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Farmers as Entrepreneurs

As dawn breaks, the rooster announces himself to the world while the farmer is already up, donned in overalls, milking the cows, slopping the hogs, and feeding the chickens. As the sun clears the horizon, he climbs aboard his rickety red tractor and heads to check his fields in a puff of smoke and noise. After a hard day of checking crops, maybe he knocks off in the afternoon to fish, and then it’s back to feeding the cattle, so that he doesn’t return home until dark. This classic image of the farmer is appealing but perhaps not as realistic as it once was. Because of government regulation and overproduction of many crops which has driven prices down, it’s difficult for farmers to make ends meet, especially small family farmers who must compete with larger corporatized farms. Once upon a time, farmers reduced costs by remaining self-sufficient, using animal labor they bred and raised themselves and using family for labor as well. But those days are gone, and now the question is how to survive? Many are exploring new revenue streams in an attempt to keep their farms viable. Once seen as stodgy or old-fashioned, many modern farmers are developing ingenious new markets and approaches.

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Buying and Selling Local

One way small farmers have increased revenues is by cutting out the “middle man” and marketing directly to consumers, restaurants, and grocers. Because of the recent consumer trend of buying locally grown produce and meats, many consumers seek out local produce from grocery stores or farmers markets. Organic farmers, those who don’t use chemical pesticides or fertilizers, will market produce and meats directly to grocers and consumers to avoid the markup of prices often associated with organic produce. Also, since these products often lack preservative chemicals, their shelf lives are shortened. Marketing directly reduces the danger of spoilage since it reduces the time it takes these products to get into consumers hands. Another reason “Buying Local” appeals to consumers is the availability of more options. In the past, most grocery store suppliers have severely limited the varieties of produce and meats they sell. It was rare to see more than a handful of varieties of tomatoes, for example, or potatoes, etc. This is because these handfuls of varieties have been bred to withstand the transportation and storage environments and times required to get them to market. Taste was often sacrificed for this longer shelf life. Now, they’ve become the definitive varieties for many consumers and it was felt that consumers would balk at other varieties. The idea was that consumers wouldn’t buy tomatoes that don’t look like “tomatoes.” So many varieties which have, perhaps, unusual colorings or texture, even shape, were ignored. Alternative varieties, also known as Heirloom varieties, of produce and meats grew rarer and difficult for average, especially urban, consumers to find. Many of these strains disappeared entirely, but through the efforts of organizations such as Seed Savers, in the US, and gardening forums in Australia and elsewhere, a large number of heirloom seed varieties and Heritage meat breeds have survived. Now, farmers are marketing many of these varieties directly to grocers or directly to consumers through famers markets. Heirloom varieties that were once seen as the realm of a privileged few are now becoming much more mainstream. Consumers see these as healthy and often humane options, and it doesn’t hurt that these heirloom produce and heritage meat varieties are often much tastier. Restaurants, grocery stores, and farmers markets will advertise organic and/or local produce in hopes of attracting health and/or civic minded customers, and often times, this pays off for the farmers.

Pick It Yourself

Some farmers have gone a step beyond this and invite customers directly to the farm to “Pick It Yourself.” This is appealing to some customers for many reasons. The idea of fresh, often organic food holds true (you can’t get much fresher than picking something yourself) but there are also aesthetic appeals to a visit to the farm. Imagine an urban family visiting a farm on a Saturday morning. First, there’s the ride to get to the farm, which allows the family to see rural landscapes they might not be used to. There is a romantic element to the farm for many people (especially those who haven’t ever really spent much time on a farm). Some consider the farm a connection to a fading past or see it as an opportunity to reconnect to the soil. There is also an educational element to a visit to the farm for parents. Children can see where the food they eat actually comes from. They might be able to visit livestock and see many types of produce actually growing. Some children (and some adults) might be shocked at the idea of eating food that has been freshly picked (but that came from the dirty ground! might be a common complaint) but the value of this education is immeasurable for children in terms of promoting healthy eating habits. It can also be fun. Many farms cater to the family by offering hay rides or tractor rides to orchards or harvest sites and some even allow kids to take part in animal care and feeding. And, of course, there’s all that yummy food to eat when the family returns home.

COOPs and CSAs

Another way farmers have explored newer markets is through cooperatives and subscription programs. A cooperative occurs when multiple farms band together to sell their products and purchase necessities. This way, they get better prices when buying things, because they can buy in bulk, and offer more options when selling, because many farmers specialize in certain things. Subscription programs are just that: when a consumer buys a subscription to a farm. Sometimes these are called Community Sponsored Agriculture programs (CSA) but they have many names. Basically, the consumer pays a certain amount up front or every so often to a farm or group of farms and receives a set number of items from the farm every week over the course of a growing season. So at the beginning of the season, a customer might receive greens and beets and the like, with more produce becoming available as they come into season. There is often some mystery in what will exactly be offered each week, since it might not be known if produce will mature at a given specific time. Some CSAs include meats and animal products. Some are quite basic, including simply a certain amount of produce each week, whereas others can be quite elaborate, including honeys and beeswax products, soaps, and all sorts of other things. In urban areas, some CSAs will deliver to a centralized pickup point or even to homes, though many often offer the option of picking up on the farm, itself. There is a wide range of prices for these subscriptions, so that many end up being less expensive than what one would spend in a grocery store, whereas others, especially the more elaborate ones, can be quite expensive. Some of these farms may be certified organic, whereas in the United States, for example, the costs associated with undergoing the certification process for being declared an organic farm can be so prohibitive, that many farms forego this, though they still are technically organic. On the other hand, it should be noted that, in the United States, again, the criteria for being deemed an organic farm can be less stringent than many customers may want, and many non-officially organic farms are actually much more “organic” than official ones. It’s best for customers to be discerning and see for themselves. One drawback to these programs is that they usually only include produce native to their region or only produce that grows within that region, and since they do follow the growing seasons, there might be an inundation of certain produce (a lot of greens at the beginning, for example) whereas others might be very limited (berries, for example). But for families and individuals looking to support local farms and have a steady supply of fresh, often organic produce, CSAs are a great option.

Unusual Crops

Many farmers have specialized in unusual ways to keep themselves solvent. This can include unorthodox crops as well as livestock. Some of the more unusual “cash-crops” are raising specialty livestock such as worms and crickets, most often used as fishing baits or for composting. Some farmers raise slightly more mainstream, though still unusual animals such as ducks, reindeer, alpacas, veal, minks, fish, bees, and the like. These tend to be regional, depending on the climate in which the animals thrive. Some are raised for meat and some for other products, such as their fur. These can be risky propositions. Many in the agricultural community have bought into “fad” animals, such as guinea fowls or alpacas, which then turned out to be unsustainable because there simply wasn’t a market for them. And the farmers were stuck with often expensive animals. But many farmers diversify their products with animals such as these, and with unusual crops. Certain crops are dependent on region and climate. Certain farmers in the mountains of southwest Virginia, USA, and parts of France, make a great deal of money harvesting certain rare mushrooms, like truffles. These are so rare (and valuable) because they only grow wild and are difficult to find, necessitating well-trained dogs to sniff them out (the legend has it that pigs find truffles, but many farmers now employ dogs). Farmers might grow tobacco or other high-dollar crops, though the social stigma in some parts of the world can be difficult to contend with. Likewise, marijuana and other crops often deemed illegal in certain parts of the world can be extremely lucrative when grown (legally) though this often necessitates a great deal of licensing and security expenses. Many farmers diversify their harvests by including some unusual crops because the competition is less; therefore these crops may pay more (though demand may also be less). Sunflowers (for seeds), specialty vegetables such as asparagus (which can require a three-year commitment before harvest), and fruits and nuts can all supplement a farmer’s income. Many of these farmers use several of the same techniques we’ve looked at to market their crops and livestock, bringing customers directly to the farm to buy bison meat or duck eggs, for example, while also selling directly to restaurants and grocery stores. It’s not unusual to see a restaurant advertise a certain farm’s beef or fowl, and customers respond to these quality products with enjoyment and patronage.

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