Saying farewell to woe-is-me farming

Posted March 15th, 2005 at

By Brian Snyder

There is probably no more familiar stereotype when it comes to agriculture than the farmer who constantly complains about the weather, the markets, the neighbors and practically anything else that might fit under the heading of “unpredictable” in a farmer’s daily routine.

Recently I learned firsthand that this stereotype is so strong that members of the news media will even hear and report it just that way, no matter how positive the message crafted for them.

Such news stories usually go on to talk about how farms just keep getting bigger and more “efficient,” leaving the common farmer and his family to struggle with rising costs, unstable prices and the paradoxical need to go further into debt in order, supposedly, to increase profitability.

The alternatives, we are told, are either to sell out to the real estate vultures circling overhead or to convert the farm to serving a “niche” market.

Of course, niche-market farming, at least by itself, is really nothing more than conventional, commodity-based farming with an elite or more obscure base of target customers. This makes me think of an investor who specializes in a particular type of company or product that still happens to be part of the overall stock market.

It’s hard to express how weary I often feel when faced with this pervasive misunderstanding about the options facing farmers these days. Sometimes I walk into a meeting in Harrisburg and feel like a sign just lit up in the room saying “Here comes the niche-farming guy—please try to be nice!”

This is why I feel so refreshed, even invigorated by one of the fastest-growing segments of agriculture today, leading us to consider the real alternative to doom-and-gloom conventional thinking about agriculture.

I’ll sum up this rather revolutionary concept: Many farmers are producing wholesome, healthy food for people, as opposed to mere commodities for any kind of market.

When speaking at various venues around Pennsylvania, I often say, “There has never been a better time to be a farmer.” The reason for this enthusiasm is that consumers themselves are just now beginning to wake up to the reality of the situation.

There is mounting evidence—and it eventually will grow like a snowball—that it actually matters how food is produced, especially when it comes to determining the overall health of our farms, families and communities.

Farmers who understand this situation will prosper as they adjust their attitudes and methods to serve in a more comprehensive way the needs of people who ultimately consume their products. Those who prosper the most will, in fact, be those who know and are intimately involved with the well-being of their customers.

There are really two different but complementary trends that may lead to success for any attentive, hard-working farmer, either as an individual or as part of a larger alliance or cooperative.

Not only are consumers looking for safe and nutritious food from local farms, but many farmers are finding new ways to provide an increasing diversity of such products to their customers through a number of creative market channels. Such channels include sales directly to local restaurants, grocery stores, schools, consumer buying clubs and, increasingly, subscription-buying options right at the farm gate.

Farmers and consumers who wish to know more about these exciting trends in agriculture will be interested to hear that a local network of interested individuals, businesses and organizations will soon be presenting their ideas at a program titled “Making the Local Food Connection: Expanding Markets for Locally Produced Food in Central Pennsylvania.”

The program will be held Monday at the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Livestock Evaluation Center in Pennsylvania Furnace. Local farmers are especially welcome to participate.

All told, today’s positive trends in agriculture can best be characterized as both a reconnection of healthy families to the sources of their food, and a deepening commitment on the part of farmers to provide only the highest-quality products to people who are, after all, not only their friends and neighbors, but also the social force that can keep the developers away from the door.

Ultimately, this means that the time of the weeping and wailing farmer may soon begin to pass away, as the magic that occurs when a farm and its customers share a common set of interests will turn “Woe is me” into “Good for us!”

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