I just returned from the Washington State Farmers Market Association conference in Vancouver Washington. It was a great opportunity to talk to other farmers and market managers, find out what the latest Department of Ag rule changes are (take home message: don’t put anything in a clam shell or a sealed bag, including twist ties – unless you have a food processor license, because doing so makes it “ready to eat”), and most importantly, get away from the farm for a few days. Bless my husband for feeding everyone (including the Bean), collecting eggs, and generally holding down the fort.
There is nothing like going to a conference filled with very successful farmers like Tonnemakers Farm or Kirsop Farm to make you question where you fit into the local food system hierarchy. These are people who have been in the business of successfully selling organic fruits and vegetables for years and years. They sell at multiple markets. They sell almost every day of the week. They sell during the winter. They have large acreage under cultivation. They have employees. They are generous with their time and information at events such as this. And me? I sit at the feet of the masters and absorb as much wisdom as possible.
But it does beg the question. Where does Miles Away Farm go from here? And more importantly, where do we WANT to go from here? Our farm is nowhere near self supporting. Even if I were to double my sales from last year, and then double them again, we’d still have a hard time paying all of the bills (ahem…mortgage). Though on average, somewhere over 80% of small farms have off farm income. We’re certainly not alone in our dependence on an outside job.
The primary reasons customers say they visit farmers markets? To get fresh quality food and to support their local farmers. Another interesting statistic from the conference; when Washington farms who sold at farmers markets were surveyed as to their size (acres under cultivation), the results were bimodal. That means farms in Washington are clustered in two places. Small or large. Seems like I’m not the only one wrestling with “how big should we get”. But it does beg the question, if consumers are showing up to support their local farmers at markets, but those same farms still need outside income to survive, is that really a successful local food “system”?
I also recently finished reading Forrest Pritchard’s book “Gaining Ground” about how he saved his family farm by selling pastured meat, and the things he learned along the way. The biggest thing he learned? If you want to make money, go where the affluent demographics and customer interest is. He had hesitated to travel all the way into Washington D.C. to sell his products, because the distance seemed prohibitive. But when he finally bit the bullet (after encouragement from vendors already there) and started selling in D.C., his sales went up enough that he was finally able to gain forward momentum on the farm debt.
My husband and I were discussing this subject the other day and here were some of the thoughts:
I’m one person. Most of the farm work falls to me (my husband still works full time). There are only so many hours in the day I can work and still maintain some sanity and quality of life. We can’t afford to hire anyone. We can’t afford to have him quit his job.
Our local markets are small and finite. If I were to expand my range and drive to the markets in Dayton, Pendleton and the Tri-Cities, few people would likely pay me $5.50/lb for heirloom tomatoes or $8/dozen for duck eggs. It’s just not the right demographic. Yet these are the prices I would need to receive to make that kind of time and mileage worth while.
I don’t have enough product, or the right range of products, to justify traveling to Portland or Boise. (I’m familiar with Spokane’s markets, having lived there – and very few markets there would support the above prices. The Liberty Lake and Saturday Market in downtown Spokane are perhaps the exceptions, but both are difficult to get into…and we’re still talking a 3 1/2 to 4 hour drive). There is a cheese maker, Monteillet, about an hour north of us, who was selling in Portland. Their product is small and dense, and sells for $20/lb. And I’ve noticed that even they have stopped traveling all the way to Portland.
It feels weird to be in a business that you are passionate about, but also acknowledge that you will probably never be completely self supporting. Does that somehow make small farmers failures? Does it make me a failure? In the “go big or go home” business environment, how does one justify staying small?
The answer, for us, is simple. It’s not just about how much money we have in the bank. We strive to be economically prosperous, ecologically sound and socially equitable. This is known as the triple bottom line, and its good to keep it in mind, when you are selling corn at 2 ears for $1 at the market.
Years ago, I saw an ad (I’m pretty sure it was for Organic Valley but I’ve looked more than once, and can’t find it) that spelled out the ideal order in which people would buy their type of product. First was “produce your own”. Second was “buy from your next door neighbor”. Third was “buy at a local farmers market”. Forth was “buy from a co-op grocer”. Fifth was “buy organic from a conventional grocery”. In other words, in their idealized business model, they would be out of business.
I SO get this. My passion is education. Yes, I also love to grow great food and make great soap and provide it to my customers. And I really enjoy counting my money at the end of the day too. I AM in business, after all. It’s wonderful to see some economic pay off after all that hard work. But in my ideal world, everyone would know how to do what I am doing, (which is a major motivator for why I write this blog). I’d trade with my neighbors for the stuff I didn’t grow or make. In short, in my idealized world, there would be no one left to shop at a farmers market and I’d be out of business.
So, where do we go from here? Well, I guess we fully embrace “proud to be small”. Our farm is based on permaculture principles (a self-maintaining agricultural system). We’re proud to be living as lightly on the land as we can realistically manage, minimizing water use, eliminating petroleum based inputs (herbicides and fertilizers – we do still use gas in our tiller), striving for a nature based animal husbandry system. We’re proud that what we DO produce is the best it can possibly be, given these parameters. And we’re really grateful for that outside job that allows us to pursue the above. THAT is a luxury that a lot of farms don’t have.
I’m never going to drive to Portland or Boise or Spokane to sell soap or meat or produce. I just don’t want to work that darned hard. I’m unlikely to grow enough produce on my own to be able to supply more than two or three farmers markets. I’m not even that interested in having employees (and all the paperwork that that would entail).
So, we’ll continue to refine our product mix. We’ll continue to grow produce that does well in this climate, gives us joy to harvest, and sells well at market. No point in trying to convince people to buy mustard greens or eggplant when there just isn’t that much interest. Or spend hours picking green beans, when we HATE picking green beans, without being able to charge a serious premium for them. We hope to expand to include value added products like jams and spice mixes. We’ll continue to make excellent toiletry products that can be shipped anywhere in the U.S. on request. In short, we’ll strive for excellence, not perfection, in all that we do, and keep sharing what we’ve learned along the way.
And now, what you all really want to see. MORE BEAN!
Miles Away Farm Blog © 2014, where I learned this weekend that Vancouver Washington is known locally as “Vantucky”, because most of the people who live there do so because Washington has no income tax, but Oregon (just over the river to the south) has no sales tax. So people live in Washington, but shop in Oregon. This leaves Vancouver with not a lot of “there” there, in terms of reasons to visit. Oh, and the meth problem…but I hear that’s gotten better in the last few years.