Where and how will we grow new farmers?

We are about to reach a point in the local foods business where demand vastly outstrips supply. I have it from a trusted source that several large institutions in mid-Missouri are seeking to source “as much as they can” from our farmers. I just got an email from another local restaurant asking for my product list and prices. It’s coming.

The problem is, as many have noted, small direct-market farms don’t have the capacity yet. Farming is not manufacturing, despite the slogan “industrial food”. It’s a time-consuming process that doesn’t react to quick market forces very well. We can’t just up and order more widgets from our supplier when the demand for widgets jumps. New farmers can’t just up and rent a storefront and get started. Also, many of us got into farming for the direct-market segment; we like our retail prices, our integrated operations, and our customer interaction. We’re not necessarily set up for larger-scale wholesale farming, even to local sources.

The recent USDA census noted that while small farms were booming, mid-sized farms were vanishing, and it’s those who have the best potential to really serve an intense regional demand. Either that (and that) we need a whole lot more farmers who know how to raise vegetables, fruits, meats…you know, FOOD. Where are we going to get them, and how are we going to make that possible?

Enter a neat article on Severine von Tscharner Fleming, director of a new documentary about young farmers, The Greenhorns. In true blogger fashion, I’m just going to throw these links out there, because I have to get outside and farm. However, I really enjoyed this quote:

She speaks in sweeping, lyrical terms, but her visions of the future of American farming are firmly based in reality. “We would like to live in a world where it is possible to go to school and then do a series of apprenticeships and on-the-job trainings and eventually become an owner-operator of your own farm,” she says.

Consider that our governments, and our major land-grant universities, are so busy propping up commodity agriculture and so reliant on agribusiness funding that they’ve almost completely missed this coming. Are there any major universities with meaningful programs in direct-market ag and vegetable growing? Many universities don’t even offer basic instruction in how to start a business and manage tax implications, much less classes aimed at the unique challenges market farmers face. Joanna amusedly noted this year that the IRS’s farm expense deduction list doesn’t even include a place for “advertising/marketing”. What does that tell you about the assumptions of government?

The boom in local foods makes me afraid sometimes. We’re not going to be able to meet it all at once, and I’m afraid its long-term value may become obscured by justifiable annoyance on the parts of the chefs and institutions who are just now jumping on the bandwagon, only to find it wasn’t ready for their weight. I hope the grassroots can rise to the task, because that’s our best hope to meet this.

2 thoughts on “Where and how will we grow new farmers?

  1. Considering your previous posts indicating that the number of small farms is on the rise, it is encouraging that demand is still outpacing supply – I’d rather have this problem than the other way around!That said, I hope more and more people take up farming. There are some good initiatives going on here in Toronto, which is really encouraging because when I moved here I felt like the farmer’s market scene was lacking – now I realize I just didn’t know where to find it.The restaurant piece is an interesting one, too. I know in Chicago a lot of farms want to supply restaurants because it is assured income AND most restaurants in Chicago now name the farm on the menu (e.g. Gunthorp duck breast with Bayless microgreens). Good advertising…

  2. Joshua,My concern is that there will be a backlash. I suspect that many institutions jumping on the bandwagon are going to find that they can’t do it because there aren’t enough farms. That generates the counter-story that this is all just a fad that isn’t realistic. That’s certainly the line used by agribusiness to dismiss local foods; “only big corporate farms can feed America”. If demand ramps up so fast that most restaurants, universtities, and so on are getting rebuffed, that’s a story that’s could take hold. It took several generations to kill America’s small farms, and it’s going to take several generations to get them back. But I’m not sure the larger food world is going to accept waiting that long unless policy and other factors really come down strongly in favor of the transition.