The Importance of Local Commercialization for Small Farmers around the World

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In October 2015, a caravan of high luxury SUVs and police escorts suddenly invaded the small, agrarian community in the mountains of El Salvador where I live with my family. Bill Clinton, Frank Giustra, a key player in the Canadian mining industry and a partner in the Clinton Foundation, and Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire, all showed up in this hidden part of the world to promote a project financed by the Clinton Foundation.

The project collaborated with the Callejas family of El Salvador, owner of the largest supermarket chain in the country, and was supposedly set up as a way to help small farmers in my community market their products to the national supermarket chain. The underlying logic of the project assumed that farmers would not be able to make a living by selling their crops to the local market by themselves and thus needed the help and professional assistance of a national supermarket chain to “brand” the crops produced by the farmers and take them into distant urban centers to be sold.

About a year after that unexpected visit, several small farmers in my community decided to stop growing the lettuce, spinach, and other commodity crops that they sold to the supermarket chain. With the help of a small NGO, these small farmers came up with a production plan, designed their own logos for the different value added products they made from their harvests, and began to sell to the weekend tourists that visited and in the small farmers markets in nearby towns.

Artisan wines fermented from the abundant peach orchards and strawberry fields, jellies and jams from other fruits, and homemade granola from amaranth and wheat grown during the dry season were just a few of the innovative value added products that small farmers in my region produced and marketed by themselves for the local community.

While many farmers continue to sell to the supermarket chain and others produce monocultures of cabbage and onion purchased by intermediaries to be sold in the capital, the local marketing initiatives autonomously controlled and structured by the farmers themselves have become one of the most important economic advantages to small farmers in my region. While the somewhat discriminatory prevailing logic is that farmers are too uneducated to be able to market their crops and value added products by themselves, the experience with small farmers in my Salvadoran community has proven quite the opposite.

Situation in the United States

In the United States, small farming families have had an extremely difficult time economically surviving over the years. Back in the 1970´s, the secretary of Agriculture under presidents Nixon and Ford declared to small farmers that they had to “get big or get out”, essentially demonstrating the policy of the U.S. government to prioritize and benefit the mega-agro business corporations producing for the global market over small family farms that produced for the local markets.

Despite these policies and the instability of the global commodity market which can ruin the economic potential of a harvest overnight, small farmers continue to be an important part of the rural demographic in the United States. While the percent of people engaged in farming as a main occupation has dropped from 38% in 1900 to under 2% today, small family farms under 200 acres make up 88% of all farms in America.

Furthermore, while the average age of farmers in the United States has been steadily growing towards 60 years old, the number of farmers aged 25 to 34 has actually increased between 2007 and 2012. This growing number of young farmers is primarily small farmers who are trying to find a way to make a living through taking advantage of the rise in local farmers markets and other local marketing initiatives.

Local food systems and economies have recently been gaining acceptance by consumers. Concern over the ecological impact of how the mega agribusiness companies grow food and raise animals along with health concerns related to increasing toxicity of the foods sold at our supermarkets have led many people towards embracing organically produced foods by local farmers.

This niche market has allowed many small farmers to market their crops at a higher than market price and thus make a sustainable economic profit. According to one study, the “direct to consumer” marketing by local farmers grossed 4.8 billion dollars in 2008 alone. This number should only continue to increase, and thus presents a golden opportunity for small farmers in the U.S. (like the small farmers in my Salvadoran community) to make a living off the land.

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The Importance of Marketing

While simply showing up at the farmers market with a basket of tomatoes and corn on the cob might certainly bring in a small profit, learning how to add value to products and market those products is an essential skill that small farmers need to learn.

Over the years, the general American population has learned to identify food with brands. This “supermarket mentality” has essentially brainwashed us into believing that brand-named foodstuffs are preferable to the anonymous and generic food products, even if the former are healthier and locally produced.

Small farmers who are attempting to conquer a space within the local food economy then, urgently need to learn to market and commercialize their products. While this might not be a traditional agrarian skill, the “new” small farmer should be well versed in the latest internet-marketing schemes as a way to interact with local consumers. Caring for the soil will always be an essential skill of the good farmer. Today, however, the successful farmer will likewise need to learn to care for their email-marketing list.

One of the most important aspects of successfully obtaining a profit from local marketing schemes is learning to brand your crops and products. Small farmers need to find a company that offers a quality logo design such as those offered by this company. A good logo will allow you to develop a longstanding relationship with a core group of clients who will learn to identify the quality of the goods you sell locally.

Finding ways to economically sustain a small farming business has never been easy. The strengthening of local food economies, however, offers promise and potential to small farmers who embrace the opportunity to interact directly with the people who eat their food.