[montanafood_ag] NY Times: Small Farmers Creating a New Business Model as Agriculture Goes Local

Kevin Moore kmoore at aeromt.org
Tue Jul 3 10:29:55 MDT 2012


Small Farmers Creating a New Business Model as Agriculture Goes Local


http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2012/07/02/us/FARM/FARM-articleLarge.jpg

Matthew Ryan Williams for The New York Times

Radishes are among the many vegetables grown at Alm Hill gardens near
Everson, Wash., where produce is sold locally. 


By KIRK JOHNSON
<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/j/kirk_johnson/i
ndex.html> 


Published: July 1, 2012 


SEATTLE - The cultivated rusticity of a farmers' market, where dirt-dusted
beets are status symbols and earnest entrepreneurs preside over chunks of
cheese, is a part of weekend life in cities across the nation as the high
days of the summer harvest approach. 

 
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eInline.jpg


Matthew Ryan Williams for The New York Times


Jenny and Alex Smith, both 25, are first-year farmers on a  tiny plot about
an hour north of Seattle.  

 
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Matthew Ryan Williams for The New York Times


Customers strolled through the Ballard Farmer's Market in Seattle. 

But beyond the familiar mantras about nutrition or reduced fossil fuel use,
the movement toward
<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/l/local_food/i
ndex.html?inline=nyt-classifier> local food is creating a vibrant new
economic laboratory for American agriculture. The result, with its growing
army of small-scale local farmers, is as much about dollars as dinner: a
reworking of old models about how food gets sold and farms get financed, and
who gets dirt under their fingernails doing the work. 

"The future is local," said Narendra Varma, 43, a former manager at
Microsoft who invested $2 million of his own money last year in a 58-acre
project of small plots and new-farmer training near Portland, Ore. The first
four farmers arrived this spring alongside Mr. Varma and his family, aiming
to create an economy of scale - tiny players banded in collective organic
clout. He had to interrupt a telephone interview to move some goats. 

Economists and agriculture experts say the " <http://www.slowmoney.org/>
slow money" movement that inspired Mr. Varma, a way of channeling money into
small-scale and
<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/o/organic_food
/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier> organic food operations, along with the
aging of the farmer population and steep barriers for young farmers who
cannot afford the land for traditional rural agriculture, are only part of
the new mix. 

A looming shortage of migrant workers, with
<http://www.pewhispanic.org/2012/04/23/net-migration-from-mexico-falls-to-ze
ro-and-perhaps-less/?src=prc-headline> fewer Mexicans coming north in recent
years, could create a kind of rural-urban divide if it continues, with
mass-production farms that depend on cheap labor losing some of their price
advantages over locally grown food, which tends to be more expensive. From
the vineyards of California to the cherry orchards of Oregon, big
agriculture has struggled this year to find willing hands. Local farm sales
are becoming more stable, predictable and measurable. A
<http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/err-economic-research-report/err128.as
px> study last fall by the Department of Agriculture said that local
revenues had been radically undercounted in previous analyses that mainly
focused on road stands and markets. When sales to restaurants and stores
were factored in, the study said, the local food industry was four times
bigger than in any previous count, upward of $4.8 billion. 

More predictable revenue streams, especially at a time when so many
investments feel risky, are creating a firmer economic argument for local
farming that, in years past, was more of a political or lifestyle choice. 

"How you make it pay is to get closer to the customer," said Michael Duffy,
a professor of economics at Iowa State University, capsuling the advice he
gives to new farmers in the Midwest. 

Labor, as it has been for generations in the United States, is still the big
wrinkle for local growers. But in many cases, experts like Professor Duffy
say, the local food system is increasingly going its own way, differentiated
from the traditional labor pool of migrant workers that the United States'
mainstream produce system depends on. Many larger local farms hire Hispanic
workers, but at more farm stands and markets, buying local also means, in
subtle or not so subtle ways, buying native. 

"A byproduct of local food is that local hands are more likely to be
producing, harvesting, packing and marketing it, especially for new farmers
on small-scale farms," said Dawn Thilmany McFadden, an agricultural
economist at Colorado State University who is part of a leadership team for
a training program for beginning farmers. 

In other instances, Hispanics who had worked as low-wage laborers are now
becoming entrepreneurs. A three-year-old nonprofit group north of Seattle,
<http://www.vivafarms.org/> Viva Farms, specifically aims to help Hispanic
farmers get started, with assistance in language training and in
understanding the vagaries of the marketplace. 

"We work harder now," said Misael Morales, 35, describing the main
difference between life as a farm laborer and as an entrepreneur. 

Mr. Morales came to the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico, as a teenager,
and last year he and his brother, Salvador, 32, began farming a one-acre
plot at Viva Farms. They mainly grow lettuce for markets and restaurants in
Seattle. 

"Early or late, when something has to get done, you do it," he said. 

Viva Farms' director of business and organizational development, Ethan
Schaffer, said former wage workers like the Morales brothers are often
surprised when they realize the prices and profit margins that local organic
produce can fetch - something, he said, that rarely penetrates down to the
daily life of a migrant picker. 

"They get the ag part, and once they realize how the market works, they're
off and running," Mr. Schaffer said. 

Other new farmers, like Christopher Brown, 26, a former Marine infantryman
who worked his first day last month at Grow Washington, an organic farm
north of Seattle, have more complex motives. Taking a break from the
carrot-cleaning table, he says he dreams of building an organization to help
bring other veterans into local farming. 

Other urban-focused farms, including one in Oregon City, Ore., called
<http://cestnaturellefarms.com/fulldietfarm.html> C'est Naturelle, are
offering, starting this month, one-stop shopping services:
community-supported agriculture subscriptions to supply a family a full diet
of food from one place, from eggs and butter to beef and greens. 

Mr. Varma's project near Portland, called
<http://www.communitybydesignllc.org/the-project/> Community by Design, was
inspired, he said, by the Slow Money movement, which has emerged in recent
years as a vehicle for financing local, organic food production through
groups like Slow Money, a nonprofit group in Boulder, Colo., that connects
investors, entrepreneurs and farmers. Of $18 million raised in the last two
years by Slow Money, $4 million - the biggest chunk - landed here in the
<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/national/usstatesterritoriesandpossessio
ns/pacific-northwestern-states/index.html?inline=nyt-geo> Pacific Northwest,
said Woody Tasch, the group's chairman. 

But the economic path for local food is still in many ways difficult. 

The federal
<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/subjects/f/farm_bill_us
/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier> farm bill, passed by the Senate last
month, has provisions to support farmers' markets. But in Washington State,
a program aimed at helping growers build direct marketing relationships with
grocers or restaurants died last year in a round of budget cuts. 

For Jenny and Alex Smith, both 25, a couple since they met in college - now
first-year farmers on a tiny plot about an hour north of Seattle - the
economic equation comes down to lowering costs and needs. 

They live in a recreational vehicle with no television or Internet service,
and they hope to break even this year, earning perhaps $1,600 a month
through farmers' markets and subscriptions for weekly produce packages, so
far mostly from friends and family. But they say a farming life still feels,
to them, full of promise. They had boring office jobs in Seattle, they said,
and now they have a farm dog named Banjo. 

 

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