Heads up. This is a LONG post. And if you are just here for cute animal pictures and recipes and aren’t interested in farming as a business, a pretty boring one. But this stuff IS important. If you make it through to the end, thanks for reading!

It’s funny how things just chug along in life, and then the collective unconsciousness bubbles up and you start hearing similar ideas from multiple directions.

Last year, I went to the Balancing Profitability and Access in Local Food Systems conference in Boise. During one of the talks, this graphic appeared on the screen.

It hit a chord with me, I photographed it from the Power Point screen, and tracked it down later. A friend with a masters in marketing taught me years ago that consumers choose to purchase for one of three reasons; price, quality or status. Competing with big box store prices is simply a race to the bottom (and how we ended up with things like Confined Animal Feeding Operations – CAFO’s – a disaster for the animals, the environment and our health). But just marketing to the tip of that preference pyramid isn’t enough either.

I’ve been grappling with the dilemma of wanting to make my products available to more customers (because everyone deserves access to nutritious, healthy and local food) since I started selling at farmers markets in Spokane in 2011. Yet part of smart business is to go where your customers are. I made more money at my first farmers market in Walla Walla, on a SUNDAY, than I did at ANY of the markets I had done in Spokane the previous year. Because the culture of appreciation for what I was making was simply much higher in Walla Walla, as was the median income.

I’ve had endless conversations with other farmers and market managers around why our local Walla Walla farmers market doesn’t enjoy stronger support from our local residents (Is it a lack of “culture of appreciation”? Perceived, and sometimes actual, higher prices? Congested parking downtown? Availability of many other options, from road sides stands to u-pick to the Seventh Day Adventist grocery store? Too many other family activities happening on Saturdays? Existing back yard self sufficiency…?). Don’t get me wrong. We DO have very loyal local customers, whom we adore. But one trip to the Moscow Idaho Farmers Market, where seemingly the entire town turns out for their Saturday market EVERY Saturday, and you quickly understand that we could, and should, be doing even better. SO many locals I talk to, who DO shop local and in season, don’t come to the farmers market because its inconvenient in one way or another.

How can farmers reach a larger part of that food preference pyramid’s consumer, and not just those at the tip, where people are shopping their values? If we want to have a larger impact on the local food system, not to mention our own bottom line, we need to reach an additional audience, and not just those who are already shopping with us and have the leisure time to fit a Saturday morning market into their schedule.

These are all things I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

And then, on a Facebook Business Farming Group, someone posted this summary of a new Cornell study: Assessing the Barriers to Increasing Customer Participation and Farm Sales at Farmers Markets: Implications for Marketing Strategy.

The federally funded survey, conducted last year in New York, Vermont, Massachusetts and Maryland, is the first of its kind to seek insight into why sales, an important part of farm income, were falling at markets across the country. [For] people who didn’t shop at markets as often as they used to and people who didn’t shop at them at all, [they] reported they were buying local food at other places – and at more competitive prices. The importance of one-stop shopping was marked, particularly for people who never shop at farmers markets. The results also found that making a market more of what he calls “a social engagement experience” through the addition of prepared foods, entertainment, crafts or children’s activities is a non-starter. “We got that solid,″ Schmit said. “It does nothing to get more people to come and it does nothing to get people who do come to buy more. It simply adds to the inefficiencies.”

Interesting to say the least, as farmers markets have, for YEARS, been built around having not just a shopping but a community and a values based experience.

In short, Farmers Markets have spent the last 20 years appealing to the tip of that Consumer Food Preference pyramid, educating consumers on the impacts of buying local, supporting their local farmer, eating “clean”, eating in season, preserving for year round local eating, paying a bit more for the added multiplier effect their dollars have in the community, voting their values with their shopping dollars etc. etc. etc. I’ve spent the last 20 years both on the giving and receiving end of that advice. And those customers? They get it. They REALLY REALLY get it. They show up every week. They follow us on Instagram. They read our blogs (thank you!). They seek us out and make special trips to buy from us! They think deeply about everything they put in their mouths. They are loyal. They love us. They aren’t going anywhere. We’re preaching to the choir. But conventional agriculture is still outselling small regenerative agriculture 400:1.

Millennials, as a reminder, were born between 1981 and 1996, which makes them between the ages of 23 to 38 right now. JUST about the age when you have kids and really start thinking about what they are eating! A hopeful statistic.

In short, there ARE more customers out there who want to shop local, or already do, but not necessarily from us at the local farmers market. THOSE customers are looking for more convenience. They are pressed for time and are NOT at a farmers market to socialize, hang out and listen to music, or otherwise take a leisurely stroll with kids and dogs in tow. They want to get in and get out in record time, with a minimum of chit chat with their farmer or fellow customer. We’re already asking them to shop during a small window of 4 hours on a Saturday morning, less than 5% of the possible available shopping hours elsewhere (figuring a minimum of 12 open hours, 7 days a week). Every additional obstacle we put in their path, from difficult parking to long walks with their arms full of bags drives them to a different venue. In short, there’s a huge group of potential customers who’s needs we are not meeting by only selling at farmers markets.

Its not enough. It’s not even close to enough in the face of climate change, obesity rates, food insecurity, farmers aging out of the system, and preserving or creating local jobs based on locally grown or made products. Again, conventional ag is outselling us 400:1!

This video, from Dayton WA in 1938, is a nostalgic example of “the good old days” when the local economy was largely dependent on local product and EVERYONE shopped local. As you watch it, interspersed with shots of elementary and high school students, you see local business after local business where what’s in the store was made or grown locally or regionally, including several dairies, a bakery, a lumber mill, a feed store, the local butcher, the local grocery, and of course, the canneries, which put Dayton on the map and kept the town viable for a very long time. This small town independent business model simply does not work anymore for a whole myriad of economic reasons. In 1938, these were the ONLY realistic choices for most Dayton residents. Now they can order something mailed direct from Hong Kong on Ali Express.

This essay, “Into the Abyss: Why the Local Food Movement Needs to Stop Congratulating Itself” by Chris Newman of Sylvanaqua Farms is a hard read. But he’s spot on.

A cursory look at the numbers surrounding institutional food cuts to a cold reality: We have so far to go, it could be argued we haven’t really begun. We’ve let ourselves off the hook when it comes to solving the problem of “mainstreaming” the local food movement.

We must go forward. But what does forward look like? It’s dawning on a lot of us that we need to do a better job figuring it out. And that a local Saturday Farmers Market isn’t enough.

In November, I attended the annual Tilth Conference, this year in Yakima. And I sat on a marketing panel that was discussing “Power in Numbers: Collective Marketing for Local Agriculture”. This diverse group of farmer/marketer women, (Sustainable Connections/Eat Local First out of Bellingham, Pierce County Fresh – Tacoma region, Gorge Grown Food Network – Hood River/the Dalles region, Island Grown – San Juan Islands, plus me representing Walla Walla Grown) had interesting insights into marketing local foods. Several of them had recently done new market research and relaunched their marketing campaigns with a new emphasis. In short, we are all running up against that Consumer Food Preference pyramid. We have all been marketing to those who shop their values. And we’re all finding that THAT market is currently saturated, and that we need to expand our reach.

In another post by Sylvanaqua Farms, seen on Facebook just after the Tilth Conference, in a rant about how often farmers end up eating fast food out of desperation when they have a car load of hungry kids, Chris points out:

Imagine how our side of ag could thrive if we stopped arrogantly insisting not only what people should eat, but how (slowly, with family, wearing grandmother’s hand sewn apron 🙄) and instead doing what’s necessary to get the good stuff to the right people (which is all of them) at the right time (which is often in a car full of angry toddlers)?

Chris argues that we, as farmers, need to let go of some of our independence and look at farmer run cooperatives in order to pool our resources and better market our products, enabling us to have a MUCH larger impact on the food system. Look at what Organic Valley Dairy, with 2,000 farmers and 900 employees, has been able to accomplish, vs the impact each of those dairies could have had individually.

Dolly, the new tractor, minus the belly mower.

Yesterday, I bought a new tractor. I bought it with some of the proceeds from the farm that would have normally been taken as a draw and gone into a much needed winter break vacation. The rest would have been rolled back into the business in some other way. I fought this tractor purchase for 10 years. But its long since been time. I don’t manage my manure/compost situation well, because good compost requires aeration, and aeration requires turning or other infrastructure, and I didn’t have a way to do this work except by hand. I have a two year old chicken compost pile that has never been moved completely to the garden, because moving it required shovels and one wheel borrow load at a time.

This new tractor cost $12,800 (plus more for pallet forks). That is the price of a good quality used car! The business really couldn’t afford to buy it until this year. I’ll probably use it about 15 days a year. Imagine buying a car for that much and only driving it 15 days a year. It’s a ridiculous expense per use.

Every neighbor around me has a tractor. Several have more than one. But borrowing a neighbor’s tractor (which we’ve done on occasion) is filled with anxiety. What if it gets damaged? What if I don’t return it in the very best condition, and I ruin my very important relationship with my neighbor (our property is only about 190 feet wide – our neighbors are CLOSE). Animals occasionally get through fences and go visit. Our farm generates noise and smells. I farm organically, and so not every weed or gopher is killed. All things that can grate on neighbors with different values. It just wasn’t worth it to regularly borrow someone else’s very expensive equipment every time I needed it.

Imagine if I could have purchased that tractor in partnership with another 4 or 5 farmers, who would also use it 10 for 15 days a year. I could have afforded $4,000 for a tractor years ago. But that isn’t how most small farms currently work. We’re fiercely independent. It’s a point of pride that we do it all ourselves, in order to maintain compete control. And we often work ourselves into the ground doing it.

American Blackbelly sheep at sunset. If only small farming were always so bucolic!

We’ve had 45 solid years of sustainable agriculture in the Pacific Northwest (Washington Tilth was founded in 1974). Yet the number of small farms in Washington and the US continues to shrink. For small farms in Washington State (small farm is defined by the USDA as farms with sales between $2,500 and $250,000), income from farming represented under 25% of household income for most (74%).

To paraphrase yet another quote from Sylvanaqua Farms, by banding together, we can share our acreage, expertise, supply chains and financial resources. This in turn creates decreased cost of production, larger market share, better wages and quality of life for farmers and employees and lowers barriers for new and more diversified farmers on different sized farms. When you are part of a collective effort, you don’t have to do it ALL yourself.

This is an evolving conversation. I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I’m not sure I have any of them. But my guess? If small farms want to start hitting the middle section of that consumer food pyramid, where convenience rules, and having a MUCH larger impact on our local food system than a four hour Saturday farmers market can provide, we’re gonna have to start moving in a more cooperative direction.

© 2019 Miles Away Farm, where we’re miles away from having all the answers, but are in conversation with other local farms on forming a farmer cooperative and bringing more value-added year-round locally grown products to the Walla Walla Valley and beyond.