There was a time, not that long ago, when most people had a relative who was a farmer. Back then, farming was an assured way of life because every one eats and needs food. This was before the world of food started to changed. Most have heard of huge corporate agribusinesses doing all they can to “corner” every aspect of food and food production as it was traditionally known for millennia. Wall Street is in on it and so is Government.
In response, the ever resourceful small farmer, in order to survive has had to get creative about farming and the marketing of his farming business. For one, some farmers are cutting out the food broker, opting instead to sell directly to the public and it seems like the public is responding to it. The farmer is happier without the middle man; the public is happier because they are getting healthier foods, often at a lesser cost.
It would seem that the small farmer is starting to re-fill a niche that has almost been forgotten and in so doing is having to recreate that niche in different ways to bring attention to it. This is an interesting development given that farmers have been around since the dawn of time and have been taken for granted until they almost became extinct and the quality of our food supply being threatened by big agribusiness.
I had the privilege of spending a few summers at a family farm. I saw grapes, pears, peaches, plums, potatoes, sugar beets and a lot of other fruits and vegetables growing happily in the fields of my uncle’s farm. I would help my cousins clean out the stables where they had about 40 head of dairy cattle and a few hogs. It was a small operation by corporate standards to be sure but, it was a dream for a city kid like myself to visit, take part in and thoroughly enjoy.
My parents, aunts and uncles grew up in that world. In the summer they and my cousins would go on outings just to pick fruit on weekends. For them it was a visit back to their youth and for us cousins it was an adventure that few of our other friends had ever had. At the time small private farms surrounded most big cities and were not too far or hard to get to. Everyone packed a large picnic lunch and headed out. Come lunch time, we would have picked bushels of all the fruit we wanted and would take a break to feast on a fabulous lunch eaten right in the middle of the orchard.
35-40 years later, we still have fond memories of that time in those places. Those old, well kept farms gradually turned into subdivisions. Farming itself changed and places to go picking became scarce. In that time people started getting cozier with their TV sets and the convenience of fast foods and prepared foods that were being steadily marketed to them. That conditioning created a disconnect between food and where it came from. Having no clue about food or where it came from, if you asked a child where milk came from, they reply, “from the grocery store!” That it came out of a cow that needed to be milked had been completely erased from the mind of many children. The result was farms saw fewer people who were taking an interest in picking their own foods directly from the orchards or fields.
As unlikely as it would have seemed not that long ago, there is now a renewed interest in “real” foods. There has also been a resurgence in farming and buying directly from local farmers. To survive in the face of enormous agribusiness muscling in on their traditional territory, the small farmers have had to start getting creative about their business model, in a way that big business could not easily compete against.
Farmers, it would seem are now starting to take advantage of the fact that they are a small operation. Turning their small operations around with new marketing concepts that have their roots in old ideas of artisanship. They are trying hard to reconnect with their communities through different types of out reach marketing concepts. They’re trying to turn the idea of farming, eating and cooking into something important, necessary, fun, easy and to some extent – even sheik. A place where “city folks” would want to come to see, participate in and buy from.
I remember a time when I’d see the odd farmer going door to door to sell his “organic” produce out of an old, beat-up truck, long before the word organic had any significance. That has changed. That lone farmer is not alone any more!
What the new small farmer now has to offer that gigantic agribusiness cannot deliver is a personal touch, customized service and an intimate experience with the foods they are growing and the people they are serving. With that personal touch also comes a comfortable credibility. To a culture that has been drawn away from the basics of cooking and the art of food preparation in general, seeing others who really know food well and what can artfully be done with food, is fascinating to many. Farmers are publishing their own books on what ever it is that they happen to be growing, how to best utilize it, what can be done with it and how to make people drool over it and buy it, knowing that they are buying a hand prepared quality product.
Some enterprising small farmers are enticing people into coming to their farms to pick fruit as a family event. Some will even rent rooms to people who want to experience “life on the farm” first hand. Strawberry and apple farmers have set up their operations for picking. Once there, people find that the farmers have transformed their crops into ready to buy pies, pastries, preserves and healthy candy. They have turned their barns into mini restaurants serving pancakes and waffles, topped with whatever fruit compote happens to be in season. If they’re growing apples, they turn it into unpasteurized apple cider, bottled and ready to take home. If they’re growing vegetables and different types of greens they sell them fresh to the local higher end gourmet restaurants. Some farmers have enough land to pasture cows, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, geese and hogs. These animals produce milk, eggs and meat. Not only are these animals hormone-free and very fresh, they are also in high demand by both health conscious people and restaurants interested in providing the tastiest possible meal to ensure that their customers will take note and come back.
There is also another amazingly simple and very creative marketing solution that farmers have come up with. If you live near a farming community, some farmers will sell you a weekly box of produce of what ever happens to be in season for a very affordable flat monthly fee – and, they will deliver it right to your door. Right there you have over a dozen benefits that are not possible from any other food selling relationship. You have fresh seasonal vegetables, grown locally and probably organically, delivered right to your door automatically; saving you the time and gas to have to go shopping for them and, the quality is guaranteed. The profits are going to the person doing most of the work. The money stays in the community. You get to meet and know who is growing your food and can visit their food growing operation; not to mention the environmental benefits. The buying local concept also makes a community less dependent on foods needing to be shipped in from far away. Etc., etc., etc! It’s a win – win for everyone involved.
With this type of personal expertise in food, farmers can now authoritatively talk, teach and give classes on how to milk animals, how to turn milk into cheese, pork into salami, sausage, pancetta, prosciutto or whatever else they happen to be growing, into familiar, traditional foods that because of the care taken to make them, can now legitimately be called gourmet items. In the end, this is re-establishing the connection between people and their foods and turning a once very seasonal business into a year round enterprise. And, most importantly, rather than giving away their profits to middlemen and food processors, they are pocketing their well deserved earnings and prospering and rightfully so.
This is not just a local fad. This is happening all over North America and Europe too!!