘perfect’ carrot sold at a premium. Consumers don’t buy two carrots when they only need one. Selling discounted produce while undercutting the sales of the premium product does not pencil out in favor of the farmer who grew both. Especially when we remember the growing, packaging and shipping costs are no different. The farmers traded in a more profitable sale for a less profitable one.

For consumers, it seems like a great idea and an easy sell to a customer base already concerned about Earth-friendly practices. Reduce waste! Save a little! We don’t cares what it looks like! A win-win for the consumer and especially the distributors who came up with and packaged the idea.

A great deal. Except for the farmer.

To Survive, Small Farms Evolved to Become What They Started Out to Replace

Over the last five to 10 years I have watched small farms fail, or change greatly to survive. Some ‘embraced’ the ethos and go all-in. Many of the farmers that started when I did (those that are still around) have since become non-profit and educational ‘teaching’ farms. Or they began selling ‘experiences,’ aka agri-tourism.

The other option for some is they went big. They started a ‘local foods grocery store’ selling their products and others. If they were really smart, they created their OWN distribution wholesale distribution channel and then became not a farmer, but a broker or distributor of farmed goods including some of their own farmed products but mostly selling fellow farmers goods. They became the very thing most small, local farms started out as a reaction against — ‘middle-man,’ wholesale distribution channels.

…the small farm, local food movement that started it all has peaked. It is now in the process of evolving into something else.

Many CSA farms, which were arguably the financial spark that started the small farm, local food movement, have shuttered their farms or moved into different sales streams. https://www.harvie.farm/blog/csa-we-have-a-problem/

Now don’t get me wrong. There are still small farms out there making it happen. Farmers with strong business-savvy who hustle and are determined. They realize it’s not just about growing great food, it’s about smart business and never-ending marketing. They have a loyal customer base that loves them. These farmers have my utmost admiration because it is by no means an easy feat to pull off.

But, in my humble opinion, as a fourth-generation farmer and small farmer for the past twenty years, the small farm, local food movement that started it all has peaked. It is now in the process of evolving into something else.

This isn’t all bad. The local food movement brought awareness to many issues that I don’t see going away anytime soon. A heightened consumer awareness of sustainable and Earth-friendly farming techniques. Now even big brands like General Mills are working to keep ahead of consumers on these demands. That’s not a terrible thing in the big picture.

There are still opportunities for farms that want to pursue the ‘value-added’ path. To turn what they grow into something packaged and processed. Control ‘the vertical’ as they say. (Though I have also seen many ‘value-added’ farms that ended up going down this path eventually stop growing the very produce they originally started processing. It often pencils out to be more profitable to buy their ingredients from others rather than grow it themselves. Ironic, isn’t it?).

The last few years have seen a rapid rise in farm tech, vertical indoor farms, urban farming and many more unique and novel concepts that are creating new and different opportunities for food production on a global scale. These are all exciting advancements but very few of them will be economically feasible for small, local farms who typically don’t have the financial backing and deep pockets required for a big investment.

Larger scale, commodity crop grains and pulse farmers are on the cusp of gaining a larger piece of their financial pie if they can capitalize on the promise of regenerative agriculture and carbon farming. They deserve it, they were largely ignored in the ‘local food’ movement.

But that original pipe dream? A few acres. Just large enough for a hard-working couple to grow food for their local community. No need to get rich, just sell enough to pay the bills and put a bit aside for retirement someday. Blood, sweat and tears, but worth it in the end for ‘the farming lifestyle?’ That’s called ‘homesteading’ now. Don’t expect to make your living off it, though you can hopefully save a few bucks here and there.

Maybe I’m just old and jaded, but I’m afraid the ‘small farm, local food’ movement has passed its peak and is on the downhill slide. More power to those who have survived.

One thing is for sure, it will be interesting to see what the ‘foodscape’ looks like in another 40 years or so. Perhaps the ‘local food’ opportunity will come back around again.

I will keep hoping.

Farmer Georgie is a Pacific Northwest writer and journalist. Her fiction/non-fiction work runs the gamut of genres but generally explores food, farming, funny pets and livestock, crazy family members, small-towns and rural American life. Newsletter for the latest at https://farmergeorgiewrites.substack.com

Farm, Food and Rural Living

About farm, food, family and small-town, rural living. The best community in the world is a small-town community. Join in and follow mine.

Farmer Georgie

Written by

Farmer. Writer. Journalist. Humorist. Rural life, food & farm. Email at farmergeorgiewrites@gmail.com. Follow me at farmergeorgiewrites.substack.com.

Farm, Food and Rural Living

About farm, food, family and small-town, rural living. The best community in the world is a small-town community. Join in and follow mine.

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