Four Steps to Help Small Farmers

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Emerging Farmers Office (EFO) was created two years ago to help solve some of the problems that small farmers face. Patrice Bailey, Assistant Commissioner of the EFO, says that these problems include access to money and land, mental health support, insurance, and access to information. These challenges can be even greater when the farmer is an immigrant, or is not familiar with the jargon used in documents like grant applications. “It becomes a huge barrier of understanding,” Bailey says. 

Noreen Thomas, who operates Doubting Thomas Farms, lists additional challenges for small producers. The lack of accessible packaging infrastructure means that she and her employees need to package their products by hand. When small farmers do have access to equipment, it’s old and difficult to use. “You’re not going to buy new equipment. You can’t afford it,” says Thomas.

The economy of scale means that big companies provide goods that are cheaper and more convenient than those of small producers. Thomas says that greenwashing — pretending that a product is environmentally friendly — is one of the ways these companies trick consumers and lure them away from small producers. “If [a package] says ‘farmer-owned’,” she says, “ask for names. Because if they can’t name [the farmers], it’s greenwashing.”

Even large companies are starting to recognize the problems faced by small farmers. “A farm grossing $500,000 would struggle to support a family without an additional source of income,” says Maisie Ganzler, strategic advisor for Bon Appétit Management Company, in her new book You Can’t Market Manure at Lunchtime. Written for brands attempting leadership in sustainability, the book shows some of the problems that arise when small farms attempt to make wholesale connections. These include lack of land, which prevents scale-up; lack of truck drivers, limiting the frequency of deliveries; and incompatibility with delayed corporate payment schedules.

“A small business won’t survive paying all its expenses today and getting its revenue six months later,” says Ganzler.

Organic farms, which promote ecological balance, have additional challenges. The work, fees, and requirements for organic certification can be a significant barrier, says Thomas, who says her simplest products often have the most regulation.

Ganzler recounts in her book a conversation with a farmer about the difficulty of complying with organic regulations: “I have one field. If I get a fungal outbreak, I need to be able to use a fungicide as an emergency measure. I can’t afford to  [till back into the ground] an entire season’s worth of produce to maintain organic certification.”

She wrote that “requiring a small farmer to do the requisite record-keeping for organic certification, pay the certification fee, and tie their hands completely so they could never ever use pesticides or fungicides, might be counter to ensuring their success.”

CSAs and Wholesale

Many people in the agricultural sector point to community supported agriculture programs (CSAs) as a solution to the problems faced by small farmers. A CSA is a great way for consumers to get regular deliveries of fresh produce while supporting local farms. CSAs can “reduce financial risk, increase stability, build relationships” for farmers, says Assistant Commissioner Bailey.

But Thomas, who has contributed to CSAs in partnership with other farmers, says that CSAs are a young person’s project. To enact a CSA “takes an incredible amount of energy and tenacity,” she says, and might not be the best solution for all small producers. Selling wholesale to restaurants, schools, co-ops, and other institutions can be a better option.

Minnesota Grown is an avenue for assistance for farmers in Minnesota. Rachel Wandrei, Minnesota Grown’s marketing manager, describes it as “a partnership between the Department of Agriculture and over 1300 farms and farmers markets around the state.”

The partnership provides a license and a unifying brand for small farmers whose products are at least 80 percent grown and raised in Minnesota. The advantage of stickers and signage promoting a unifying brand, Wandrei says, is that “the consumer recognizes and trusts this brand. People are more willing to purchase the product and pay a premium for it.”

Thomas’s Doubting Thomas Farm is a participating farm, benefitting from its packaging cost-share program. She adds that local, informal connections between farmers is essential, especially as support to young women farmers. Local collaborations allow small farmers to share equipment and shipping costs, teach each other how to use old equipment, and help each other with applications for loans, grants, and certifications.

“Women learn by community,” she says.

Beef to Bison, Broccoli to Beeswax

There is a lot that conscientious consumers can do to support small farms with ongoing challenges.

  1. Check the Minnesota Grown directory for produce. The online directory lists over a thousand producers and farmers markets, “from beef to bison, broccoli to beeswax,” says Wandrei. “Cheese, wild rice, maple syrup, honey, Christmas trees. If you’re looking for an apple orchard, go to the Minnesota Grown directory.” The directory includes the ability to search by organic certification, water quality certification, location, and producer identity.
  2. Distance isn’t the only metric for sustainable consumption, Ganzler points out in her book: “There could be an industrial farm with poor practices that’s less than 150 miles away. [Buying] local means supporting small producers who are good stewards of the land and members of the community.”
  3. Minnesota drivers renewing their license plates can now pay extra for an agriculture-specific plate. The proceeds from these plates support Minnesota’s 4H and Future Farmers of America organizations.
  4. Thomas says that speaking up about your purchases is “tremendous.” She suggests that consumers “write a letter, write an email, and say, ‘I go to the store to buy [this produce] because I know this producer, and I know their quality.’” She suggests following the farmers on social media and telling them why you prefer their products.

“It’s very important to vote with your dollar,” says Thomas. “What you’re doing is making a decision on how the land is treated, how the animals are treated. You’re making a vote.”