Let Us Grow Up to Be Farmers

If you want to be a small-scale farmer, don’t be fooled—you’ll put in many hours to make a living, but there are small glimmers of hope we can make this lifestyle work.

by Dani Yokhna

Let Us Grow Up to Be Farmers - Photo courtesy iStock/Thinkstock (HobbyFarms.com) 

I’ve always loved hearing Willie Nelson sing out, “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys” (and more recently to hear a farmer friend change the lyrics to, “Mamas, don’t let your cowboys grow up to be babies”—but that’s a different subject altogether). That song has many truths that apply both to the cowboy way of life and the small-scale farming way of life. When farmer Bren Smith’s New York Times op-ed piece “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to be Farmers” was published last month, it created a lot of conversation among small-scale farming communities, in other publications and websites, and on forums.

Could what Smith’s saying be true, that farmers aren’t making a fair wage and, in many cases, are struggling to make ends meet? Yes, absolutely. Anyone who wields a hoe on a regular basis knows this to be the case. It seems that just about everyone else is delusional about what it’s like to live this life. (“Oh, you sell to Such-And-Such Restaurant? You guys must be doing great.”)

This isn’t a position farmers want to be in, for sure, and it’s not for lack of trying. It’s for an overwhelming lack of respect for the value of food and farming in this country. Small-scale farmers are receiving support from government and academics: Everywhere you look, there are beginning-farmer programs aimed at helping farmers make a sound start. I just attended one called MarketReady, put on by the University of Kentucky and Kentucky State University for farmers to learn about marketing to restaurant and wholesale accounts. However, it’s support from the general public that is truly lacking.

A Little Hope
Fortunately for farmers, restaurants are raising our profile and highlighting the food we grow. One handout from MarketReady showed the top-20 restaurant trends according to the National Restaurant Association. Locally sourced meats and seafood is first; locally grown produce is second; environmental sustainability is fourth; farm/estate-branded items is 11th. With this in mind, the opportunity for small-scale farmers to sell to chefs is good. However, restaurant sales is not necessarily a giant money-maker. As Smith writes in his op-ed piece, “Running a restaurant is a low-margin, cutthroat business, and chefs have to pay the bills, too. To do so, chefs often use a rule of thumb: Keep food costs to 30 percent of the price of the meal.”

The other 70 percent of that restaurant’s sale will cover labor, insurance, tableware, facility rental or mortgage, utilities and profit. So for a $30 meal of your grassfed rib-eye, with sides of your mashed purple potatoes and your kale at a high-end restaurant, you’ll see less than $10. Retail, that steak alone would probably sell for $10.

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Selling to restaurants means getting your farm name on the menu (usually), so restaurant customers could seek out your product elsewhere, and you should reach higher-volume sales all at once rather than sitting around a farmers’ market all day. But restaurant sales don’t necessarily mean a flood of cash. Communicating with chefs, too, is a feat in itself: Busy farmer + busy chef = a really difficult time connecting. If your farm is in the middle of nowhere and delivering to these high-end local-foods restaurants on a schedule that works for them is difficult, restaurant sales could be simply not worth it.

A few takeaways I got for working with restaurants:

  • Be consistent, both in your communication with chefs and in your product quality.
  • Be willing to negotiate pricing.
  • Be flexible in your delivery schedule. No one has time to deal with a farm delivery in the middle of the lunch crush.
  • Be transparent about your farming practices. Invite whole restaurant staffs to the farm for an afternoon so they can understand where and how the food is produced and they can better sell it to the customer.
  • This HobbyFarms.com article has good info, too.

A Little More Hope
It’s important to recognize restaurants are a small part of the wholesale chain. There are more farm-to-school programs now than ever before. Smaller-scale retailers—in particular, those with a natural-foods bent—are seeking out local suppliers. Food distributors, such as Sysco, Papania’s and Creation Gardens (in Kentucky, Tennessee and Indiana, at least), are trying to meet consumer demands with more sustainably farmed stuff. Just like the restaurants, each of these businesses have their own costs, too, so you won’t bring in as high a cost as you would selling retail, but other benefits are there.

Going from reading “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to be Farmers” to attending the MarketReady seminar, I’m given a little bit of hope for a decent income from farming. Just a little bit, though. Until we can convince the American society at large that farmers are worth more than what they get paid from a sale at a major-chain grocery store, I won’t have too much more hope than that.

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