The Golden Rules of Sustainability

by:

in: Soapbox

Kurt Timmermeister

I like small local farms, and I want them to be prosperous. Small farms across the country produce better quality food, they are great stewards of the land and utilize less transportation costs in selling their products. Although I grow nearly all of my own food, when I do venture out and shop at the local farmers market, I want to see viable small farms selling great products. And I want to see them in business the next year as well.

We often focus on sustainability in discussions of small farms and local food. What we tend to talk about is whether their agricultural practices are part of a system that can perpetuate good soils, clean water and healthy food well into the future. Although these are legitimate concerns, I look at sustainability and small farms differently.

The definition of a sustainable farm should depend primarily on whether the farm is financially viable; whether it is profitable enough to continue in business for the next year and for many years to come. Whether it can sustain itself. Even better, the designation should include the possibility that the children of the farmers will want to take over the farm when they are old enough. If I saw a farm where children happily forgo a career in law or finance to return from college and carry on their parents’ legacy, that would be the definition of a sustainable farm.

Sustainable pricing is key

The greatest impediment to such sustainability is low pricing. After a few early years of attempting to be a vegetable farmer. I was not particularly adept at growing vegetables and fell into the trap of under-pricing my produce. When I failed financially in the vegetable business, I switched to the dairy business. When I had a nice herd of cows and was fully licensed and ready to bring my farmstead cheese to market, I asked cheese mongers I knew for help on pricing.

What I was quickly told was that I needed to determine how much it cost me to produce my cheese and how much money I needed every year to stay in business. My calculations were dramatically higher than I expected. Sadly, as a result, the selling price for my locally produced European-style cheese was much higher than similar imported European varieties. No matter, the cheese mongers advised me. Their desire was to have me still in business in five years, not broke and burned out in two.

I don’t see this mind-set in many small farms, especially vegetable growers. My cheese sells in spite of its higher price because it has a brand; because it is unique. The cheese I produce on my farm is essentially Camembert, a widely-sold fresh, bloomy rind cheese. I do not sell it as Camembert, but rather as Dinah’s Cheese, a locally produced farmstead cheese; a unique, branded product.

Farmers selling carrots unfortunately compete with all carrots — both other carrots at farmers markets but also carrots in the local supermarket. But the carrots produced in bulk on large industrial farms have tremendous economies of scale. The carrots sold in the local farmers markets do not. They have no economies to make them profitable.

Branding the carrot

The great challenge of the local farmer is to brand his or her carrots; to sell them as a unique product, one that is inherently different from its supermarket cousins. This is a tremendous challenge.

The local farm selling carrots must take the same advice that I was given — determine the sale price needed to continue producing those carrots and stick to it, no matter how cheaply another stall is selling theirs or the latest price at the big box supermarket.

Only by educating the buyers will growers be successful. Even though the hand-tended carrots look very much like the mass-marketed version, they are different. They were seeded by hand, thinned by hand, weeded by hand, picked by hand, all in soil cared for by farmers concerned with the long-term viability of their farms and the health of their customers. That attention and painstaking work must be paid for.

We have collectively moved so far from the source of our food, or rather the farms have moved so far away from us, that we really don’t know that there is a difference between these two carrots. An entire generation has lost a connection to their food, and, important for this discussion, lost the knowledge of how food is produced on a small scale. I pay the higher price for a local, hand-tended carrot because I want there to be small farms near my home, because I think they are of better quality, fresher and better for me health-wise.

If small local farms can successfully brand their carrots and likewise their oats, shell beans, cheese and pork chops and, equally, if they can price those hand-tended products to reflect the labor involved, then there is a chance that our local agriculture will survive. Sadly, branding cheese is easier than branding a carrot. The small local vegetable farms have a challenge in front of them. Large-scale agriculture successfully crowded out the small farms through their economies of scale. Small farms will never win on price and must stop attempting to. They can succeed by differentiating their carrots; branding them as unique and pricing them at a true sustainable price.


This week’s Zester Daily soapbox contributor Kurt Timmermeister is the owner of Kurtwood Farms on Vashon Island, near Seattle. Using milk from his Jersey cows he makes fresh farmstead Dinah’s Cheese. He is also the author of “Growing a Farmer, How I Learned to Live Off the Land.

Photo: Kurt Timmermeister. Credit: Clare Barboza

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To win a copy of Kurt Timmermeister’s book, “Growing a Farmer,” enter this week’s Zester Daily  contest.

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