Lessons From the Field: The Future of the Local Food Movement

All I saw in front of me was a field of grass. I refer to it as a "field," but calling it a backyard makes more sense. Just a few steps from my family's back door in Becket, Massachusetts, stretched an empty field covered in pristine grass. The organic garden I had planted since I was eight years old occupied a small corner of the turf, but other than that, it was just a yard. Going forward, though, I had a different vision for the land. I saw a perfect space for an organic, diversified micro-farm: I saw October Mountain Farm.

I remember the day vividly: It was a cool and misty spring morning in the hill towns of rural Western Massachusetts when I first lowered the sod cutter into the ground to remove the turf. Row by row, the machine's blades buzzed back and forth as the grass was rolled up into big bundles and deposited into a heaping compost pile. By the end of the week, no grass existed. Over the next month, I rototilled the quarter-acre of land, added soil amendments (fertilizer), and prepared the field for planting. This was only the beginning of October Mountain Farm. I hadn't even planted my first seeds, and I was already starting to realize how difficult this farming endeavor would be.

Although I had attended the Mountain School during my junior year of high school, a semester program during which I lived and worked on a farm in Vermont, I realized that I still had only rudimentary farming knowledge. Sure, I knew the basics, but each day presented new challenges. Ordering seeds, planning out the field, organizing crop rotations, companion planting, soil amendments... a glossary of farming terms and techniques swirled through my head as I spent countless hours alone in the field. By mid-June of 2011, I had the field fully planted, with over 50 varieties of vegetables and herbs dotting the tiny plot of land. Before I could even think about putting down my tools, it was time to harvest the first wave of crops--greens, herbs, radishes, and beans were beginning to come up. More importantly, though, it was time to figure out the entire business side of the operation. After all, the crops wouldn't do much good (besides feeding my family) if they didn't generate revenue for the farm. Frantically I applied to farmers' markets, met with local restaurants, and set up a roadside stand.

By the end of my first season of farming, I realized I was putting just as much time into the business as I was into my efforts in the field. Going to three farmers' markets a week, making the occasional restaurant delivery, keeping the farm stand stocked, responding to emails, filing paperwork, and advertising consumed my time. So, when I returned to Western Massachusetts in the spring of 2012, I came prepared with a well thought-out strategy: I planted varieties that I knew were popular and had worked well in the past and eliminated restaurants from my business model; they simply paid too little to make it worth my time. I could earn double the money selling my goods directly to consumers at markets and through the farm stand. I picked the two farmers' markets that had been the most successful in the past and kept my farm stand religiously stocked. I started an email newsletter, and took my social media presence to new heights. The 2012 season was certainly more successful than 2011, and I finally felt like I had developed my rhythm -- but there were still significant challenges.

Over the course of two seasons of farming, despite selling as much produce as I possibly could each week through a variety of different outlets, it was impossible to make a profit, let alone break even. The detailed records I kept indicate that I made back only 40 percent of my initial capital investment. Sure, I only farmed a quarter of an acre, but many other farmers that I spoke with echoed my financial challenges -- even those with farms much larger than mine. I remember speaking with one farmer from Hinsdale, New York, who told me that he had been farming for six years and had yet to break even. Even in one of the nation's local food hotbeds (the Berkshires, Hudson Valley, and Vermont arguably form the epicenter of the East Coast local food movement), farming on a small and sustainable scale was a struggle.

It's widely recognized and accepted that our national, industrial-based food system is broken. But my experience made me wonder: Is the local food and small farm movement sustainable going forward? I certainly hope it is, but there are serious issues that we, as an increasingly food-conscious society, must address. Here are a few of the most pressing concerns that I discovered over my two years of farming.

Lack of Regulation

This is perhaps the most crucial challenge at current. On the one hand, bureaucracy and many unnecessary regulations bog down our current agricultural system. The organic certification debate exemplifies this situation. When the organic food movement first came into existence in the early 1970s, it was a beacon of sustainability and environmental consciousness. Now, the organic label enables farmers to sell their produce for more money, but only after costing those same farmers an enormous amount of money up front for the certification process. Yet while organic certification is one of the most heavily regulated processes in the food industry, at this point there are still astonishingly few rules that govern the local food movement. While I don't advocate for cumbersome bureaucracy, it is absurd that any farm, retail institution, or restaurant can slap a "local" label on their goods and charge more for those items. While we like to think that most of these institutions are being honest, I came across many farmers' markets where venders simply re-sold industrial produce (often from the other side of the country), all under the auspices of a local label. There are few laws that cover the local food movement, and while some markets choose to self-regulate (by becoming "grower only" markets), there is no universal standard. For the local food movement to grow, there must be standards in place to ensure that small, community-based farms have an opportunity to flourish in a fair market.

Immense Barriers to Entry

Though many may not realize it, we live in an age where more and more people (especially young and educated people) are choosing farming as a career path. But after talking to a lot of these farmers and experiencing the business side of agriculture firsthand, I realized that small farms have everything going against them. The whole point of the local food movement is that agriculture should be more community based and farms more sustainable. But due to the high price of gas, seeds, equipment, land, and just about every source of input a farmer needs, it is very hard for a small farmer to make a profit. Before the season even begins, a farmer is well in the red, and he or she can barely make up for this de facto debt over the short growing season. Yes, farming is inherently risky, and sure, there are boutique farms that have figured out successful business models (selling to high-end restaurants or profitable community-supported agriculture programs, for example), but for the most part, our current agricultural system is not set up in a way that allows small farms to thrive. Our government gives subsidies to large, industrial operations while mostly turning its back on more sustainable, smaller farms. New small farmers currently rely, for the most part, on private organizations and non-profits for assistance, grants, and guidance (I benefited from one of these groups in the Berkshires), but it's not enough. The government needs to step up and help the community-based farm movement grow.

Socioeconomic Exclusion

A farmer that plants only a few acres relies on customers of a certain socio-economic class to buy his or her produce. Let's take lettuce for example. By the end of this past summer's season, I was selling my "All-Star Lettuce Mix" for $4 per half-pound bag. This wasn't a fancy variety of greens, just a simple lettuce mix that you could find in any grocery store--where it would be sold for half the price. My price was simply the going farmers' market retail price in the region, right in line with my fellow farmers, no higher. Yet the produce at my farmers' market, for example, was financially out of reach for most of the full-time residents of the town where the market was located. In these rural, usually economically struggling areas, small, boutique farms cater to the weekenders and vacationers that can afford such expensive produce. This is perhaps the most unusual irony of the local food movement: The locals can't afford to eat locally. Many "locals," who live right next to bountiful farms, are forced to buy industrially grown produce from the big box supermarkets simply because these stores are significantly cheaper. An apple grown in Chile is often less expensive than one produced in Western Massachusetts, despite the invisible fossil fuel investment.

Our nation was built upon a network of small, diversified farms. While it's clear that the local food movement is thriving in many regions (New England, California, the Pacific Northwest), as a producer, it became apparent to me that there are serious policy issues that must be addressed before this movement can fully thrive and achieve its goal of fixing our broken and unsustainable industrial food and agriculture system. Handing a customer a bag of produce that I had picked only a few hours prior was one of the most gratifying experiences I have ever had. Over the course of the two seasons, the farm produced more than two tons of food, and I can't think of a better use for a previously unused patch of grass. But perhaps the most rewarding aspect of my work on October Mountain Farm was fully realizing the complexity of the local food movement. I only picked a few areas of concern to highlight; there are many more to discuss. After my time in the field and at the market, however, it became clear to me that with a few concrete policy changes, the local food movement might be able to actually fix our food system. Now that's a reason to keep on trying.