Mary Ann Chastain  /  AP file
Anne B. Davis, right, picks out some corn as vendor Jack Smith waits on other customers at the farmers market in Greenwood, S.C.
By Jon Bonné
updated 3/5/2004 8:41:37 PM ET 2004-03-06T01:41:37

Every Friday afternoon from June to September, Sanbornton, N.H. residents young and old mill about expectantly on the grounds of the town’s historical society, waiting for a bell to toll.

The wares at the Sanbornton Farmers’ Market are off-limits until 3 p.m., and shoppers are impatient. “When that bell rings,” says Jack Potter of Shaker Woods Farms, “it’s like the Oklahoma land rush.”

Potter and his wife Eva retired from the Air Force in the late 1990s, bought property in New Hampshire’s lake country, turned it into a bed and breakfast and operate it as a small farm: growing vegetables in a raised-bed garden, raising milk goats to make soap and cheese.

In 2001, Potter organized a small summer market, trying to help the town of 2,500 preserve its rural character. The market just kept growing. It now invites not only local farmers but bakers and even coffee roasters from across the state.

Though Potter, an Arkansas native, is president of the New Hampshire Farmers’ Market Association, his town isn't alone. A decade ago, the state had 10 markets; last summer it had 45 -- nostalgic reminders of a pre-supermarket world when growers and artisans carried their wares to town on market days.

For Americans born into an era of year-round fresh produce, global food distribution and a food supply that grows cheaper and more commoditized each year, it has become a welcome novelty to eat something from just down the road.

“People pretty well recognize that you’re not going to come to a farmer’s market to get vegetables at a discount," Potter says. "What you’re going to get is green beans that were picked in the morning.”

Direct marketing
Even Potter acknowledges farmers’ markets won't provide most growers a full income. But thousands of farmers -– especially in warmer corners like California -– have extended the spirit of the market: turning away from corporate agriculture, choosing instead to specialize in premium products and to sell goods straight to consumers.

These alternatives to the efficiency of post-war American farming are growing from what once once a roadside diversion into a thriving, if still modest, industry.

In 1997, 84,000 corporations controlled 131 million acres of farmland, up from 67,000 corporation and 119 million acres a decade earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. At the same time, the number of family farms dropped by over 160,000 to 1.64 million.

A dizzying array of options now awaits farmers who want to buck the system. Most sell products locally to consumers or small companies. Many are committed to sustainable agriculture: managing farms to be profitable and environmentally safe. Some have targeted shoppers who want, say, organic vegetables or humanely raised meat.

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The overall dimensions of these trends are elusive, in part because so many farming subcultures have sprouted up.  By one estimate, at least 1,500 U.S. pork farmers sell direct each year; thousands of beef farmers have tried it. More than 90,000 farms did some direct marketing in 1997, when the USDA conducted its last Agricultural Census.

Back then, those farms earned over $550 million. Since then, calculates former U.S. undersecretary of agriculture Gus Schumacher, direct marketing has grown into a $1 billion business -- just a sliver of the nation’s farm revenues, but a growing one.

Farmers’ markets are booming too, with some 3,500 across the country welcoming an estimated 3 million shoppers a week during peak season.  “There’s more demand for these markets in towns and cities than people to organize them and farmers to come into them,” says Schumacher, a fourth-generation Massachusetts farmer.

The newest growth areas take sales beyond the weekend vegetable stall. Small and even mid-size farmers now deliver direct to schools, restaurants and institutional food companies. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) plans allow shoppers to buy in bulk, paying a flat price for a percentage of a farm’s output. Many farmers' markets now accept food vouchers for low-income families.

Growers even rely on pick-your-own and farm tourism (think corn mazes and hay rides) to pay the bills.

“People often come to this out of desperation,” says Rhonda Perry, program director at the Missouri Rural Crisis Center and a livestock farmer in Howard County, Mo. “But out of that desperation has been an incredible amount of creativity.”

'Price-takers, not price makers'
What happened? The thin margins of industrial agriculture –- with large farms maximizing per-acre production and driving food costs to new lows -– became a race to the bottom for small farmers. With distribution handled by large companies, and the disappearance of many farm co-ops that helped farmers control prices, even mid-size farmers have become, in the words of California organic farmer Phil McGrath, “price-takers, not price-makers.”

With that dwindling set of options, many long-time farmers sought other ways to stay solvent. Increasingly, they found the same answers: Grow premium products for shoppers willing to pay extra for niche foods -- anything from heirloom tomatoes to organic poultry.

Organic Farms Weather Through Mad Cow Scare
William Thomas Cain  /  Getty Images file
Organic cattle farmer Dick McDermott drives a tractor loaded with organic hay at Neptune Farm in Salem, N.J. The farm raises organic beef cattle and sheep, as well as asparagus and blueberries. It has been certified organic by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Jersey since 1992.

It's not just about niche markets. Direct marketing also provides clear answers to an otherwise maddeningly complex question: Where does our food come from?

That particular question has rarely been more salient. The recent mad cow scare brought mainstream scrutiny to an industry long targeted by food activists, but food-fears have been manifest in the past 15 years. In 1989, it was Alar in apples; in 1993, it was E. coli in beef. The list kept growing: mercury levels in fish, hormones in dairy products, last year’s green-onion hepatitis contamination.

With each successive case, more consumers have gotten curious about the path their food takes to their local store. And in these orange-alert times, worries even surface that our globally-linked food supply is an appealing target for terrorists.

“I think it is kind of a watershed moment,” says Allen Hance, who studies agricultural policy at the Northeast-Midwest Institute.

More consumers are concerned with how their food is grown. Are pesticides are used on plants? How much time do cows spend in the pasture? Farmers can provide those details, of course, and a personal relationship with food growers helps ease those concerns.

Moreover, local products prompt a certain civic pride. Food geography holds a certain resonance (witness origin labels on apples and pears) and whether due to nervousness or nostalgia, there’s something reassuring in finding out your peas came from across the county, not across the country.

“People really seem to want to know where their food is coming from,” says Schumacher, “and they’re prepared to take time to go to a market and talk to the farmers and discuss these issues.”

Beyond the market stall
There's just one problem: So much of the food we eat doesn't come from the market -– any market.  Between dining out, takeout or even cafeterias, a growing percentage of our meals come to us fully prepared.

While farmers’ markets and bulk deliveries may be great options for savvy, engaged consumers, they don’t reflect our consumption patterns. So farmers like Phil McGrath realized direct marketing had to expand beyond the market.

McGrath maintains deep roots to his 300 acres in Ventura County, Calif., where his ancestors set up their first homestead in 1867, first raising cattle and then switching to produce after World War II. By the 1980s corporate farms had driven profits so low that even local co-ops hesitated to harvest McGrath’s crops, so his family started selling solely at their roadside stand and at local farmers’ markets. They converted their land to organic standards, farming 30 acres and leasing the rest to larger organic firms. The fertile coastal plain offered a perfect location; its temperate climate and year-round growing seasons provided constant income and a wide variety of crops from lemons to lima beans.

With Los Angeles just 50 miles away, McGrath had no shortage of customers. But about three years ago, as he traveled between 18 farmer’s markets, he realized direct sales took up too much time for its modest revenues. He also noticed restaurant chefs arrived early and bought up most of each morning’s haul, leaving nothing for other shoppers.

On the other hand, restaurants’ constant needs provided a great source of income. So he took his fruits and vegetables out of all but a few markets and began delivering to chefs. “Restaurant delivery was very lucrative for us,” he says.

He also signed up for a program to bring produce into schools in cities like Santa Monica, where students got a salad bar full of fresh local food and took field trips to see the farms that supplied their lunches. Parents were overjoyed.

His sales methods, McGrath argues, demonstrate how sustainable agriculture should function. He takes some personal responsibility for his local community’s needs -- a crucial part, he believes, of selling direct. He seeks out customers who understand his priorities and remain loyal. It is why he charges schools perhaps half of what restaurants pay him: as encouragement to buy healthy.

“Because I want that to happen so much, I’m going to lower my prices as much as I can.”

The value of local
Lawmakers have taken note of these programs. Both House and Senate committees are considering a plan to fund schools that buy directly from smaller farms.

But the growing interest in local foods has also rippled throughout the private sector. Food supply giant Sysco recently launched its ChefEx program, which distributes products like Point Reyes cheeses and Niman Ranch pork to institutional customers.  Food service firm Bon Appetit, which runs kitchens for corporations like Oracle and schools like New York’s Hamilton College, asks its chefs to design menus around individual farmers' local ingredients.

Part of the company's sales pitch is that the local food tastes better. "We were interested in preserving good flavor on our plates,” says culinary director Marc Zammit. “We realized that flavors were disappearing because small farmers were disappearing.”

These food-service deals appear to work because a company like Bon Appetit guarantees sales volumes. That leads farmers to offer price breaks, while the food-service firms get top-quality meat and produce for almost no added cost. One deal, Zammit says, boosted revenues among some farmers in California's Salinas Valley by 25 percent.

That approach can extend all the way to the store aisle. California's Community Alliance with Family Farmers not only connects growers with local schools but uses its “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” program to get their food into local Santa Cruz-area shops. The brand telegraphs to shoppers in in retail stores that they’re supporting the community.

Aided by federal grants, CAFF works as a sort of non-profit distributor, helping centralize direct sales by connecting farmers with wholesale buyers. “We’re kind of a matchmaker, or a forager,” says Karrie Stevens Thomas, CAFF's program director.

While a small farmer might turn a profit selling at markets or to a few restaurants, she notes, many larger farms produce too much to just load up the pickup. She encourages them to use a variety of sales methods so shoppers have buy-local options no matter where they shop: "The idea is to ... continue creating these local food systems."

'So disconnected'
Still, the direct-sales process is too complicated for most customers. Farm-fresh food all but sells itself, but most shoppers who want it must spend time browsing farmers’ markets or picking up special orders. CSA programs solve that by selling in bulk, but most of us still don’t buy meat and produce that way. And extra legwork is a big barrier. Over the decades, food distributors have successfully provided almost any food wherever and whenever we want it, making the buy-local message difficult to sell to time-deprived consumers.

“It’s not a simple message,” says Andy Fisher, executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition, which helps develop local food networks in southern California. “People have been so disconnected from where their food comes from for so long that it doesn’t resonate that well.”

Thus many direct marketers are giving another look at Big Ag’s intricate logistics and distribution systems, hoping to capture the efficiencies for hurried consumers without losing the advantages of fresh and local.

Some of it simply won’t translate: The whole point of centralized distribution is to remove the inefficiencies of local markets. But backers of these alternative methods hope to copy a few modest efficiencies -– regional distribution, perhaps, or local co-ops that that broker sales without undercutting farmers’ incomes.

“The infrastructure piece is a major missing piece,” says Perry, whose fellow Midwest pork farmers often live 100 miles or more from a major city.

At the same time, the farther from the farm you get, the more you betray the local mandate. Is it OK, for example, to truck beef 200 miles, but not 1,500?

That has become a topic of debate within direct marketing and sustainable farming circles. Most of these farmers accept, though, that cities can't possibly have local access to every fresh ingredient. As such, many have concluded it's better to sell food a bit farther away than not to sell it at all.

“North Dakota grows great wheat for bread and New York makes great bread … and you can’t get that wheat in New Jersey or Pennsylvania,” says Tim Bowser, executive director of the FoodRoutes Network, which promotes direct marketing, “so I don’t think there really is any one-size-fits-all answer for this.”

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