Growing Trust with Local Farmers

Why buying food from local farmers we know and trust is best for our communities, our health and our planet.

| June/July 2007

Farming is not for everybody; increasingly, it’s hardly for anybody. Over the last decade our country has lost an average of 300 farms a week. Large or small, each of those was the life’s work of a real person or family, people who built their lives around a promise and watched it break.

Wherever farms are still living, it’s due to some combination of luck, courage and adaptability. In my home state, Kentucky, our agriculture is known for two nonedible commodities: tobacco and race horses. The latter is a highly capitalized industry that spreads little of its wealth into the small family farm; the former was the small farm’s bottom dollar, until the bottom dropped out. In my lifetime Kentucky farmers have mostly had the options of going broke, or going six ways to Sunday for the sake of staying solvent. On the bluegrass that famously nourished Man o’ War and Secretariat, more modest enterprises with names like “Hard Times Farm” and “Mother Hubbard’s” are now raising pasture-fed beef, pork, lamb and turkeys. Kentucky farms produce flowers, garlic, organic berries and vegetables, emu and ostrich products, catfish and rainbow trout. Right off the Paris Pike, a country lane I drove a hundred times in my teenage years, a farmer named Sue now grows freshwater shrimp.

Among other obstacles, these farmers have to contend with a national press that is quick to pronounce them dead. Diversified food-producing farms on the outskirts of cities are actually the fastest growing sector of U.S. agriculture. The small farm is at the moment very busy thinking its way out of a box, working like mad to protect the goodness and food security of a largely ungrateful nation.

These producers can’t survive by catering only to the upscale market, either. The majority of farmers market customers are people of ordinary means, and low-income households are not necessarily excluded. An urban area in eastern Tennessee has a vegetable equivalent of a bookmobile, allowing regional farmers to get produce into neighborhoods whose only other food-purchasing option might be a liquor store. The U.S. assistance program for women with infant children (WIC) gives coupons redeemable at farmers markets to more than 2.5 million participants in 44 states. Citizen-led programs from California to New York are linking small farmers with school lunch programs and food banks.

Even so, a perception of organic food as an elite privilege is a considerable obstacle to the farmer growing food for middle-income customers whose highest food-shopping priority is the lowest price. Raising food without polluting the field or the product will always cost more than the conventional mode that externalizes costs to taxpayers and the future. To farm sustainably and also stay in business, these market gardeners have to bridge the psychological gap between what consumers could pay, and what we will actually shell out.

What Cheap Food Really Costs

Grocery money is an odd sticking point for U.S. citizens, who on average spend a lower proportion of our income on food than people in any other country, or any time heretofore in history. En masse, even in school lunches, we broadly justify consumption of tallow-fried animal pulp on the grounds that it’s cheaper than whole grains, fresh vegetables, hormone-free dairy and such. Whether on school boards or in families, budget keepers may be aware of the health trade-off but still feel compelled to economize on food — in a manner that would be utterly unacceptable if the health risk involved an unsafe family vehicle or a plume of benzene running through a school basement.

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