The answer is no, but I do think we are farming ourselves out of a small way of thinking about sustainable farming and into new ways of doing business. What began as a grassroots, kind of small-scale, sustainable-farming movement now encompasses the large-scale concepts of local foods, food justice, Slow Food and farm-to-table. Older farmers are retiring, and new farm businesses are coming in.
Direct-to-consumer sales opportunities, like farmers markets and community-supported agriculture, are on the rise, and some regions—think Portland, Ore.; cities and towns in California and Vermont; and Minneapolis—are becoming saturated with small-scale, diversified farms. As a result, we farmers must innovate to keep up with excess supply.
Young farmers and beginning farmers typically break into the direct-to-consumer, small-scale-sales market at the tried-and-true farmers market level, moving up to a small community-supported agriculture operation their second(-ish) year. As certain farmers markets are becoming saturated with these farmers, new farmers markets are opening up, creating more opportunity for farmers and consumers: more rural markets, markets in food deserts, markets at schools and hospitals, nighttime markets, mobile markets.
CSAs are morphing, too, still offering up-front financial backing for a farm but going beyond the typical 20-week veggie box, providing flexibility and additional food options for customers. Farms are partnering with restaurants and institutions. Indoor growing systems are being pushed to their limit to offer more fresh foods year-round. Value-added products also are a popular market for a lot of farms that have access to commercial kitchens or are located in states with friendly cottage-food laws.
NPR reports that the growth in the number of farmers markets and in direct-to-consumer farm-product sales is slowing. And, yes, there is grumbling from farmers who are losing market share at the farmers markets to new vendors. I vend at one small farmers’ market where there are seven vendors: five are small-scale, sustainable farmers, each selling similar items. We’re all growing in nearly the same climate—save microclimates, high tunnels, et cetera—so our seasonal items are all pretty much the same. I have yet to hear grumbling from any of them, though I do know of a few farmers who have moved on from that market in search of one with fewer identical vendors. In this situation, it’s all about creatively marketing your products, both at the farmers market and elsewhere, to get ahead. A little competition is encouraging farmers to become better business people, I think.
If you are thinking about getting into farming on a small commercial scale or if you’re just starting out, have no fear. You don’t have to go far to find opportunity. It takes many farmers to supply just one local-foods establishment. Then there are healthcare facilities and schools working toward sourcing locally. In Kentucky, Kroger supermarkets are purchasing more locally produced items. Working with chefs rather than farmers’ market customers or institutional buyers instead of CSA members takes different mindsets, and certainly some farmers are more well-suited to one or another. The point is, there’s a place for each of us at the table.
I would love to hear about additional farm-business innovations that you have seen as a result of increasing small-scale-farmer populations in your region. Tell me what you or your neighboring farms are doing in the comments below. And give your thoughts on this “Burning Question” on Facebook.