In its report to congress this month, the USDA noted that farms that are selling food directly for human consumption have a greater survival rate than farms who market through wholesale channels. They have a lower debt-to-asset ratio which gives them better ability to repay loans. Perhaps more significantly, they capture practically the whole food dollar, rather that the typical 10% that the average U.S. farmer gets.
There may be another factor as well – the farmer-consumer connection. As an example, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares represent a bond or commitment between buyer and producer. The buyer gets the freshest food and gets to learn how that food is produced. The producer gets upfront money to produce the crop and a willingness from the buyer to work through the challenges and joys of crop production. Through that relationship often comes a desire for the farmer to succeed. A similar connection is formed at farmers markets. That type of bond or connection does not exist when consumers buy their produce or meats at the chain grocery store.
CSAs have become one of the most effective ways for farmers to reconnect with the consumer. The concept dates all the way back to 1982, according to Mother Earth News. Back then, Dr. Booker Whatley described a system where “…The clientele membership club is the lifeblood of the [farm]. It enables the farmer to plan production, anticipate demand, and, of course, have a guaranteed market. The farmer has to seek out people—city folks, mostly—to be members of the club.”
A hundred years ago, fresh food was supplied locally from gardens and by mom and pop stores throughout the country. Then came grocery chains and improved transportation systems that provided a wider variety of canned and packaged foods at cheaper prices. After WWI, the chains also began selling meat, milk and produce and local farmers lost their place on grocery shelves. Local produce farmers could not supply year-round production. Local livestock farms were replaced by large-scale operations concentrated in a few states. Grocery chains preferred to work with large-scale suppliers.
However, in the USDA report, it was noted that direct-to-consumer prices are lower than grocery store prices in all four seasons. With high tunnels, farmers are stretching their food production seasons. And livestock producers are now able to sell the products from their farms and at farmers markets.
Of course the key is having consumers who are committed to the local food system. Many have figured out over time that the convenience of a major food chain is not everything. They are concerned that in the race to industrialize farming, some food production operations have sacrificed freshness and taste and/or created greater impacts on the environment and on workers.
To maintain that strong relationship with the consumer, farm practices need to be transparent, they need to provide a good product, and they need to follow good business practices. Two workshops are being held in the next few weeks about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) labor issues and membership agreements between consumers and CSA operators: February 26th in Frederick and March 3rd in Annapolis.
Let’s keep that local food connection going strong!