It’s easy to dismiss the whole “Eat Fresh, Local, and Organic” craze as nothing more than a passing trend. Only hippies and health nuts are willing to pay extra just for a fancy green sticker on their food, right? With all this technology and mass, conventional farming techniques, why do the steps in between matter? If it tastes good, why bother caring how it got that way? Well, agriculture is a little more complicated than just making edible food.
You might have already heard of the term farm-to-table before. A social movement grown in the early 2000s, farm-to-table is more than just selecting fresh, local produce. It’s a form of agriculture and logistics that spans across entire communities and their economies. By banding the local food producers, processors, and retailers together, this food-centric ideology strengthens markets by building brands and consumer faith in their neighbors’ businesses.
This happens fundamentally for one of two reasons. First, the movement’s popularity is derived mainly from enthusiasm for local business as well as food traceability. People like knowing what they do has an effect on the world around them; buying locally is an easy way to participate, especially if that meant higher quality goods from people they know. Big grocery superstores are just fine if you want cheap food, but going to Walmart hardly suggests “community building.” By supporting small businesses, people know their money is going to local families, not ultra-rich CEOs who pay their employees pennies in comparison. There’s an emotional appeal to local business that can’t be beat by major retailers who solely focus on lowering operating costs by any means.
People also like knowing where their food comes from. Reports of animal cruelty, substandard imports, and poor work conditions associated with major chains are repelling people from mass consumption. They know by supporting businesses guilty of those practices, they’re giving consent to continue that trend. With the alternative being buying directly from local food producers and knowing their practices intimately (they’re your neighbor after all), the customer’s choice to switch to farm-to-table becomes even clearer.
Aside from better transparency of a customer’s cause (paying for local goods) and effect (supporting local business growth) in the market, the second reason comes from the rejection of food “commoditization.” In other words, farm-to-table is a call to start treating food with the respect it deserves throughout its entire life cycle. From more efficient and sustainable agricultural practices, organic farming, and fair trade, to sourcing only the best ingredients, followers of the farm-to-table phemonenon make food logistics into an artisan craft. And with national organizations like SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education), finding resources and materials to even get yourself started has never been easier.
Now, I’m not suggesting you sell your house, move to the countryside, and start your own farming business. But regardless of how interested you are in tapping into this movement, it’s important to know how it affects business. From there, you can find your own way to participate, even if that’s just going to your seasonal farmers’ market or sampling the local breweries. At its core, farm-to-table is about the interconnectedness of people and the food we eat. They say how important it is for families to eat together. Scale that imagery to a community level and, just in that thought, a feeling of togetherness shortly follows.
But how, exactly, does farm-to-table make that happen?
Rebuilding the Village
The world we live in is a much smaller place compared to the one our ancestors knew. Technologies like the Internet, airplanes, and radio broadcasting have made it easier to spread ideas and bridge distances. But in this call for global unity and connection (and the economic benefits associated with the two), we’ve begun to neglect the towns where we live in favor of the digital realities we escape to.
With online retailers like Amazon and others who’ve mimicked their model, shopping is as easy as pressing a few buttons from your phone. All you have to do is make sure you have the right address, credit card information, and the patience to await delivery. Blinded by such modern convenience, the fruits and veggies you ordered for same-day delivery could’ve been bought at the farmers’ market a block away. You could’ve just stepped out of the house and got them yourself, but the convenience of staying in justifies that extra shipping charge.
By simplifying the way we buy things, we’ve complicated our own understanding of the local economy. Even in the 1800s, families ate and used what they could grow themselves. Heck, there are plenty of places in the world still where this is the reality! What they couldn’t make themselves, they paid others in town to for them. Bartering wasn’t unheard of as people would trade for what they needed; it was all about giving your surplus for that of someone else’s. Farm-to-table is a modern interpretation of that kind of thinking, refocusing our attention to what’s right in front of us.
Whether it’s a co-op, seasonal market, or even a community supported agriculture program (customers pay a subscription fee to share the farmer’s risk in exchange for part of the harvest), no two towns approach farm-to-table the same way. Again, it’s all about seeing the relationships between supply and demand in the local economy.
For example, if you’re a wheat farmer, you could sell directly to local brewers and bakers; fruit farmers could sell their produce to wineries, grocers, or restaurants that need fresh produce. Aside from lower shipping costs associated with shorter distances, local businesses might be more apt to strike favorable deals, building each other up in the process. This trickles into the rest of the community, strengthening local brands and instilling people with a sense of pride for their town’s food artisans.
When we know what we do makes a difference, we’re more inclined to “do the right thing.” In the case of many people, the right thing means helping others around you, knowing your good deeds inspire good karma. But co-inhabitation doesn’t just stop at other people either.
Respect for the Land
Of the 2.3 billion acres that make up American soil, just over half of them are used for agricultural purposes. While this number in 2007 is a decline from 63% in 1949, this is less from smarter land conservation and more from urban sprawl converting rural land into developed cityscapes. As our population grows, so too does our demand for food to sustain our people. But how do we accomplish this as our natural resources dwindle?
Farm-to-table agriculture cultivates a lifestyle of sustainability and environmental awareness. While small farms generally use less land than their superstore-sponsored counterparts, if farmland is farmland, why does it matter who owns it? The answer is simple: just because you have a lot of something, doesn’t mean you ought to be wasteful with it. SARE’s “3 Pillars of Sustainability” drive that point home to all farm-to-table junkies.
In addition to “Profit over the long term,” and “Quality of life for farmers, ranchers, and their communities,” the third pillar is dedicated to “Stewardship of our nation’s land, air, and water.” Instead of trying to farm solely to make the most money, SARE educates its members by reminding them the importance of respecting the resources at their disposal. Renewable does not mean infinite; just managing to pass inspection is not the same as being exemplary.
While better stewardship of American fields, rivers, and dales comes at higher operating costs, a lot of these farmers survive upon the faith of their customers. By sharing risk through direct consumers, venture capitalists and crowdfunding, or the support of other local businesses, these small-town food producers stand a fighting chance to compete with the big box names. But what’s most important is sustaining the culture and lifestyle of farming and having respect for one’s trade. Smaller farms, what with less to oversee, can afford greater intimacy and care in cultivating their produce. After all, descriptors like, “hand-picked” and “antibiotic-free” sound better than “sprayed down with pesticides and harvested by machine.”
The latter might be cheaper on paper, but it comes at the cost of consumer faith (not to mention health). Despite the dangers of some conventional farming methods, the lower costs justify their continued practice. In order to compete even further, farm-to-table entrepreneurs have to go above and beyond their backers’ investments.
Competition Through Creativity
Nothing spurs innovation and creativity like desperation to succeed. While farm-to-table is anything but desperate, a grass-roots effort trying to shape an entire industry dominated by big businesses is no mean feat. What’s more is that most of these small farmers’ budgets just can’t compete head-to-head with superstore juggernauts. So what’s a local food producer to do?
This kind of pressure not only inspires slow change throughout the food industry, but constant reimagination within the farm-to-table niche. If small food producers wanted to expand their business, buying more land isn’t usually a viable choice. Instead, processing their own goods and establishing brand names and unique product lines cuts down the big stores at their ankles. And when it comes to attracting new business, quality will trump quantity easily.
You can get generic brands like Sam’s Choice, Great Value, Archer Farms, and Market Pantry anywhere in the country. Combined with a natural loyalty for local business and these producers form a unique taste that highlights their community. Make something delicious enough and it might even promote tourism to the town with hungry visitors wanting to sample the regional fare.
To put this into perspective, let’s say you’re a local dairy farmer and you only sell milk. Once you’ve maximized what you can make off your current herd of cows, the easiest (most obvious) thing to do would be buy more space, cows, and equipment to milk them. More milk means more money. Diversify, however, with a line of creams, yogurts, butters, cheeses, and ice cream or custard, and you have a lot more opportunities to mark-up your products. Of course, you can always just sell off to creameries who’ll finish those extra steps for you. But by doing it yourself, you’ll take more bites out of the market. Either way, people pay more for products that required more time and effort to produce.
Going that extra step–adding that personal flair that’ll make your products stand out and superior in quality–will in turn establish your brand’s credibility. The more credible and beloved your brand becomes, the more opportunities arise. It’s not unheard of to see gift shops with merchandise emblazoned with local brands attached to some of these businesses. Now that I think of it, this pulls printers, designers, and merch-manufacturers into farm-to-table’s economy-building vortex too.
All In, All Out
While this might be a good first taste of farm-to-table and all its benefits, there’s one thing you can apply to business regardless if you put much stock in this movement. Great businesses thrive by understanding relationships; whether between people, with the environment, with the market and its competition. Instead of continuing the status quo, by identifying individual connections, entrepreneurs can scale their ideas and turn them into viable services.
In a world of waste and oversaturation, farm-to-table forces us to rethink the way we live, interact, and eat. But like with all great changes, they all start as a serious of small steps taken over time.
Farmer or not, what steps will you take to affect the change you wish to see in your community?