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To Market! To Market!

How Infrastructure Hampers Small Farmers and Healthy Food

Ron Samascott organizes apples from his orchard in Kinderhook, N.Y. at the Union Square Greenmarket on Friday, June 20, 2008 in New York. SOURCE: AP/MARK LENNIHAN New policies are in the works to contain food safety problems after they appear, but we need a comprehensive federal policy that helps get safe, fresh food from farms to local markets. Above: Ron Samascott organizes apples from his orchard in Kinderhook, N.Y. at the Union Square Greenmarket on Friday, June 20, 2008 in New York.

One of my favorite places to visit during the apple harvest is a small apple orchard just over the southern Vermont border in the Taconic Mountains of New York State called Perry’s Orchard. This is no ordinary orchard—it is the only one around that sells unpasteurized cider. Unpasteurized cider, also known as “raw” cider, is uncommon because the state banned its sale in 2007. New York Agriculture and Market Law, Article 17, section 214-N now states any person selling apple cider must complete a “five log,” which means 99.999 percent, reduction in pathogens, usually accomplished through pasteurization or ultraviolet radiation. When this law was proposed Perry’s Orchard and its customers drafted a petition to lobby against the New York Apple Association, which supported the legislation. Although they lost the fight, Perry found a clever loophole to satisfy his customer base. He still sells raw cider for the purpose of making cider wine, cider vinegar, and hard cider. Legal counsel told him to require customers to sign a waiver stating they were buying the cider for the stated purposes only. At Perry’s Orchard, you must sign before you buy, and drink raw cider at your own risk! His customers are clearly unperturbed: 2009 was ahead of 2008 in raw cider sales. Perry’s response to the dominant paradigm that customers only want treated cider is, “That’s funny, all mine want raw cider.”

Small farmers don’t need more loopholes to squeeze through. What they need is comprehensive federal policy, spanning the USDA and the FDA, which will support an infrastructure for getting safe, fresh food to market.

The story of Perry’s Orchard represents an exception to the dominant narratives of consolidation, unsafe food, and lack of transparency in America’s food system. Perry’s Orchard also represents a contradiction worth exploring in detail. Despite century-long policymaking that has supported the growth of large farms and concentration of power in food production and processing within each agricultural commodity sector, small farms persist. Ninety-one percent of all the farms in the United States—1,995,133 farms—are small farms, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture defines as those that produce under $250,000 in annual sales. Furthermore, the USDA 2007 Census of Agriculture shows that the number of farms across the nation has increased for the first time since World War II, by 4 percent, and the new farms that have entered agriculture since 2002 have tended to be smaller than the national average and more diverse, producing under 50 percent of sales of more than one commodity. These striking figures make a question that has beleaguered scientists still relevant: If the story of modernization is one of movement towards efficiency and economies of scale, why do small farms persist?

Small farms supply products in increasing demand, including locally grown and organic food. This food, by and large, is traceable and healthy—two of the main goals of HR 2749, the Food Safety Enhancement Act, currently before the Senate. But these small farms are limited by infrastructural constraints and a messy regulatory environment that make it difficult to get their goods to market, and the current situation is untenable. They are hamstrung and marginalized by federal regulations that, while intended to support food safety, concentrate power in the hands of corporate processors—particularly when it comes to meat processing.

The Obama administration made a commitment to addressing national food safety, and just appointed Michael R. Taylor to a new post at the Food and Drug Administration to oversee the issue. And the Food Safety Enhancement Act, the long-needed comprehensive reform in food safety regulation, seeks to expand FDA oversight of non-USDA regulated agricultural products in order to create a federal registry of food processors both in the United States and countries that export products to the United States, to require a food safety plan and to improve traceability of foods. These are worthy goals, but the legislation does not actually address the root problems of food safety, particularly those dealing with confinement of livestock, overexposure of animals to manure, and all-grain diets—the source of many of our fatal E. coli outbreaks—nor does it support the farms and food processors that already produce safe and traceable food. The Food Safety Enhancement Act provides exemptions to USDA regulated food products, which include meat, poultry and eggs, to farms that grow and process their own products if consumed on farm, and to farms that sell the majority of their products directly to consumers. For small farms that produce cheese, jams, ciders, or lacto-fermented foods, for example, they would have pay to register with the FDA and follow the reporting procedures outlined by the act. Small farms and processors are typically understaffed and do not have dedicated employees to deal with record keeping and reporting, so the Food Safety Enhancement Act would allow for a grace period of two to three years for small businesses to comply with new standards.

Small farmers don’t need more loopholes to squeeze through. What they need is comprehensive federal policy, spanning the USDA and the FDA, which will support an infrastructure for getting safe, fresh food to market. This would promote economic and environmental efficiency, as many producers must currently drive small quantities of goods long distances to reach customers. It would also promote competition and build trust and transparency into a national food system plagued in recent years by outbreaks of food-borne illness.

A better system would:

  • Reward those who produce safe, healthy food in a transparent and accountable manner instead of only penalizing those who don’t
  • Build regional transportation systems to get produce to market efficiently. This could include rail, water, or shared truck-shipping solutions
  • Support increased local and regional produce sourcing in supermarkets as well as independent distributors and cooperatives that work directly with local farms
  • Facilitate interstate commerce by synchronizing state and federal food safety rules for produce and meat processing and promoting more state oversight of food inspection.

These steps would both nurture an ecosystem of small, entrepreneurial farms, and steer our food safety infrastructure away from the systemic problems that led to outbreaks of food-borne illness in meat, tomatoes, and peanut products in recent years.

Small farm economics

To return to the question of why small farms persist in spite of unfavorable federal legislation, it can be tempting to explain the persistence of small farms in terms that render them “out of date” with modern life. While I don’t agree with these explanations, they exist. Some critics say small farmers are economically irrational: they privilege household reproduction over material profit and will rely on self-exploitation of the family unit to ensure it. Thus they are not, and may never be, entrepreneurs, which is disadvantageous because farming is ultimately a business. Another explanation is that small farms are remnants of the past. They will surely and swiftly become subsumed by industrial agriculture. Their days are numbered.

The persistence of small farms is not antithetical to other types of farms; they are simply viable institutions in their own right. This is what I, and many other researchers, have deduced from empirical work. Small farms persist because they can adapt, albeit not easily nor without risk or failure, to changing markets, changing technologies, and changing environmental parameters. In our current times of dynamic economies as well as climates, small farms will play a larger role in the future. The USDA is beginning to recognize this and has created the umbrella initiative “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” to highlight programs that support small farmers and local food systems. Using Perry’s Orchard as an example of an adaptive operation, I must note that Perry isn’t actually only an orchardist. Like many small farmers, he is diversified. He raises chickens, sells eggs, apple wood, holiday turkeys and cows—some butchered to sell at his farm shop, and others, as he prefers it, sold by order and pre-payment. Turns out the pre-pay scenario reflects another loophole in the law on which Perry depends, that livestock sold by pre-pay can be slaughtered and butchered on-farm, rather than at a USDA-inspected facility, of which there are few around. This loophole greatly reduces the cost of meat processing, which can be up to $2 per pound, as well as alleviates the pressure for farmers to transport their animals to processing facilities.

Since small farms are viable institutions, it is unfortunate that they have been at the mercy of state and federal policies and, like Perry’s Orchard, surviving in spite of dominant policy prescriptions by finding loopholes and margins to exist in. Living at the regulatory margins, small farms have little support, and the infrastructural challenges that farmers in the northeast face are a result of this. Currently the exploding interest in local foods has hit a bottleneck due to processing and distribution infrastructure. Isn’t it time that we help small farms move from the regulatory margins back into the spotlight in order to provide the structures they need to get their product to market?

Small farms at the regulatory margins

The surge of interest in direct farm-to-consumer sales has been a boon to small farmers around the New York and Vermont state border where I currently live. In both states, direct sales through farmers’ markets and community supported agriculture, commonly referred to as CSA, have increased in rural towns as well as cities, particularly in New York City, the largest market in this area. The demand is so great in New York City that CSA shares are bought and sold in an informal market that is hotter than real estate. Going on vacation for two weeks and worried about missing your CSA pick-ups? Sell your two-week share on Craig’s List as a “vacation share!”

As wonderful as direct markets have been for consumers and producers in the New York City region, there are real infrastructural constraints that prevent farmers from being able to fully benefit from, and engage in, direct markets. The first constraint is distribution. Farms are left to find their own distribution networks because intermediary distributors are not common in the New York–Vermont area. The problem is that it is not cost effective, nor energetically efficient, for farmers in Southern Vermont and the upper Hudson River Valley to truck small amounts of produce to New York City 180 miles away. A creative way that Lewis Waite Farm, a grass-fed beef and pork operation in Washington County, New York, has dealt with this dilemma is to act as a distributor of farm goods from neighbor farms. They make monthly deliveries of their, as well as seventeen other neighbor farms’ products, to CSAs all over New York City. Lewis Waite essentially uses CSAs as their retail outlets, taking orders from members and making monthly deliveries. It is a smart model; their retail space has no overhead. CSA organizers as well as the CSA vegetable farmers are more than happy to accommodate them, even provide them with free labor for access to their products. I was one such CSA organizer. I did get a free steak once in a while, but the reasons that I organized the Lewis Waite portion of our CSA is because I liked buying their products, wanted my CSA to have more varied groceries at its disposal, and wanted the Lewis Waite partner farms to have access to NYC markets. As some researchers are finding, local and organic agriculture promotes civic engagement by consumers, as in this case. But is it sustainable to base the livelihood of small farmers on the good citizenship of CSA organizers? My CSA always struggled to find new volunteers to take over the first generation of core group members’ duties. It is not easy to recruit new volunteers, and we have had to pay people to help.

In addition to the challenge of distribution, meat-processing facilities are also not common in the New York–Vermont area. It is the major bottleneck for meat producers, especially those that are organically certified. They need to use a meat processor that is organically certified to label their meat “organic” and they need to use a USDA-licensed meat processor to sell meat over state lines. Currently there are two USDA certified butchers within 85 miles, and no organic smokehouse, so bacon and smoked meats cannot be certified organic. The two processors typically have waits of up to a month to get animals in, and it can take another month to get butchered meat back. They do not do specialty cuts, or use requested sausage recipes, nor do they always return oddities like innards, heads, or hoofs when requested. Most distressing to farmers is that they are not sure if they get all of their animal back, or if the cuts that they get back are from their animal. Traceability is not just something we should worry about for consumers; farmers are in need of help here too. If the people who produce the meat are not sure if the meat they get back from the butcher is their own, then consumers certainly can’t be sure.

Vermont passed legislation in January of 2009 to address the lack of meat processing facilities. In Section 5 of Act 207 they approved on-farm slaughter by itinerant butchers. In order to butcher on farm, however, the final customer must already own the animals. This is attractive to Perry, who sells beef as a sideline to his apple orchard, but not to Tilldale Farm, a conventional dairy that transitioned to organic pork and beef in Rensselaer County, New York. They cringe at the thought of using an itinerant butcher. Where would they set up, how would they clean up? Would it be cost effective? Tilldale Farm aims to sell 40-50 cows per year—that’s roughly 4 animals per month. The barriers to using the method of itinerant butchering seem so great that they would rather keep up the 85-mile drive to the processor that they are currently using. The cost of processing alone is $2 per pound, not including transport and labor, but it is still a more attractive option that on-farm slaughter. In spite of the costs, they like the final product they receive from their current butchers. But the numbers just don’t make sense. What shocks Dan Tilley is when center cut pork chops are sold for $1.99 per pound in the local supermarket, “How is that price even possible?” he wonders.

The Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1987 mandated that all state processing facilities be “at least equal” to national standards and banned interstate sales of meat inspected by state agencies, leading to the death of many state inspection programs. Today only 27 states have an inspection program, but for many producers, especially those who live near state borders like the New York–Vermont region, interstate sales are very important and so state-inspected facilities are not a viable option. If state inspected facilities are supposed to be “at least equal” to that of the USDA, then why the ban on interstate sales?

Supporting the institution of the small farm

While direct markets have fostered new opportunities for small farmers, the reliance on farmers themselves to deliver their goods to market, or on customers to go to the farm themselves to buy products, should not be the only way to structure a food system to include small farms. The latest legislation seems to be focused too much on enabling on-farm processing and sales. The Vermont Farm Fresh Milk Restoration Act that went into effect in January of 2009 increased raw milk sales to 40 gallons per day. Sale of raw milk on farm is not going to make up for the price reduction of $1 and imposition of production quotas set by all of the organic milk companies in the state. Nor are raw milk sales going to make up for the lowering of conventional prices for milk to below the costs of production. In the world of meat processing legislation, allowing pre-slaughter sale of meat to enable on-farm slaughter may be a well-intentioned policy for small farms, but how many people want to buy a half, let alone an entire, cow? How many farmers really want to butcher on-premises, or use an itinerant butcher?

Small farmers need more enhanced distribution markets, from farm to processors and farm to market. Tilldale farm is on a train line—imagine if they could ship their meat by rail? It would save 170 miles of fuel and driving time. Scott Stringer, Manhattan borough president, proposed the use of biodiesel for truck transport of agricultural goods to the city, but why have we become so reliant on roads? Waterways first enabled food distribution in this country, then the rail transformed food distribution. Why not revisit rail and water transport? Imagine if Hudson Valley farmers could send their goods down the Hudson to a pier on the west side of Manhattan where CSA members could pick up their shares. This is an old-fashioned, but yet progressive idea. We should also encourage cooperative transport to market, like Lewis Waite is doing. Carpooling is a great way to commute to work, why not to market? Finally, to increase the number of markets available to small farmers, we should consider requiring supermarkets and wholesale distributors to source a percentage of their products locally. There is a fundamental disconnect in a food system that has grocery stores in agricultural areas that sell more (if not all) of their products from across the country and overseas.

Small farmers also need more regionally based processing and packing facilities. It is economically and environmentally inefficient to drive 85 miles to the nearest USDA inspected facility, or to have to forgo organic labeling because there is no organically certified meat processor or smokehouse within range. Furthermore, the meat producers have all pointed to poor service at their processors. They routinely have to wait a month to get their meat back, and they might not even get it all back. They pay $2 per pound just for processing and they are not even sure if they are getting cuts back from the animals that they dropped off! The lack of competition keeps price high and promotes unfair treatment of farmers. If Congress is seriously considering improving the traceability of our food system in the Food Safety Enhancement Act, then the lack of confidence that farmers have towards their processors needs to be addressed. How can we be sure what we are eating if the person who produced it is not sure? Finally, the federal ban on interstate sales has crippled state inspected facilities and farmers.

The institution of the small farm has been relegated to the margins of agriculture in the United States, but it has not been relegated to the margins of our collective consciousness. The small farm still remains at the center of this nation’s agrarian ideal. I have observed many small farmers trying to carve out a life for themselves and for the people they grow food for, and they need help. Vermont and New York have long been renowned for dairy. The crisis in conventional milk prices in the past years was met with a push towards organic certification. Now there is a crisis in the organic dairy market. Farmers who are again responding to economic change deserve a favorable political environment to help them. One of the reasons that the Tilleys are still in business is because they shifted from a conventional dairy to an organic dairy, then to organic, grass-fed pork and beef. When I asked Dan Tilley what practices make his operation sustainable he responded, “by running grass through the animals, allowing them to fertilize the fields, making my own hay, and rotational grazing.” When I asked Joanne Tilley what their thoughts were about policies that affect them she said, “the problem with farmers like us is that we don’t organize ourselves to make our needs known.” The conundrum is clear, the Tilley’s are adept at running their farm, but influencing policy is outside of their line of work.

Valerie Imbruce is the Director of Environmental Studies at Bennington College; her research focuses on small farm participation in local and global food systems.

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