Why The World Needs More Farmers
By Brent Preston
People often comment on how lucky we’ve been; we launched our farm ten years ago, at almost exactly the same time that interest in local and organic food started to explode. Then we started selling to chefs when “farm to table” was just starting to be a thing. Then we started selling into retail as the market for organic moved from the fringes to the mainstream. We rode the wave of interest in good food to financial success on our farm, but here’s the important thing: there were lots of others riding that wave with us. There were thousands of other small farms like ours that “got lucky” at the same time we did.
In the ten years since we started our farm, we have witnessed broad and profound changes in the way our society looks at food. Just think of all the words and phrases you had probably never heard a decade ago — food miles, food deserts, foodies, farm to table, urban agriculture — and you start to realize how much has changed. As more and more people began to recognize the problems with the industrial model of agriculture and the Western diet, more and more people changed their relationship with the food they ate. They changed what food they bought, and where they bought it. They changed their expectations of the restaurants they dined in, which changed the position, status and influence of chefs. They became willing to pay for attributes that might not be readily visible on a supermarket shelf: how the food was produced, where, and by whom. For many people, food has come to occupy a central place in their own self-identity, the defining attribute of their lifestyle or politics. “I am a foodie.” “I am gluten-free.” “I am a locavore.” All of these changes taken together add up to what we, and many others, call the good food movement.
The good food movement is still young and messy and ill-defined. There are a lot of disparate people on board — hedonists and environmentalists, jet-setting chefs and hippie homesteaders — and sometimes the whole thing can seem a little precious. The movement is still too much about personal choice and not enough about collective political action to bring about real policy change. But one thing is clear and undeniable: the good food movement has made farms like ours possible.
My wife, Gillian, and I worked incredibly hard for a decade to make our farm a success. We did some things that I think were pretty innovative. We recognized that we had to put as much effort into selling our food as we did into growing it. We kept meticulous records and made business decisions based on hard data. We focused relentlessly on quality, producing vegetables that were worthy of the best restaurants on the continent. And we made real efforts to make our food accessible to everyone. But the crucial factor in our success, the thing that put us over the top, wasn’t anything that Gillian or I did; it was the good food movement itself. Without the wave of people willing to pay more for good food, no amount of hard work or innovation would have put us where we are today. Have you seen those bumper stickers that say “Farmers Feed Cities”? Those drive me crazy. They should read “Cities Employ Farmers.” It’s people who care about good food — people like you — who literally make it possible for people like me and Gillian to farm.
The changes that have made our farm possible have made lots and lots of other small farms possible, too. I talk to farmers almost every day who are riding the same wave we are, seeking out new markets and opportunities, carving a niche in the new food economy. These farmers tend to be young, educated, often female, and fiercely political. They are well aware of the fact that they’re bucking an industrial system of agriculture that would be more than pleased to see them fail, but they’re motivated and persistent, intent on forging a new model. Some of our fellow farmers are running sophisticated and profitable operations based on farmers’ markets and CSAs. Others are selling wholesale to restaurants, grocery stores, home delivery services and more. There are farmers making money with pick-your-own, agro-tourism, on-farm food processing, you name it.
There are as many marketing strategies as there are small farms, but what all successful small farms share is the ability to innovate. We’re all riding the wave of the good food revolution, and none of us knows exactly where it’s going; we have to be nimble and creative and ready to switch gears at a moment’s notice. Small farmers are the ultimate entrepreneurs, running vertically integrated businesses that must do everything well, from primary production to sales, marketing and customer service. We take seeds, and with hard work, creativity and intelligence, we make something beautiful and valuable and essential for human life.
What we need now are more small farms, and more farmers. If we want to make serious change in the way our food is produced, if we want to do more than tinker at the edges, we need more farmers. A lot more.
There’s no way we could have established our farm without the advice, wisdom and encouragement we received from other small farmers. A fellow farmer once put it to me this way: “Our competition isn’t other small sustainable farms,” she told me. “Our competition is conventional agriculture.” She was right. Everyone in the community of small-scale organic farmers recognizes that the revolution requires many, many more people to join our ranks, so just about everyone is generous with their knowledge. Gillian and I try to repay the help we received in the early years by being completely open and transparent about our practices and strategies. We often host tours for other farmers where we disclose everything: the varieties we grow, the equipment we use, the customers we sell to, even our financial information. The market for the kind of food we produce is growing in leaps and bounds. We need more farmers to meet the demand.
Our society’s current obsession with all things food and farming isn’t an unalloyed good. It seems like a lot of people spend more time watching people cook on TV than they do actually cooking. Big Food is busy finding ways to co-opt the movement, subtly adopting language that evokes small farm agriculture. I found a McDonald’s flyer in our mailbox a few weeks ago that proudly proclaimed that they serve only “farm-raised” chicken. As opposed to what? Our focus on local food also overlooks an inconvenient truth: industrial agriculture is everywhere. No matter where you live, there are local farmers who are poisoning their land with pesticides, growing nothing but genetically modified crops and raising their animals in conditions of unspeakable cruelty. Farmers like those shouldn’t be part of our movement, no matter how local they happen to be.
But on the whole, the changes we’ve seen over the past ten years have been overwhelmingly positive. The good food movement has created the conditions where farming sustainably, on a small scale, for the local market, is now a financially viable option, not just for a few people, but for lots of people. The message to all you foodies out there should be loud and clear: Keep on doing what you’re doing. It’s working.
Excerpted from The New Farm by Brent Preston. Copyright © 2017 Brent Preston. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.