America's Farmers Market Obsession is Growing Smaller (but Better) Farms

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As of 2014, there were more than 8,000 farmers markets in the U.S.—a dramatic leap from a decade earlier, when there were just 3,700 markets across the country selling locally grown fruits and vegetables.

farmers market

The rise in the number of farmers markets has increased along with national efforts to steer families toward healthier foods—fewer sodas and fast food meals, in particular—and slow the obesity epidemic, chiefly affecting U.S. children.

And while childhood obesity is still on the rise despite these efforts, we are beginning to see significant changes, such as steady declines in the sale of soda and fast foods; major food companies are beginning to improve the nutritional value of packaged food offerings, such as decreasing the sugar and sodium content, and removing controversial artificial ingredients.

But more farmers participating in farmers markets and other direct-to-consumer sales (DTC) over the last decade, isn’t just a benefit to consumers seeking healthier food. It’s also having quite an impact on farmers as well, increasing their chance of survival in a sector that has long catered to the "bigger is better" ethos. Turns out bigger isn't better when it comes to our food--neither on our plates nor in our fields.

According to recent USDA data, farmers who sell directly to consumers via farmers markets, community-supported agriculture programs, roadside stands, pick-your-own farms, or onfarm stores, are more likely to sustain their operations than farmers who sell through wholesale distribution and other conventional distribution models.

“Farmers face many business risks, including fluctuations in prices and yields,” reports the USDA. But for farmers selling directly to the consumer, sales increased 24 percent in the ten years between 2002 and 2012. From 2007 to 2012, a reported 61 percent of DTC farms remained in business compared with 55 percent of conventional farm operations.

“One advantage may stem from the fact that farms using DTC marketing may be less capital-intensive operations,” says the USDA. “[F]arms with direct sales required less machinery and land to achieve a certain level of sales. Moreover, these farms had lower debt levels than similarly sized farms with no direct sales.”

Some of the financial gains come to the farmers by way of “a more secure income stream” including marketing efforts that traditional farms don’t employ because they’re not seeking a direct consumer connection. “Even when farmers’ input and output prices vary, the markup between the wholesale and retail prices tends to be relatively stable,” explains the USDA.

By selling direct to consumer, farms are more likely to approach their efforts like most brands succeeding in today’s market: creative marketing and branding, including websites and social media presence, and a personal connection to customers, particularly if the farmers are present at farmers markets or at CSA drop-offs. At a time when consumers are eagerly seeking authentic and quality food products, developing a personal relationship with the people who buy the farm's food is a substantial market advantage for the grower.

Another reason for the success of DTC farmers, says the USDA, may be that many grow their operations more slowly than conventional farms, so they’re less likely to take out larger loans or struggle to sell off all of their yields, or worse, not yield enough due to disease, drought, early frost, or warming temperatures that can all devastate a crop.

And all this matters, not just because locally grown seasonal fruits and veggies are healthy and delicious, but because smaller DTC farms can often grow more—and better--food than conventional farms. That's beneficial for the environment. It may be better for the economy, too.

“Smaller farmers tend to have crop mixtures. Between the rows of one crop there will be another crop, or several other crops, so that ecological niche space -- that potential -- is producing something of use to the farmer rather than requiring an investment of more labor, money or herbicides," Peter M. Rosset, Ph.D. executive director of the Oakland, California-based Institute for Food and Development Policy (better known as Food First) told the Organic Consumers Association.

“What that means is that the smaller farm with the more complex farming system gets more total production per unit area, because they're using more of the available niche space.” In other words, many smaller farms can grow more food per acre than a conventional monocrop farming operation.

According to Rosset, smaller farms in the U.S. produce “more than 10 times more value of output per unit area than large farms.”

If you’re wondering how it is that large farms stay in business when smaller farms may be able to produce more, it all comes down to subsidies.

“Because large farms in the U.S. get such a large subsidy, they can stay in business even if they're selling what they produce below the cost of production, says Rosset. “The subsidies are tied to area and allow prices to drop below the cost of production. That prevents small farmers from competing in those arenas," Rosset explains, because they don’t have enough land to make subsidies sustainable (they’re not growing enough). Which means many turn to higher profit crops, such as organic fruits and vegetables instead of highly subsidized grains or beans.

“Those organic farmers who continue to pursue organic farming as a means for sustainability will continue to travel the road of enlightenment and human progress,” wrote John Ikerd of the University of Missouri. “They will help build an agriculture that is ecologically sound and socially responsible, as well as economically viable.”

But even if a farmer isn’t certified organic—even if he or she is using pesticides and herbicides—the fact that they’re also rotating crops, or growing numerous crops at the same time instead of a subsidized monocrop—means the soil is likely healthier, they may have longer (or continual) growing seasons, and may succeed in adverse conditions like drought. Growing multiple crops also means a disease or pest problem isn't likely to wipe out everything, and while any loss will hurt a farmer, a smaller, more diverse farm is better suited to bounce back.

Small-scale consumer-driven farming is quickly becoming one of the biggest the anti-corporate rebellions, too.

“Those who exploit current economic opportunities for short run self interest will travel a different road to the future,” says Ikerd, “a road that most certainly dead-ends beyond some near or distant curve.”

Farmers want your business, of course, but they're also asking you to value their products, not Super Size them (although you can often find incredible deals at farmers markets). A CSA box or a farmers market visit can cultivate a humble respect for all that goes into our food system. And when consumers have a direct connection with the person who grew their food, they're going to value the take home much more than they do a faceless supermarket run. Who wants to let Farmer Annie's peaches go to mush, or let Farmer Dave's biodynamic kale turn yellow?

"People are at the center of 'real' small farming," writes Ikerd. "In the society of the future -- the society that puts people at the center -- there will be a place of honor for sustainable small farms."

To discover more farmers markets check out Barnraiser's collection.

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Related on Organic Authority

How to NOT Be Annoying at Farmers Markets (According to Actual Farmers)
9 Tips For Being a Thrifty Farmers Market Shopper
Does Hitting ‘Peak Farmers Market’ Mean We’re Running Out of Local Food?

Farmers market image via Shutterstock

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