It might seem like a good time to be part of the small farm business: More people than ever want to eat locally produced food, even casual restaurants name-check farms on their menus, and urban farmers' markets teem with the young and beautiful. But if you are David Maren, you know the truth: Sometimes, sustainable small farms are, well, unsustainable. And it’s not just Big Agra or a broken food system to blame: Sometimes, it’s the farmers themselves.
Maren grew up in what he describes as a “hippie family” in the mountains of West Virginia. When he was 14, he had the “rather audacious goal of raising all the food for my family that year.” He admits that he “completely failed” at that, but as a young man already toying with a DIY Animal, Vegetable, Miracle experiment, he decided to go into farming. He married into a family that was operating Tendergrass Farms out of Floyd, VA, and eventually took over as manager for his father-in-law. That was when the trouble started. Maren realized that the farm was losing money every year. Originally, he blamed it on marketing. So he began tweaking the business model, eventually attempting to create a system by which he could partner with other small farms to sell high-quality, humanely raised meat to consumers online. This would allow the farmers to find niche markets far from their own rural communities. But this opened up a new series of problems: The small farmers with whom he contracted would promise 200 turkeys, only to deliver 25. A farm would provide a couple of dozen lambs that proved extremely popular, but were unable to provide more, quelling the demand that had been created. “I realized that marketing was only one problem,” he says, “Really, the root problem for so many small-scale farmers was essentially a lack of business know-how and management.” In short, passion doesn’t pay the bills. While the demand for local, sustainable food is booming — a report released by the USDA in January estimated that local food sales totaled $6.1 billion in 2012 — that doesn’t mean the people growing that food are necessarily reaping the benefits. In a New York Times op-ed late last year, shellfish farmer Bren Smith wrote, “The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living...With the overwhelming majority of American farmers operating at a loss — the median farm income was negative $1,453 in 2012 — farmers can barely keep the chickens fed and the lights on.”
Matthew Linehan, founder of the Hudson Valley’s Sparrow Arc Farm, agrees. He began farming on an acre-and-a-half in Maine, a life he pursued for, as he puts it, “philosophical reasons.” But he quickly realized that he would need to grow in order to survive. “There’s a very obvious economy of scale when you’re in a product industry,” he says. In an economy of scale, efficiency increases with production; in other words, it is more efficient to grow 500 tomato plants than 50, allowing the farmer to charge less per tomato by minimizing his or her own time and labor expenditures. Linehan says next year, he’ll have 145 acres under management, and through efficient labor and volume, is making more money than ever. For small-scale growers, the difficulty lies in bridging the gap between providing the kind of produce consumers crave at the farmers' market and the lower prices and convenience they find at the supermarket. Michelle Hughes, director of investments and partnerships at the National Young Farmer’s Coalition, agrees that scale is crucial. “We’re not going to get sustainable farms at the size we have conventional farms now,” she says. “It’s just not going to be possible. At the same time, we’re also seeing the direct-market channels are becoming saturated. There are only so many people who are going to shop at farmers markets or who want to have CSA (community-supported agriculture) shares.” She believes that there must be a change in the marketing and distribution infrastructure to allow small-scale farms to reach the people who want their food, but don’t have access to it.
Sona Desai, manager of an innovative food distributer called the Intervale Food Hub, is working to develop alternate business models that will profit farmers and increase consumer access to local foods at the same time. “Our farmers are small- and mid-scale farmers, and trying to get them to go into supermarkets or institutional markets is like putting a square peg in a round hole,” Desai says. The Food Hub is subscription-based, like a CSA, but with a key difference: Rather than relying on one single farm (which can have a bad harvest for a multitude of reasons), the group brings together products from many different small farms and then puts together weekly allotments for customers. “This is very much about convenience and bringing more people into the fold, so we get rid of that aspect of a CSA. We guarantee that we will get you $400 worth of food. And we curate the weekly deliveries a lot more than you would in a traditional CSA.” Over the last seven years, Intervale has grown dramatically and been hailed by both consumers and farmers. But these efforts remain piecemeal. Too often, young or first-time farmers must still decide between pursuing a career that involves more management than mulching or abandoning the field altogether. After three years of working as an apprentice and then farm manager, Audrey Berman, a young farmer in the Hudson Valley, finds herself debating whether she can continue farming. “I feel like we all get into farming because we want to feed the people, and then we realize our food has to go to the highest bidder.”
Berman currently works on a small, start-up farm. In a less expensive area, she could potentially start her own farm, but after contracting Lyme disease this year, she is concerned about the physical toll that farming takes. She worries about the economics of small farms, but says she is less enticed by larger ones, where “the beauty is sort of lost — the diversity, the connection to what you’re doing.” And even if she were to pursue a larger-scale farm, she doesn’t know how she’d get access to the credit needed to buy a large parcel of land and heavy machinery; even if she could, going into debt for such an uncertain venture is daunting. She has considered one of the more rigorous farm training programs available, but these often involve financial hardship and geographical relocation. As she enters her late twenties, these factors become harder to stomach. “I don’t want to give up the dream and I really believe in it. But I don’t want to be a martyr to it,” she says. Consider the sacrifices involved: “There are basically no small-scale farmers who have been in the business more than six years or are over 40,” says Linehan. “Small-scale farming isn’t new; people were doing it in the '90s, and those people quit. Because your body can’t take that kind of abuse into your 40s, you can’t make enough money to retire, you can’t make that much money in general.” That’s not to say that small farms are doomed or that there’s nothing that can be done. But as the latest wave of small-scale farmers, those who took to the fields in the late 2000s, comes of age, there is greater understanding of the hard economic truths of agricultural life. Training programs, such as the Hudson Valley’s Farm Hub, which began operating as a resilient agriculture incubator last year and provides research and training for local farmers as part of the nonprofit Local Economies Project, are slowly proliferating, giving some farmers a chance to gain the skills they need. And grants, such as the one Intervale used to develop their business plan, continue to support innovative ideas in the agricultural sector. And you don’t have to be a farmer or run a non-profit to help make the business of small farming make sense. As a consumer, you can help, too. One step is educate yourself about unfamiliar or less popular products, says Maren, who, in addition to fancier cuts of meat, also sells lard and other less ubiquitous products, which means less waste for his producers. According to Desai, it’s still worth seeking out CSAs and requesting that grocery stores and other mainstream markets carry more local food, demonstrating that a demand for these products exists. And then, there’s always good old-fashioned plugging. “Word of mouth is still the best marketing strategy for smaller farms,” she says. “Younger consumers can really tap into their social media networks to raise awareness.” It may not be enough to turn the tide for some struggling farms, but having a group of loyal customers is just good business.
Right now, sustainable agriculture is at a moment of great change. Linehan of Sparrow Arc Farm thinks many small farmers will eventually move past the emotional appeal of the small farm and embrace growth. “It’s a lot cooler and hipper to be running a small, hand-scale type of thing, using all the Eliot Coleman techniques — ‘Oh, it’s a Parisian market garden,’ and all that,” he says. “I love all of those things, too, but we just choose to grow heirloom French pumpkins on scale.” As for Berman, she’s trying to remain hopeful, even as her views of the profession change. “It’s interesting to see farming from a less naïve place,” she says. However young farmers tread that line between bucolic ideals and economic realities is up to them — and the key to navigating a landscape where ideals and economics don’t always meet neatly in the middle.