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Here are two things that happened to me last week.

First: I sent a message on my old condo’s listserv letting the residents know that I’ve set up a farm hub there, and that they can order fresh/local/etc. produce and meat directly from a farmer who’s not only local, but one that literally owns a unit in the building. A few days later, a non-profit CSA aggregator (a 501c3 non-profit) who apparently has a rep in the building, sent a nearly identical email out on the same listserv advertising a 10% early bird special on their CSA shares.

Second: I’m driving around Charlottesville delivering food and running errands, and everywhere I go, I see the delivery truck for an increasingly popular online grocery store whose name rhymes with “we lay crudes.” They weren’t following me of course; it was just sheer coincidence. But seeing that gigantic shiny green truck in the rearview of my 100,000-mile, farm-dusted F-150 for two hours was quite the visual metaphor for what local farmers determined to remain independent are up against.

BRIIIIIING IT OOOOOOON!!!!!!

BRIIIIIING IT OOOOOOON!!!!!!

Independent farmers committed to sustainable agriculture turned their backs on the ConAgras and Cargills of the world, determined to free themselves from poverty, debt, commodity pricing, and a litany of other unhealthy farming realities. Using farmers markets and door-to-door sales, they blazed a trail leading back to independence – they determined to take as close to100% of the food dollar as possible to secure the financial stability that’s necessary to steward the land properly without relying on government grants and other forms of ecological charity.

The rest of the world is understanding that this is a good thing. Dollars are quickly flowing into local/organic/sustainable and, just as quickly, well-intentioned organizations are springing up that threaten to erode the foundations of the Local movement. Here are three good reasons why you, as a consumer, should take the time to cultivate relationships with farmers and buy directly from them… and here’s why we, as farmers, need to do a much better job of direct marketing our products:

1. Centralization in agriculture is bad.

Modern agriculture is a hot mess. Giant corporations pay next to nothing for agricultural commodities produced by farmers whose financial incentive is to produce as much as possible at all costs. The corporations consolidate the commodities, process them, and then distribute them across the country and around the world. This system leaves the environment degraded, the farmer in poverty, and the consumer with an outrageously unhealthy diet and the manifold consequences thereof. Why are things this way?

Consolidators have investors to consider, so they must grow profits. To grow profits, they must reduce their costs. Consolidators – whether it’s Walmart or ConAgra – reduce their costs, and thus their prices, by squeezing their suppliers. The ability to do this comes, ironically enough, by enlisting more and more suppliers to service more and more customers. As these customers pile into the consolidators’ stores, they create an ever-strengthening vise that the consolidators use to squeeze their suppliers.

Sometimes.

Sometimes.

Eventually, a tipping point is reached where the consolidators have enough customers and suppliers to offer prices so low that suppliers can’t survive on their own. At this point, the consolidator owns the supplier, and the supplier begins making tradeoffs to meet the price set by the consolidator. For Walmart’s suppliers, this might mean closing American factories and sourcing the work to Asia to reduce labor costs. For ConAgra’s suppliers, this might mean using genetically modified seed and contracting to feedlots to reduce unit costs.

Online grocery stores, even the Local-oriented ones with the big green truck, are consolidators with investors to consider (that’s how they got the big green truck). Right now they’re fairly small and don’t have enough customers to force farmers to take their prices, but one day and with enough customers, they will. Perhaps they won’t apply the squeeze when they’re able, but capitalism’s record of self-restraint is not encouraging.

2. Government subsidies in agriculture are bad

Some CSA consolidators, like the one that’s more or less competing with me in my condo, are non-profits that operate with government grants, tax-deductible donations (another kind of government grant), and self-generated revenue.  On its face, that may seem like a good thing: people like to think of sustainable agriculture as an enterprise too pure to be stained by the pursuit of profit, so going the non-profit route presents a pleasing image of donation-funded hippie farmers sitting above the earthly fray of markets. So what’s the problem?

Besides the hair. And the smell. And where are the women?

Besides the hair. And the smell. And where are the women?

Here are two things that the giant 1,000-acre GMO corn farmer and the 501c3 non-profit local CSA have in common: they are utterly dependent on government largesse. The corn farmer would be out of business tomorrow without the commodity payment and insurance programs in the Farm Bill, and the non-profit CSA would be out of business tomorrow without the tax-deductions allowed its donors and the ability to receive municipal/state/federal grants. This dependence has consequences.

The first consequence is volatility. Remember all the talk of milk prices doubling if the latest Farm BIll remained stalled in Congress? And if that non-profit CSA loses 50% of its government funding, they’re going to have to either fold the business or make up the difference at the register, either option promising to spike the prices of your CSA shares.

The second consequence is the artificial lowering of the price of food. Many non-profits use their donations and grants to reduce food costs at the register, usually to service low-income customers. While I absolutely agree that low-income individuals should have affordable access to food that’s fit to eat, I also believe that artificially lowering the price through subsidies is not the way to do it. If SNAP, WIC, or CSA grants get cut, low income folks are back to poisoning themselves with ramen noodles and Hot Pockets. Farmers should instead be working to lower the real price of food with things like multistory and closed-loop agriculture, perennial and locally-adapted systems, and a refusal to take on debt. That way, good food remains affordable no matter who’s in Congress. Government subsidies, however, remove the financial incentive to pursue these innovations, which leads to the third consequence, which is…

Opportunity cost. It’s very difficult for market-oriented, innovative, socially/economically/ecologically-sustainable, independent farms to get off the ground when their competitors are “juicing” on government funding. We know these utopian farms are possible – Sepp Holzer’s Krameterhof and Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm being prime examples – but we’re going to see a lot fewer of them if we continue to believe that government money belongs in agriculture.

3. The solution is so much better

Consolidators, whether they’re government funded CSAs or investor funded online grocery stores, are not evil. They simply exist because they’re filling a niche that farmers have failed to fill ourselves. Local food is not as accessible as it should be, the farms producing the food are few and far between, and many of them aren’t oriented toward direct marketing off the farm itself. Any farmer knows that a bare patch of earth, left alone, will sprout a giant tap-rooted weed that will become almost impossible to deal with if it’s ignored for too long. Likewise, the need for convenience and accessibility in Local food is much like that patch of exposed earth; instead of nature filling it with pokeweed, capitalism is filling it with consolidators.

Pokeweed is the same color as that danged green truck...

Pokeweed is the same color as that danged green truck…

Changing this would require a massive proliferation of small farms, and the creation of farmer-owned cooperatives that could handle distribution beyond the farm – especially into cities. The reasoning is simple: if there are lots of farms everywhere then they are more accessible; farmers don’t have to take commodity prices and become slaves to the distributors if the farmers are the distributors.

Getting more farmers into the field and organizing cooperatives is going to take some work, and will become a focus of Sylvanaqua once our production is established, we’ve turned a small profit, and we’ve thuys demonstrated that this model of ours can, in fact, work. Stay tuned, stay positive, and buy direct from your local farmer!

Chris Newman
Manager, Sylvanaqua Farms

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Our farm is dedicated not just to responsible, healthy, accessible food, but also to changing the very model that our country uses to produce and consume food. We’ve said before that being certified organic doesn’t go far enough to affect this change; in this article we take a look at a few more reasons that eating local beats both organic and conventional. And at the end, we give you a sneak preview of what our “dream” food model looks like.

1. Local really is more nutritious

An organic controversy exploded in 2012 when a Stanford University study asserted that there’s no meaningful difference in the nutritional content of organic and conventionally raised foods. Stanford, along with many other food scientists and supporting institutions, make the claim that the only substantial drivers of nutritional content in food are genetics and freshness. If you take two seeds from an identical heirloom plant, raise one on a conventional farm, the other on an organic farm, and harvest and eat them at the same time, there will be virtually no difference between the two.

One will become a testament to the tasteful application of makeup and eyeliner, and the other will become Maggie Gyllenhaal.

One will become a testament to the tasteful application of makeup and eyeliner, and the other will become Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Supporters of organics naturally (hehe) fired back, citing everything from the university’s relationship with agro-giant Cargill to alleged technical flaws in the study itself. Importantly, however, critics of the study did not attack its underlying premise: that genetics and freshness are what really matters when it comes to nutritional content.

When you make the decision to ignore the labels, buy local, and source all your food from a nearby ecological farm, this controversy immediately loses meaning for you. If you’re buying heirloom produce from a farm less than an hour away, you’re pretty much guaranteed two things: 1.) you’re getting plant genetics at least as good as what you’d find in an organic market, and 2.) you’re getting your produce at the peak of freshness, especially if you visit the type of farm that lets you pick produce yourself. The only way to get fresher food would be to disguise yourself as a cow during the day, graze the fields with the rest of the herd, and hope the farmer doesn’t notice.

Soon.

Soon.

2. Local really does taste better

It’s not hard to find people – especially those who patronize expensive restaurants – that will insist that organic food tastes hands-down better than conventionally raised food. Unfortunately, those people would be proven wrong by a slew of blind taste tests in which people truly can’t tell the difference between stuff that’s grown in a chemical-bound psedo-soil and compost-pampered supersoil.

Much like nutrition, taste is largely the effect of freshness and genetics. For eggs, meat, and dairy, the inputs that create them are also a very significant factor… but one whose positive effect on the taste of the food is correlated with freshness.

Except for this thing, whose taste correlates with bacon.

Except for this thing, whose taste correlates with bacon.

As great as organic farming is compared to its conventional counterpart regarding environmental impact, it gleefully shares conventional ag’s most glaring structural problem: centralized distribution. This model of distribution underlies the efficiency that some would argue is modern agriculture’s biggest strength, but it also underlies its biggest weaknesses: the ecological compromises demanded by farming for economies of scale, and products whose nutrition and taste suffer from shipping (to distribution facilities and markets) and waiting (in markets to be bought).

Do you find it strange that you can buy organic sweet corn and vine tomatoes at health food markets in January? If you don’t, then you should. That sweet corn and that big red ‘mater, being more than six months out of season, are both going to taste like hot-house garbage. If you buy from an ecological farm, however, this isn’t going to be a problem because an eco-farmer worth her salt will not grow things out of season, even in a greenhouse. Shopping for groceries at such a farm ensures that you’re buying food in season and at the peak of freshness, which is the ONLY way to guarantee your food is at the height of its nutritional content and taste.

3. Local really is best for the environment

Conventional and organic farming have something else in common besides centralized distribution: they’re founded on the idea that you have to fight nature to produce enough food for civilized society. The only difference between the two is that organic farmers are following the rules of gentlemanly warfare, while the conventional farmers are whipping out the nukes and mustard gas.

To be sure, organic farming is much gentler on the environment than conventional farming. The “Three Cs” of organic farming are compost, cover crops, and crop rotation; together, these are intended to minimize the effects of farming on the environment and reduce risks to public health. The first “C”, compost, provides natural soil fertility without frying soil life the way synthetic fertilizers do. The second, cover crops, prevents soil erosion and runoff pollution while improving soil structure and nutrient content after cash crops are harvested. The third, crop rotation, interrupts cycles of pests and diseases by taking away their food sources.

So... what do they eat?

So… what do they eat?

The Three C’s, unfortunately, do not address organic agriculture’s reliance on monocultures. A monoculture is what you get when you have a whole bunch of the same plant (or animal) covering a large area. This is something you almost never see in nature because, in nature, such a state can’t persist for very long. If a 50 acre field were to spontaneously sprout nothing but corn, then the beetles and armyworms would soon follow. With a gigantic food source and no habitat for their predators, these pests would reproduce explosively until all the corn was gone, at which point the they would starve to death. Their decaying bodies and rotting corn husks would cover the soil with new organic matter while the occasional breeze or four-legged creature would deposit various seeds from elsewhere. Over time, a new and balanced ecosystem would develop – one that would invariably be a polyculture rather than a monoculture. I won’t say that monocultures aren’t “natural” since “natural” is such a slippery term. But I will say that we’re swimming against nature’s current when we use monocultures, and that’s a dangerous proposition when we’re relying on them to stay alive.

If there’s one thing your small, local family farm probably doesn’t have, it’s a 50 acre cornfield. These little farms generally use hoophouses and/or raised garden beds to produce plants in polycultures that are much more environmentally sound. And while these fruits and veggies don’t provide the staples we rely on from corn and soy, there are permaculture farms coming online using tree guilds to replace them both affordably and with ecological soundness. Most of these operations are small family farms that need your patronage in order to succeed.

4. It’s the only way to make responsible food affordable

America’s food model is broken because it demands an interface between the consumer and the producer in the name of efficiency and centralized profit.* Proponents of this model will argue that such ruthless efficiency is necessary in order to meet demand; a dubious claim considering that America trashes nearly half it’s food.

"Smashes" rhymes with "trashes."

“Smashes” rhymes with “trashes.”

The organic movement, God bless it, does not address the structural flaw in this model. It instead funnels food into the same broken system as its conventional adversary (or parent company) using a production method that’s much less efficient. With its misguided focus on markets and monocultures, organic farms fight a relentlessly uphill battle against the efficiency of conventional farming’s chemical marvels and the inertia of mother nature’s ecological inclinations. The result? The most difficult, expensive food on planet Earth.

But in spite of the cost, farmers markets and agritourism are booming at the same time unprecedented public outrage is being directed at GMO, feedlots, and big agribusiness. The enormous demand for organic, relative to its supply, is one of the drivers of its high price. If we could only lower the price of responsible food to make it accessible to the average person, the sustainable food movement would be on its way to fulfilling its mission of saving the world by feeding it. This is where your local permaculture farm comes in.

Permaculture farms are those that intensively mimic natural systems to produce food that’s both ecologically sound and affordable. The affordability stems from a number of things: reliance on perennials that only need to be planted once; emphasis on forage rather than feed for livestock; selection of locally-adapted plants and animals that require minimum human intervention; focus on a hyperlocal customer base that does most of the harvesting; adoption of multistory agriculture (fungi, ground covers, tall annuals, bushes, and trees occupying the same space) to improve efficiency; providing the diversity of products that allows the farm to replace the supermarket.

Taking central Virginia as an example, the new agricultural model here would have 1,400 small (20 – 30 acres) plantations set up near population centers, each providing food for the 160 or so people living with the immediate vicinity of that farm. People would go to these farms to do most of their food shopping; the Whole Foodses and Harris Teeters would be for the things you can’t get locally – coffee, spices, citrus, etc. The time a farmer would ordinarily spend every year planting, cultivating, spraying, harvesting, shipping, etc. would instead be spent on value adding (e.g. milling wheat into flour, grinding corn into hominy, smoking bacon, baking bread) and surveying the neighborhood to see what products her customers want more or less of.

"Coming right up!"

“Coming right up!”

This model doesn’t exist yet, but it can in your lifetime. All you have to do is make a commitment to cultivate a relationship with a local farmer, make a commitment to buy from her as often as you can, and of course stay tuned to our website as we work to make this model a reality for everyone.

Chris Newman
Sylvanaqua Farms, Earlysville VA

*Before my more conservative readers accuse me of Marxism, please know that I’m not a proponent of socializing or nationalizing food production (notwithstanding charity). Farmers and those who own farms should enjoy comfortable lives financially to the extent their talents will allow them to steward the land responsibly. It is another matter entirely for Monsanto to advocate for market-divorced commodity subsidies, soil-killing chemicals, seed patents, and a factory farm system that brutalizes both farmer and animal… all in the name of its stock price and at the expense of literally everyone in the world.

A few weeks ago I was discussing various topics in sustainable agriculture with farmers and apprentices at the Accokeek Foundation’s Ecosystem Farm in Accokeek, Maryland, about 20 minutes south of Washington, D.C. During the course of the discussion, it was mentioned that my farm’s goal was to move the price of sustainably-raised food into a sphere competitive with that of conventionally-raised food. This statement drew two reactions, both of which are rather common whenever I mention the idea of democratizing sustainability through price.

The first reaction is amused disbelief: “Do you really think that’s possible?” is what I most often hear from a concerned face pitying my delusional optimism.  Naturally, I think it’s possible to compete with conventional agriculture on price, but not if we insist on playing their game: focusing on commodity and wholesale markets, relying on annual labor/machine intensive agriculture, and leveraging economies of scale. All of these practices require sustainable operations to compensate for their shortcomings in ways that will always result in a more expensive product.

Permaculture offers a way to lower prices in a revolutionary way: reducing the need for human intervention in agricultural systems. Pasture-based farms are the gateway to this model in offering a limited-input method for producing herbivores, but staple crops and omnivorous meat products (e.g. pork and poultry) can’t be produced in these systems at a competitive price point. Moving into staples would require a fundamental shift in the entire agricultural model: away from commodity/hybrid species and toward locally-adapted species, away from annual crops and toward perennial crops, away from specialization and toward diversification, away from centralized distribution and toward localized distribution.

When you read about all that necessary change, the “do you really think that’s possible” question sounds awfully appropriate. But ultimately, someone has to believe it’s possible because the alternative – maintaining the status quo and keeping sustainable ag products solely in the realm of the elite – is quite hopeless. The sustainability movement can’t save the world if it’s only accessible to a small slice of it.

The second reaction is more nuanced and requires a bit more thought. Many natural farmers chafe at lowering their prices, and not just for selfish reasons. The logic holds that people don’t place enough value on food, and the relatively high price of organic food teaches people that food isn’t a commodity and is something important enough to be valued. I’ve heard Joel Salatin echo this argument: “If you can understand the difference between a BMW and a Honda, then you can understand the difference between a Polyface Broiler and a Purdue Broiler.”

There are two big problems with this line of argument. First, it assumes that price is either the only or the most important vehicle for conveying the value of food. I’ve always thought the best way to convey the value and fragile nature of food production is to have people grow it themselves. Growing a tomato plant will change a person’s outlook on food in a way that higher prices and exclusive markets never could. And for middle- and lower-income people, the price of organics is not just higher, it’s prohibitively higher.

As I argued that last point, the folks I was debating made the valid counterargument that it’s not impossible to get middle and lower-income individuals to pay more for a good product. One of the apprentices, who grew up in southeast D.C. around the same time I did, correctly mentioned that you could go to a Section 8 project in the worst part of the city. and see kids with $400 iPhones and $200 sneakers walking out of apartments where the $60 heat bill hasn’t been paid all winter. The problem we have to contend with, I argued, is the fact that premium products in areas like consumer electronics and fashion provide instant, tangible benefits. To get benefits from an iPhone or a new pair of Jordans, you buy it one time and your friends ooh and aah over it right away.

Healthy food, on the other hand, conveys benefits that are both intangible and delayed. To get benefits from healthy food, you have to buy it for a lifetime and the benefits are only realized decades later when your friends ooh and aah over your lack of diabetes and hypertension. Of course, healthy food isn’t the only thing that people consume for a lifetime to provide a delayed benefit. Toothpaste also falls into that category. But the reason that only 26% of people regularly buy organic food while 94% brush their teeth at least once a day? Toothpaste doesn’t cost twice as much as the next best alternative.

Second, the Honda/BMW analogy hits the mark in terms of the value proposition (i.e. of course you pay more for a better product) but misses the broader point entirely. BMW, whose mission is to make a tidy profit and produce the world’s best-engineered cars, benefits from the exclusivity that stems from its price point. BMW can fulfill its mission without appealing to people with Honda budgets. In fact, offering products to appeal to budgets outside of BMW’s high-luxury wheelhouse (i.e. the introduction of the 1 series) produced quite a bit of groaning among the company’s core clientele.

Sustainable agriculture on the other hand, whose mission is to save the world by displacing conventional agriculture, would find that exclusivity directly contradicts its mission: We can’t replace conventional agriculture if we can’t capture their customers. This presents the following set of realities:

  1. Sustainable agriculture is producing BMWs
  2. Most people can only afford Hondas
  3. The fate of humanity depends on us getting Honda customers into BMWs

We’re left, then, with two options. 1.) Convince people with Honda budgets to pay the high price of our BMWs, or 2.) Find a way to make our BMWs more affordable without compromising quality.

The first option seems, to me, unworkable. Assuming that some marketing genius is able to convince the masses that organic food is as worthy a luxury item as an iPhone, you’ve still got a problem: people don’t consume luxury items everyday. It’s not enough to have people buying “BMW food” for special occasions to show off to their friends; sustainable agriculture only works if the majority of agricultural land is under sustainable management, and that only makes sense if people are getting most or all of their food from us. Catering to a bigger niche market may satisfy the 20 year financial goals of a few sustainable farmers, but it doesn’t satisfy the 100+ year goal of restoring the environment and changing the face of American agriculture. The bottom line is, even if you’re able to convince lower and middle-income people to pay the higher price for your food, our movement still loses in the long run because they can’t afford to buy from us every day.

That leaves us with the second option: making our BMWs more affordable. As I mentioned earlier in the discussion of low-input permaculture, this option seems viable. Our hope here lies in the yin and yang of technological innovation and ancestral knowledge, a holistic marriage of human ingenuity and natural elegance. In this space lies the solution to making the sustainability movement not just visible, but accessible, and capable of continuing our ability to live happily on this planet.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms

On a recent Friday night, I found myself barreling down Earlysville Road to grab a few pizzas for my family. They had all spent the past week getting the farm ready for our inaugural open house. This night, everyone was tired, hungry, and far too exhausted to cook, so off I went into the night for something quick and cheap.

I wasn’t paying much attention to the NPR interview playing on the radio; I was much more interested in the deer lining the sides of the road, waiting to leap out in front of the truck and prolong my errand. But at the point where the road turns from a serpentine tunnel cut through oak and poplar forest to a series of roundabouts near the airport, I heard something that snatched my attention decidedly away from the ubiquitous Whitetails:

40 percent of food in the United States is wasted.

The rest of the interview went on to explain the many reasons why this is the case: from consumers throwing out food that passes the sell-by date, to distributors being encouraged to cram more product into packages than people will actually be able to eat before it spoils, to supermarkets keeping their produce shelves fully stocked right up until closing time – then throwing out most of what doesn’t sell. I bought my pizzas and drove back into the darkness of Earlysville, paying much more attention to the radio than I probably should have at the height of deer season.

Think about that earlier quote for a moment: 40% of the food in the U.S. is simply thrown out. This is an interesting statistic to reconcile with the steady refrain from conventional agriculture: “We need heavy metal, GMO, and factory production if we’re going to feed the world.”  It hardly stands to reason that we need higher agricultural yields if Americans are only eating 60% of the food grown for us.

Over the next couple of days, however, I came to realize that the problem of waste is not limited to conventional agriculture and supermarkets. The interview I listened to included a couple of small organic outfits finding themselves, at the end of each growing season, scrambling to figure out what to do with vast amounts of unsold produce. The perishable nature of fruits and veggies makes them difficult to funnel to places like food banks that serve the food-insecure, and it’s economically dangerous for a small producer to give away or even fire-sale their late season inventory. As a result, a lot of the excess produce simply winds up in compost. And while this is certainly better than the food winding up in a landfill, growing annual plants for fertilizer represents a glaring systemic inefficiency in ecological farming rooted in our culture of “more is better.”

The focus of agriculture, even sustainable agriculture, is on increasing yields. Conventional agriculture wants to push yields to record-breaking highs while sustainable agriculture, for all its talk of bucking the system, obsessively sets its sights on achieving yield parity with its industrial counterpart. I have yet to see an article in Acres USA – the flagship publication of sustainable farming – that features innovations in the control of production; every article focuses instead on maximizing production in spite of overwhelming evidence that we’re producing more than enough food.

Perhaps there is a belief that overproduction is benign. After all, to say that it’s better to overproduce than underproduce seems like a logical argument. And that would be the case if we weren’t overproducing by such an extreme margin. It’s one thing to waste 5%, but 40% is another matter entirely. Our desire to maximize production is rife with consequences: food is the primary component of landfills. It’s the raison d’etre of both factory farming (which destroys the environment) and GMO (which destroys seedstock diversity and natural protections against mass starvation). It causes farming to be seen as an enterprise requiring large amounts of land and the equipment to manage it – and the money to procure both – thereby discouraging new and innovative farmers from entering the field.

Finally, the massive overproduction of food ultimately threatens the sustainability movement itself. The ecologically-detached science that fuels conventional agriculture produces yields that, ultimately, ecological methods simply can’t match. Add to that the fact that only 60% of our existing yields are necessary anyway, and we soon find sustainable agriculture being outclassed by an opponent in a game that no one is watching.

Focusing on Production Control

Back in July, I found myself mesmerized by Joel Salatin’s talk about buyers clubs. His idea of shunning farmers markets and CSAs was, to me, both revolutionary and liberating; before that talk, setting up a farmers market stand and offering CSA shares seemed as de rigueur for small farmers as sporting a woolly beard and straw hat. I’ll admit to chafing at the idea of “joining the club” of pastoral agrarians funneling natural foods to upper income folks in exclusive rustic-chic downtown markets. Among Sylvanaqua’s three core values is this: “Inclusion: Absolutely everyone deserves to be healthy and happy.”

I came to Earlysville to help democratize the natural food movement, so to see that alternative marketing methods were viable was very encouraging. Buyers clubs looked like a magic bullet that lowers consumer costs while keeping a greater share of the food dollar in the farmer’s pocket through control of all three of the food business’ major facets: production, marketing, and distribution. In simpler terms, it seemed key to making a decent living as a farmer. At the time, however, I didn’t realize that saying “no” to the traditional market concept would provide a vital precedent to fixing the biggest problem with the sustainability movement: production control.

One of the great things about buyers clubs, especially for the production of meat, is their effectiveness in establishing production targets. Once you’ve established a good corps of clubs, you can reasonably estimate how much you’ll need to produce. A little overproduction is necessary to ensure that orders can be filled, but if you can keep it to 10% or less, that amount is easily absorbed by on-farm sales, impulse purchases from club members, and personal consumption.

This model is a little tricky for fruit and veggie production because unit control isn’t so easy. In full disclosure, our farm isn’t heavy in the produce business because our mantra is that end consumers should grow as much of their own veggies as possible. However, we can’t ignore the realities of the modern world. Namely, many people simply don’t have the time to tend a garden, and lots of people aren’t blessed with a green thumb. We’re left, then, with a challenge: how do we get people the produce they need, in the amounts they need, without wasting it, and in a way that’s economical for both farmer and consumer?

Sylvanaqua Farms is piloting a concept we call MyFarm, which boils down to a commercialized community garden. Customers “buy” a set of garden beds by putting down a deposit and selecting from a list of plant sets they want grown. We grow the selections and allow the customer to come in whenever they want and harvest from their own set of beds. What they pick is debited from the deposit until the deposit is exhausted, at which point customers pay as they pick.

With this system, we don’t have to worry about transport spoilage or the risk of throwing out large quantities of unsold produce. The customer has all the abundance and selection of the supermarket, plus the freshness and local ethos of the farmers market. Finally, we can offer extremely competitive prices since we don’t have to factor in costs of picking, washing, storing, transporting, covering spoilage loss, and selling. The only downside is the relatively small number of families we can support, though this number increases when homes grow more of their own produce and require fewer of our beds.

Consumer Driven Agriculture

Agricultural waste ultimately stems from production being driven by suppliers. In conventional and large-scale organic agriculture, farmers produce for commodity markets that erect a firewall between them and the end consumer. The farmers produce high to gross high, with the demand level of end consumers only vaguely reflected in commodity prices before being rendered irrelevant by Federal commodity subsidies. Farmers in smaller scale agriculture are more in touch with end consumer markets and are more efficient, but the primary distribution vehicles – smaller scale wholesaling and farmers markets – still foster an inelastic production chain because it is the producer, rather than the consumer, that initiates production. In both systems, there is no verification that the products being developed are mapped to an actual consumer need.

The term “Consumer Driven Agriculture” (CDA) popped into my head owing to my days as a software engineer, in which we often practiced a concept called Test Driven Development (TDD). In TDD, the programmer writes a test to verify code before the functional code is actually written. If I were writing an “add” function for a calculator program, the first thing I’d write would be a test that plugged 1 and 1 into the add function and checked for a result of 2. The test would initially fail since I haven’t written any code yet. Then I’d write the code to pass the test (or tests), then write another test, code to pass it, and so on until the program is complete.

Applying the concept to agricultural production means verifying that your production units have a buyer (or a very reasonable chance of a buyer) before you actually produce them. This is why buyers clubs and MyFarm are such powerful tools for production control compared to open markets: demand in open markets is nearly impossible to predict.

Buyers club members will usually settle into a pattern of purchases –  3 broilers, 5 dozen eggs, 4 pounds of bacon per month, as an example. From these data we can closely estimate a customer’s seasonal purchases, and since they have such a close relationship with our farm, we can contact them ahead of time to see if they anticipate changes in their purchasing. Perform the same steps for all buyers club members, and now we have our “test” which we will try to pass by matching livestock production to those numbers. In the realm of produce, the MyFarm system puts crops in the ground only when a customer pays us to do so. In both cases, the key to reducing waste and improving efficiency is to insist on a direct consumer demand to initiate production. Hence, Consumer Driven Agriculture.

(Note: If you Google “Consumer Driven Agriculture,” you will find that the term is already being used to describe broad, macro-agricultural shifts in food production being driven by rising, aging, and ethnically diversifying populations. CDA at Sylvanaqua refers, instead, to the specific technique of using concrete customer demand to drive what and how much to produce on an individual farm.)

Challenges for CDA

CDA is hampered by several factors. Chief among them is the fact that the method relies heavily on two things most farmers don’t enjoy: analyzing metrics and high-touch relationship marketing. This isn’t something that would just turn off lifelong farmers either; the growing number of young people trading in their cubicles for pastures may balk at the tedium of data analytics and eliciting/managing the expectations of customers… tasks many were specifically hoping to avoid by starting a farm. The fact is that most farmers just want to grow food and brag about how much they grew.

There is also the fact that creating the data to support effective CDA would take at least two or three seasons to compile into an accurate predictor of production demands. Not only must the producer account for her existing clients, but she must also factor in a growth rate that can only be accurately measured from multiple seasons of data. This may not be much of an issue for seasoned farmers already accustomed to the notion of a program taking several years to bear fruit, often literally.

A market opportunity certainly exists in CDA analytics since practitioners could (in theory) offer farmers increased margins and reduced costs. For the farmer, however, there is a risk in sacrificing that part of the marketing/distribution food dollar. Whether or not this system could be made cost effective outside the farmer’s locus of control would need to be verified.

Challenges aside, CDA promises to improve efficiency in agricultural production by more strongly linking it to consumer demand. Successful implementation would result in manifold benefits very much in line with the true goals of sustainable agriculture:

  • Increase in margins for farmers and reduced costs for consumers
  • Reduction in the size of individual farms, leading to increases conservation areas and reductions in both cropland/pasture conversion and barriers to entry for new farmers
  • Reduction of the environmental impact of food waste
  • A market- and data-driven solution to the destructive “more is better” ethos of industrial agriculture, and a reorientation of the sustainability movement away from industrial goals

Applied correctly, CDA could do for agriculture what Just In Time production did for automobile manufacturing.

Chris Newman
Proprietor, Sylvanaqua Farms