A consortium of partners seeks to stem the flow of the “disappearing middle” from family farming
Creating and expanding markets that value intrinsic qualities such as “locally produced” hold keys to saving this disappearing segment of agriculture, says Leopold Center Director Fred Kirschenmann.

By Dan Sullivan

Washington state to kick off prototype structure for dynamic farmer-based food partnerships

By Greg Bowman

One effort to strengthen farms in the middle is the developing concept of a national Association of Family Farms. This farmer-driven “value chain” within the food system would be loosely organized into flexible associations at interlocking local, state and national levels.

Leading advocacy for the AFF concept has been Larry Yee, director of Ventura County’s Cooperative Extension in California. He will soon complete a year’s temporary assignment in Washington, D.C., with the Cooperative State Research Extension and Education Service (CSREES) of the USDA. He has promoted this concept around the country for comment and refining, finding broad interest from many corners of the U.S.

By providing a nationwide brand and logo -- while depending on creative and entrepreneurial bottom-up organizing by farmers using sustainable methods, processors, distributors and others – farmers could both pass on more value to consumers and maintain greater control over the process, Yee says.

More and more consumers want an emotional connection to their food, a trend that gains strength with every new disclosure of the vulnerabilities of our current industrial food-production model, he has found. Starting local to build partnerships that link together across the country in common cause can bring “farms in the middle” into contact with these consumers like never before, he believes.

In a brief visit to The Rodale Institute® this week, Yee admitted there are many things to work out. Farmers working with others in the food chain in their regions are the best people to do this, and the work is about to get serious later this month.

Washington state ag and food interests will meet Feb. 25 to confirm their plans to establish the first prototype of this local-food friendly, vertically integrated ag sector effort. Hosting the session is the Institute of Rural Innovation and Stewardship (IRIS) at Wenatchee Valley College. http://www.iris.wvc.edu/about.html

Kent Mullinex, IRIS director, said Washington proponents of the AFF concept decided to focus on a single crop to establish a base. Little surprise, the crop is apples. “The goal is not to make Washington apples more dominant across the country,” he assures apple growers in the rest of the country. Efforts will probably go toward increasing per capita consumption in apple-growing areas, using regional and perhaps even national promotions that will promote the many benefits of apples grown close to home.

He expects family-scale apple growers at the Feb. 25 meeting, as well as other “food-system stakeholders” including packer/shippers, apple marketers, marketing business specialists, state department of ag leaders, and state economic development experts. Those attending recognize the current marketing system for apples is not working for family farmers, and are willing to work at improvements.

While the food system needs wholesale change, farmers have to start where they are. “We’ll begin with returning profitability to the farmer,” he predicts. Imagining how an alliance family farmers and supportive regional business and other supporters can change the bigger picture will come next.

For background on the AFF concept, contact Yee (202) 720-4564 lyee@csrees.usda.gov

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Check out a related commentary

February 13, 2004: Academics across a wide range of disciplines, farmers, NGOs, the USDA’s SARE program and the W.K. Kellogg foundation have joined forces to tackle one of the most disturbing trends on today’s agricultural landscape—the escalating loss of mid-sized farms, and the subsequent breakdown of rural communities and degradation to the environment.

Known as the Agriculture of the Middle Program, the effort has produced a white paper outlining the causes, symptoms, and potential ways to help these farmers maintain their livelihoods. The paper can be viewed at http://www.agofthemiddle.org/, along with several other related articles and documents.

What the project is decidedly not, Fred Kirschenmann told The New Farm, is another prescription for farmers telling them how they might go about solving their problems. Rather, he said, it’s an approach that gives full credit to the symptom—a broken system—and seeks to create markets that value and respond to these farmers and their contributions to the marketplace and to society.

Kirschenmann is director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

“We have to stop talking in terms of what farmers can do, how they can do this and that,” Kirschenmann said. “They are caught in a system that’s failing them.”

It’s up to the entire universe of people who care about such issues to help figure out ways these farmers can survive “other than exercising the obvious options of either getting out or having someone work off the farm,” Kirschenmann said. And time is running out, he said.

“Some highly entrepreneurial farmers have been able to develop direct markets…but the number of those opportunities is relatively limited.

“Our view of what we now need to do—that is, all of us interested in a different food system—is we all need to join together to develop another system of food production that farmers can participate in, rather than saying ‘You have these options; go do it.’ I think a different approach is absolutely necessary or we are going to see a tremendous attrition…

“The majority of the farmers that I talk to are absolutely in survival mode now.” The only options they can see, Kirschenmann said, is generating more off-farm income or adding more units to generate more on-farm income, “and that’s the treadmill most of them are on.”

“I think the really bright aspect is there is a market there that these farmers can supply.”

Consumers want more

According to market studies, Kirschenmann said, 25 percent of the consuming public has indicated by their shopping habits that they are willing to pay more for products that are locally grown, organic or somehow otherwise differentiated by the way in which they are produced. These markets have to grow if this “disappearing middle”—just over 80 percent of farms and shrinking, according to 1997 figures*—is to survive, he said.

“We’ve got that pool of farmers in the middle that’s roughly 70 percent of farmers … and we can keep many of them on the land if we create this infrastructure in the middle that is really this value chain in which all of these values are honored...and one of them is that farmers are compensated adequately for their contributions.

“That’s the shot that we’ve got; the question is can we put it in place in time?”

In Iowa in 1982, there were three times as many farmers under the age of 35 as there were farmers over 65, according to the white paper recently published by the Agriculture of the Middle Project. That statistic had exactly reversed by 1997 and reflect a national trend, the paper stated.

“Right now what we’re seeing is kind of a bipolar situation. We’ve got the small, diversified markets on one end and the mass commodity markets on other end serving a few very large retail firms,” the Center director said.

As for creating the market in the middle, Kirschenmann said, “I don’t think it has to only be locally produced or only be organic. It’s about quality, something that when people eat it they want it again. They also want the story, which can take on a number of different dimensions: knowing the farmer, knowing he practiced good environmental stewardship of the land, that he treats his animals well. There are a number of things that people can identify with and want to support.
“It also has to have absolute transparency; this is a really skeptical group.” These conscious consumers want to know not only that there’s a story behind the food but that there are mechanisms in place to ensure that the story is authentic, he said.

“In my own view, and I’ve been making this case for a long time, I think the [organic] industry is taking it in a different direction. What made organics so attractive in the early days is that it was quite clear that the food was produced by local family farmers who subscribed to a certain set of values, and people wanted to support that. It was all about differentiation. The industry is taking organics in a much more industrial direction and in the process it’s lost its differentiation.”

Kirschenmann cited the Leopold Center’s recent eco-label study in which 76 percent of consumer participants chose produce labeled “grown locally by family farmers” over produce labeled with other word combinations, including “grown locally-organic” (which came in a distant second at 14 percent).

“My guess is that some of this, at least, has to do with the notion of romance and trust that ‘produced locally by a family farmer’ elicits. This should be a real wake-up call to the organic industry that it’s going to have to become part of this movement if it’s going to have the growth that it’s had. Otherwise, it’s going to lose its attractiveness.”