We need to talk about local food. Not Monsanto, lopsided subsidies, or food miles. I don't want to talk about veganism, haterade, or Portlandia either. I want to address the four most basic problems faced by farmers every day so we can all chip in and make an effort to solve them.
Problem 1: Distribution
Farmers spend too much time driving trucks, not tractors. In most cases small farms are forced to distribute their products themselves because they don’t fit neatly into the industrial supply chain. To do this they set up tents at farmers markets and develop relationships with restaurants. Some even establish their own CSAs or make value-added products. The benefit, of course, is that these farmers get to keep more of the fabled food dollar when they sell direct.
But most small farms, even those in the middle, get nickeled-and-dimed as they try to build their own infrastructure—trucks, refrigeration, gasoline, and marketing. This is a costly part of doing business because distribution on a small scale is not efficient, which is part of the reason that operating profit margins for U.S. farms, on average, are negative until sales exceed $100,000.
Problem 2: Marketing
Farmers need to spend the vast majority of their time working on day-to-day production, which leaves little time for other equally important tasks—like business development. Ironically, I hear stories all the time about farmers who want to expand the farm and generate more revenue, but they can’t afford to go to the farmers market or find the time to drum up new business. Operating a small farm and making money is just plain tough, which is why most farm households earn all their income from off-farm sources.
Problem 3: Data Management
“I want to spend all day behind a computer” said no farmer, ever.
It may seem like drudgery, but keeping good records is an important task for any farmer. Technology has made record-keeping easier, but it could be a whole lot better. Existing tools like spreadsheets offer great flexibility but it takes a considerable amount of time and knowledge to build a template. As a result, many farmers never get started, and those that do don’t always record all the information they should. Small farms need easy-to-use record-keeping tools that help them organize their crop rotations, manage labor, and keep track of sales.
Problem 4: Education
While it’s true that the United States needs to educate a new generation of farmers, it’s just as important that we educate consumers, too. Shocking the American public about the perils of industrial agriculture and skyrocketing obesity just won’t cut it because it doesn’t address the problem at an individual level.
People go to McDonald's because they’re tired and hungry from a long day’s work. They go to KFC and Taco Bell because they simply don’t know any better. These may be “wrong” choices, but if we want to inspire change then we need to design solutions that make the “right” choice easy.
If local food is to become a sustainable part of our larger food system, then these four problems must be solved with practical solutions. So let’s start a conversation about how to solve them. Let’s collectively invent the future of farming.
Add hosting a garden party to talk about local food challenges to your to-do list.