by Heidi Secord & Gary Bloss
In a recent discussion with experienced direct market farmers we asked ourselves how we and the communities we serve can encourage the next generation of farmers; and how new and beginner farmers can identify market channels that match their level of operation both now and in their anticipated future.
The overall direct market for fresh and local foods has grown significantly over the last decade and is served by an increasing number of sales channels including: farmers markets, CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture), roadside stands, wholesale markets, local food stores, and farm to table restaurants. Also, new and beginning farmers are seeking new ways to grow such as urban gardens and niche market gardens. How do/will these farmers find and develop the market channels to create financial success and how difficult will it be?
Most experienced direct market farmers will attest that their success is due to having secondary skills like business management, marketing, accounting, bookkeeping, welding, carpentry, etc. You also need to be intimately familiar with the local market – what’s in high demand, buying and eating habits, and customer’s willingness to pay. In addition, many will also attest to having an ‘off-farm’ income to support the operation especially in the beginning years. This amount of market know-how is hard to achieve without some previous participation in the marketplace.
Many new farmers start their own operations after interning, apprenticing or working for other farmers only to find that they can’t get into markets or struggle to make ends meet. It can be disheartening. There is always so much more to farming than what we experience in the fields and these secondary skills are not always taught to the excited, energetic and hopeful beginning farmers. As with any business, it may take 3-5 years to show a profit. Some may extend themselves beyond their means to make ends meet. A few may make it, some burn out, and others may decide not to farm anymore or that it is just too much to handle. What can experienced farmers do to help insure success for new growers? Here are a few thoughts on serving direct market channels that may provide a heads-up before a new farmer pursues the same or at least provide some help in researching the best opportunities available to their new operation in any given geography:
Farmers Markets are more popular than ever for the customer and communities; and they can be a great way to start direct marketing products for a new farmer. But their very success makes them suspect. Many community groups want to start a Farmers Market but are not always tuned into what makes a market successful for the vending farmers. Thus, they can be incredibly unpredictable. So, unless you get into a good established market or a new one that is well thought out there’s not a great deal of stability. Also, Farmers Markets are often political, inconsistent and up against more and more competition for the sustainable food dollar. We have come home from new start up markets in the early years of our farm operation with $25–$100 in our pockets and lots of produce that we ended up donating to food pantries. While we were thankful that it went to good use, it sure didn’t help us create the income we were anticipating or compensate us for the time and energy that not only went into growing the food but also into setting-up, selling, and tearing-down at the market. People are surprised to learn that many of the best markets in the region do not have available space and have long waiting lists, or they don’t want to expand for fear of the competition with the existing vendors. While these reasons may make sense, it does not create opportunity or encourage new farmer participation.
The CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model is another direct market channel attractive to new and beginning farmers. Customers purchase a farm share before the growing season begins and then receive a bag or box of veggies every week for a predetermined time. CSAs vary in length and offerings to the consumer. The basic model itself has transformed over the past several years (see the new CSA Charter definition by Elizabeth Henderson). However, in essence they provide an influx of operating capital early in the year for the farmer and guarantee a market outlet for what’s being raised or grown on the farm. While this appears to offer stability to a new farm it is not without many challenges. Such as managing expectations of the shareholders, providing customer service in unexpected ways, understanding succession plantings and crop rotations, field crew management, crop handling and storage practices, and much more, all of which can be overwhelming to a new farmer.
One way to give new growers/farmers the means to grow their business and a way for experienced growers to mentor them is via a Multi-farm CSA model. This provides a way to cooperatively market farm goods locally and regionally. It can also provide a more unique and robust program that features local growers that the community trusts while creating opportunities for experienced growers to work with new growers. Amount and quality expectations for distribution can be more effectively managed. If one farmer has a crop failure due to insect pressure or disease, another cooperative farmer may fill the void. Customers whose needs and expectations are met with little disappointment lead to contented consumers who support the sustainable food system while the farmers also grow a community of ‘conscious eaters.’ And best of all, it’s a great way to encourage and build the bridge for beginning farmers to enter the marketplace and grow for the future of food!
by Heidi Secord and Gary Bloss
Farmer Heidi Secord is President of PA Farmers Union, and owner of Josie Porter Farm in Stroudsburg.
Gary Bloss is General Farm Manager at Josie Porter Farm