of farmers’ market management itself—a function
largely invisible to consumers—would make a big difference
in making them more competitive. Customers need not
see the inner workings of a farmers’ market. They are
best done behind the scenes, so the customer can focus on the
food. However, it is unfortunate that farmers, market sponsors,
and local governments are often not more mindful of what is
required to run a farmers’ market well. Most casual observers
have the impression that farmers simply gather spontaneously
to sell. But in fact a lot of work goes into good farmers’
markets, including site selection, producer recruitment, applications,
rules, farm visits, and publicity. The best farmers’ markets
are managed as closely as any business—and also with great
love, the managerial factor most customers seem to appreciate
Unfortunately, most American farmers’ markets are run
by amateurs. I mean that literally. They don’t charge
farmers a fee that makes market management financially viable.
They rely instead on public subsidies, volunteer labor, and
fundraising. Whether farmers’ markets are run by for-profit,
nonprofit, or government agents, the operation of the market
itself should be financially viable. The sole subsidy should
be the use of private and public space for nominal or no rent.
The many ancillary benefits of farmers’ markets, including
urban revitalization and the cultural benefits of bringing
rural and urban people together, make that small contribution
of public squares and quiet streets a worthy public investment.
The best practice for farmers’ markets is independent,
professional, regional management. By professional, I mean
paid; by independent, that management decisions are made independently
of farmers, consumers, landlords, and local businesses. Regional
means that one market manager operates markets on several
When I started London’s first farmers’ markets
in 1999, my strategy to make market management independent,
professional, and regional was deliberate. I understood the
workings of farmers’ markets from three angles. As farmers,
we relied on farmers’ markets for all our income. We
had also started and organized farmers’ markets on public
streets and city parking lots. As a cook, I had shopped at
many farmers’ markets. I knew what worked and what didn’t
for all three parties: farmers, market managers, and customers.
Consider first the farmer’s perspective. Most of the
farmers’ markets we relied on were haphazard efforts
lacking professional management. In the 1990s, my parents
attended only one professionally managed farmers’ market,
in the Washington neighborhood Dupont Circle. We paid 6 percent
of sales to a nonprofit market manager, FreshFarm Markets.
If we take $4,000 on Sunday in peak season, the fee is substantial,
about $240. For this fee, management provides intelligent
producer recruitment, farm inspections, publicity, education,
and other services. Other farmers’ markets, by contrast,
were orphaned by benign neglect or outright indifference by
city or civic sponsors. These unmanaged or under-managed markets
charged very little—we paid a mere $5 to $15 each week—and
sales were lower. You get what you pay for. When I started
the London markets, I knew that my parents would prefer to
pay 6 percent of sales at every farmers’ market they
attended if these markets were professionally managed in a
network by groups like FreshFarm. Our farm is simply too dependent
on markets to let this sales venue languish for inattention
You get what you pay for. . . my
parents would prefer to pay 6 percent of sales at every
farmers’ market they attended if these markets
were professionally managed . . . Our farm is simply
too dependent on markets to let this sales venue languish
Nor did we wish to manage farmers’ markets ourselves.
Farmers’ markets managed by farmers have two downsides:
first, self-management requires farmers to spend valuable
time on committees and paperwork when they would rather be
farming. The second objection is more serious. Over time,
markets run by farmers, or markets where management is independent
from farmers in name only, tend to favor farmers, often in
subtle ways, at the expense of customers. It is all but inevitable
that a producer bias creeps into decisions. Competition tends
to be stifled. Eventually, the quality and diversity of foods
offered to consumers suffers.
Now consider farmers’ markets from the perspective
of market management. Individual markets are money losers
for organizers. That is why most farmers’ markets rely
on volunteers and grants. Even a reasonable fee does not cover
the expenses of running one market. One has to spread the
overhead costs across several sites.
At London Farmers’ Markets, the costs of running 10
weekly markets come entirely from fees paid by farmers, who
pay 6 to 8 percent of sales per market. Sales are reported
on the honor system. We provide electricity for chilled foods
at almost every market. London Farmers’ Markets employs
two fulltime staff and a parttime manager at every market.
The company does not rely on volunteers. We found that we
needed to run ten markets to break even. Consider the following
benefits of regional farmers’ market management à
la London Farmers’ Markets.
Benefits of Regional Farmers’ Market
Overhead is easily shared
in a regional farmers’ market network. The main office
keeps one database of current and potential producers, which
simplifies communication with and recruitment of producers.
The office is responsible for leases and other arrangements
with landlords and spreads all office expenses (phones,
printers, etc) across every market.
Policy is uniform.
Management has one application and one set of rules.
The markets have one brand and logo; all media and community
contacts for each market are kept in one database. One newsletter
for consumers covers all the markets.
Management is coordinated.
The office oversees the development of every market, according
to its needs, consumer demand, and producer availability.
If a network of farmers’ markets also relied on individual,
corporate, or foundation donations for its operating expenses
(LFM does not), these fundraising efforts could be shared
across all the markets.
A farm attending more than one market need only be visited
Managers of a regional network are motivated to find new
market sites and new farmers to raise profile and income
for management. Thus more communities and farmers are served
by new farmers’ markets. Managers of single-site farmers’
markets are less inclined to expand to new sites or recruit
Sales-based fees are an
incentive for the market manager to raise farm income
at the markets. Most markets charge a fee based on space.
The only incentive for market management is to add more
producers. Farmers, however, tend to fight new competition.
But if the market manager can raise sales for all producers,
such turf battles don’t matter.
This business-minded approach—or call it efficiency—need
not be the exclusive territory of commerce. It applies equally
well to farmers’ markets run by for-profit or non-profit
organizations or city, state, or federal government agencies
2. Yet it has seldom
been followed, perhaps because farmers’ market organizers
have often seen local foods as a ‘movement,’ not
a market. There are, of course, other aspects to good farmers’
market management, but they do not concern us here—partly
because they are the stuff of nerdy conversations among farmers’
market managers, but chiefly because professional, regional
market management itself tends to bring about those good habits.
Independent, professional, regional management of multiple
markets is the best way to begin to ensure stable management,
good publicity, sound funding, higher sales, and, ultimately,
satisfied farmers, consumers, and communities. With this change
alone, the number of farmers’ markets could increase
by 50 percent and sales could double. The potential for new
farmers’ markets is considerable. Consider a metropolitan
area such as Washington, D.C., with a population of 3 million.
In the city of Washington itself, there are only five farmers’
markets; it could support ten. Maryland supports nearly 60
farmers’ markets, and most are neglected or poorly managed.
Virginia is similar. The population in suburban Washington
has grown much faster than new farmers’ markets. Greater
Washington could support twice as many markets, especially
if they were properly managed. The same is true in many American
Beyond Farmers’ Markets
||Even if the number of farmers’
markets were to increase by 50 percent . . . and sales
were to double . . . this would still represent only a
tiny fraction (0.2 percent) of the total amount Americans
spend on food . . . To expand the market for local foods,
it is imperative to move beyond farmers’ markets.
Any business or industry would be pleased with doubling sales.
Yet, even if the number of farmers’ markets were to
increase by 50 percent to 4,650 markets, and sales were to
double from $1 billion to $2 billion, this would still represent
only a tiny fraction (0.2 percent) of the total amount Americans
spend on food—$900 billion. To expand the market for
local foods, it is imperative to move beyond farmers’
Here, I would like to note why I don’t use the favored
term in this field, ‘community food system’ or,
sometimes, ‘community food security.’ People speak
of creating a community food system or improving community
food security. I admire the values implied by these terms.
Community implies share interest in a locale or region; security,
a commitment to eradicate ‘food poverty’ (when
nutrition is compromised by lack of access to wholesome foods
for any reason, including income); system, an arrangement
of interlocking parts, each dependent on the other.
However useful these terms are—and many people I respect
use them—I favor the simpler and more capitalistic description
‘the market for local foods.’ Why? Because ultimately
our success in expanding the production, sale, and consumption
of local, ecological, and wholesome foods depends on commerce.
We are referring to producers who sell foods and consumers
(individual or institutional) who buy them. The goal is to
increase the number of producers and consumers, including
the poor, who buy and sell local food. If we focus on the
sale as the basic transaction, we keep this necessity firmly
in mind: the market for local foods must be financially viable
or it will not survive.
Unfortunately, we are up against a conventional food system
that relies substantially on hidden subsidies. Large-scale
cereal and soybean production and factory farming of beef,
pork, chicken, milk, and eggs are held afloat—and food
is kept artificially cheap—in many ways. One is public
subsidies for cereal crops and soybeans, which makes feeding
grain and soy protein to grazing animals, who would naturally
eat grass, artificially cheap. Eighty percent of the fertilizer-
and pesticide-dependent American grain and soybean crop is
fed to livestock, which could be eating naturally abundant
grass instead. Agricultural research has also favored industrial
agriculture. The cooperative extension agents at land-grant
universities have until recently focused almost exclusively
on industrial farming methods, and seldom examined ecological
and small-scale methods. Organic farming methods and direct
marketing were largely inventions of farmers and consumers
themselves, not the result of a government study. Subsidies
for highways and airlines lower the price of global foods
further. Cheap oil itself—used in petroleum-based fertilizers—is
won with billions in the direct and indirect costs of energy
policy—and even war.
From fertilizer to transportation, this industrial agriculture
gobbles up energy. According to Manning, in 1940, the average
American farm used one calorie in fossil fuels to raise food
worth 2.3 calories. By 1974 (the most recent figures available)
the ratio was one to one. That is before one counts the cost
of processing the food or getting it to consumers. These stark
numbers show that this kind of industrial farming is a net
loss. Consider a more tangible example, the one on your plate.
A farmer uses 35 calories in fossil fuels to produce just
one calorie of feed-lot beef; 68 calories to produce one calorie
of pork. Subsidies for all this come to about $15 billion
per year. Two-thirds of that goes to corn and wheat alone.
(Nutritionally, this farm policy is a disaster. Most corn
that isn’t fed to beef becomes corn oil and high fructose
corn syrup. Both are unhealthy 4.)
Businesses in the conventional food chain do not live and
die by the free market, despite the yeoman-farmer rhetoric
of farmers and politicians who support this monstrously wasteful
and inefficient system.
Businesses in the conventional
food chain do not live and die by the free market .
. . Yet we—we who propose an alternative—must.
Yet we—we who propose an alternative—must. Does
anyone trying to build a ‘community food system’
with different values (ecologically sound production of healthy
foods) believe that our side has the political or financial
clout to win such colossal benefits from the public purse?
Our only hope is to make the alternative market for local
foods financially viable for producers, buyers, and, if necessary,
the middleman in between. (The middleman? Surely anathema!
We shall hear more abot the maligned middleman later.) I hasten
to add, however, that certain sound public investments, worth
fighting for, would support and expand the market for local
foods. We should lobby, for example, for school meals to be
made with nutritious local foods. Federal and academic research
should focus on sustainable methods of production for health-related
and environmental benefits. Cities should invest in public
markets to increase sales of regional foods from farmers and
other producers, such cheese makers.
A word about ‘food poverty.’ The term is British.
Americans tend to give it a positive gloss, ‘food security,’
but I appreciate the reminder that we are talking about a
lack, an unmet need. Food poverty takes many forms and has
many causes. Simple food poverty is lack of means to buy adequate
wholesome food. Food poverty is also caused by lack of physical
access to good food. Supermarkets, like banks, follow the
money. That leaves food deserts in poor neighborhoods. Food
poverty can be simple malnutrition, regardless of access to
food or income. In the U.S. today, food poverty may manifest
itself as malnutrition alongside overconsumption of poor quality
foods. A critical example of this is the overconsumption of
refined sugar, refined grains, and refined vegetable oils
such as corn, safflower, and sunflower oil. Sugar is high-calorie
but provides no nutrients, and it depletes the body of B vitamins.
Polyunsaturated vegetable oils from grains and seeds provide
an excess of omega-6 fatty acids. Combined with a deficiency
of omega-3 fatty acids, too many omega-6 fatty acids lead
to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Obesity due to overconsumption
itself is a form of food poverty 5.
The chronic, degenerative diseases of the last and the 21st
century are obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Good nutrition
helps prevent them. Often people ask how I expect the poor
to be able to buy grassfed beef, milk, chicken, and other
healthy, sustainable foods. To be blunt, I don’t. Not
yet—not until we greatly expand the scale of production
of wholesome foods, especially nutrient-dense foods high on
the food chain, such as meat and dairy. (A benefit of increasing
production will be lower prices.) However, if I were by some
miracle charged with improving public health via nutrition,
getting a pastured chicken in every pot would be low on my
list. It would be much less expensive and more efficient to
start with a comprehensive prenatal and childhood nutrition
program to encourage breastfeeding, and radically reduce consumption
of white flour, sugar, trans fatty acids, and refined polyunsaturated
vegetable oils. This fantasy policy would also encourage consumption
of omega-3 fatty acids, folic acid, and the antioxidant vitamins
B6, B12, C, and E to prevent heart disease.
Healthy meals would focus on simple, whole foods, rich in
vitamins and other nutrients: protein (yes, even factory chicken
and beef), liver, canned tuna and salmon, eggs, whole milk,
butter, whole grains, and plenty of fresh produce. If you
followed nutritional advice in the 1950s, you might recognize
this prescription, made famous in best-selling paperbacks
by nutritionist Adelle Davis. This is the food I grew up on.
We didn’t spend a lot of money on food then—it
all went to land and farm equipment—but we ate well
on very little money following Adelle Davis. Only later did
we spend more money on local grassfed meat, poultry, eggs,
The Local Foods Middleman
On several occasions I’ve given a talk on direct marketing
called Beyond Farmers’ Markets. Perhaps at first, the
audience of farmers, market organizers, and others in local
agriculture wonders why I would encourage them in particular
to go beyond direct marketing. Surely the point is more direct
marketing, not less. Shouldn’t all farmers earn the
retail price, as the Plancks do? But the market for local
foods will never serve as many producers and consumers as
it could if direct marketing—cutting out the middleman—is
the only method of getting local foods to market. There are
too many producers who will never sell retail and too many
buyers who will not travel to farms and farmers’ markets
to buy local foods. They will, however, buy local foods in
shops, supermarkets, restaurants, and schools. The dreaded
middleman is key to all of these sales. His job is an honorable
one, even in the market for local foods.
Direct marketing of local, ecological, and nutritious foods
is growing fast, but in absolute terms it is paltry. Direct
marketing means selling directly to the end consumer. Farmers’
markets account for only $1 billion in sales per year. Other
forms of direct marketing (mostly unmeasured) include pick-your-own,
agri-tourism at country hotels, and farm shares, also called
Community Supported Agriculture 6.
My liberal definition of direct marketing includes restaurants
when the farmer sells directly to the chef, who is virtually
the end consumer. In the chef’s hands, the food is utterly
transformed from raw ingredients into what is regarded as
a ‘dining experience.’ Even if we add these sales
to farmers’ markets’ $1 billion, direct marketing
will not challenge the conventional food chain. Grocery stores
and restaurants account for 80 percent of food sales. Very
little food at shops, supermarkets, and restaurants is local
||There are too many producers who will
never sell retail and too many buyers who will not travel
to farms and farmers’ markets to buy local foods.
They will, however, buy local foods in shops, supermarkets,
restaurants, and schools. The dreaded middleman is key
to all of these sales. His job is an honorable one, even
in the market for local foods.
Organic farming has been the big success story since federal
standards became law in 2002. Sales are growing fast. The
U.S. organic market is projected to reach a value of $30.7
billion by 2007, with annual growth of 21 percent between
2002 and 2007. Yet organic farming—even large-scale,
‘industrial organic’—is still small. Recall
that sales at Whole Foods were $3 billion in 2003—a
drop in the bucket compared with the $900 billion Americans
spent on food in 2002. At $13 billion per year, organic foods
represent just 1 to 2 percent of all food sales. Half of those
sales go to supermarkets.
Clearly, we have work to do to expand the sale of local and
ecological foods. It may seem odd that I sometimes speak of
moving beyond farmers’ markets to farmers and others
who invented the methods of direct marketing we celebrate.
I do this precisely because they are the very farmers, entrepreneurs,
and local foods activists who will expand the market for local
foods by going beyond direct marketing. They will develop
the new organizations to serve the functions the market for
local foods lacks.
The New Local Foods Chain
This project is ambitious. To expand the market for local
foods, we need to duplicate every link in the conventional
food chain, including infrastructure, middlemen, processors,
and related businesses. Furthermore, if the term ‘market
for local foods’ is to have any meaning, this new, alternative
food chain must reflect what I call local foods values. These
- Food produced, processed, distributed, packaged, and
sold using efficient, humane, sustainable, and healthy methods
- Regional distinction, so the bioregion is evident in
- Seasonality, freshness, and quality, including wholesomeness
- A fair price to the producer or purveyor—that is,
the producer must be able to make a living.
- Food must not be artificially cheap.
The food chain is longer than it looks. It starts with the
most basic agricultural supplies such as amendments for soil
fertility. The solution preferred in the conventional food
chain? Nitrogen fertilizer made with cheap oil. Our method
must be different. Composted animal manure and yard waste
(which fills 20 percent of American landfills) and calcium
from ground limestone are ecological soil amendments. The
next link in the food chain involves all methods of production
including farming, aquaculture, and the fishing, collecting,
or hunting of wild foods. The third major stage is slaughter
and processing, including livestock, fish, and game, and production
of value-added products such as cheese, jam, and wine. The
next link involves packaging, storage, transportation, distribution
(including middlemen) and sales. Sales include wholesale customers,
institutional clients such as schools, the military and other
government agencies, the catering and restaurant industry
(including fast food), shops, supermarkets, and of course,
the darling of direct marketing, the consumer.
Let’s pause to consider one link in the food chain—agricultural
supplies—and how it might differ if it reflected local
foods values. Consider the most fundamental factor in agriculture:
soil fertility. The premise of sustainable agriculture is
that only healthy soil makes healthy plants; only healthy
plants, in turn produce healthy animals. Human nutrition,
finally, depends on healthy plants (tomatoes) and animals
(beef). It is not necessary to turn to heroes of sustainable
agriculture such as Wendell Berry to find the expression of
this principle. It is right there in the preamble to the federal
organic standards. According to the National Organic Standards
Board, ‘The primary goal of organic agriculture is to
optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities
of soil life, plants, animals and people.’
On our uncertified organic vegetable farm, we follow the
basic premise of organic agriculture: Healthy plants begin
with healthy soil. We spread ground limestone to build soil
fertility and strengthen the root tips of our growing cucumbers,
tomatoes, and squash. We kept a milk cow and some chickens
for family use, but we didn’t have enough animal manure
to meet our own soil fertility needs, so we also hauled in
horse manure from local stables. Not only do humans require
animal foods in the diet; sustainable agriculture itself requires
animals. The ideal modern farm using ecological and traditional
methods integrates plant and animal husbandry. This closed,
symbiotic system is, of course, utterly contrary to the logic
of industrial agriculture.
The ideal modern farm using ecological
and traditional methods integrates plant and animal
husbandry. This closed, symbiotic system is, of course,
utterly contrary to the logic of industrial agriculture.
Industrial agriculture prefers to divide each stage of production
in ever tinier increments, from which the greatest possible
efficiency must be squeezed. When the temperature is turned
up just another fraction in the pork factories, the pigs gain
weight a little bit faster. On a diet including plastic pot
scrubbers as a source of fiber, dairy cattle can still gain
weight—and pot scrubbers are, presumably, cheaper than
more wholesome sources of fiber, or the animal science researchers
would not bother to test them. Industrial agriculture isolates
the components—they are more than components, they are
living animals, but they are seen as merely factors of production—in
order to achieve maximum control, and to add minimum input
for maximum results, chiefly weight gain. An integrated agriculture,
by contrast, employs all the animals and plants in harmony
together. Grass farmers, for example, graze beef and dairy
cattle on rocky, hilly, or marshy pasture unfit for plowing.
When the farmers move the cattle to fresh pasture, they allow
browsing chickens and poultry to follow. The poultry rummage
in cow pats for protein-rich insects (poultry need lots of
protein) and, along the way, spread out the manure in the
pasture, building soil fertility. All the animals are well-fed—the
grass eaters on grass, the poultry on grass and bugs. The
waste—animal manure—is not a waste at all, but
a resource. The farmer’s thrift has made use of naturally
abundant grass and untillable soil. With animal manure he
has even improved the soil, all while producing nutritious
beef, milk, poultry, and eggs. Local foods values create a
virtuous circle of health-related, environmental, and efficiency
Gaps in the New Local Foods Chain
Unfortunately, the market for local foods is missing most
of the components of the conventional food chain, from processing
to distribution. There are notable exceptions. The California
company Niman Ranch, for example, has greatly expanded the
national production, distribution, and sale of natural beef,
lamb, and pork raised by 400 independent farmers and ranchers.
In 1971, Bill Niman was a rancher in Bolinas who could not
meet demand for the meat he was raising. He started to work
with other farmers to supply his customers, and in 1995, he
created Niman Ranch, Inc., to finish, slaughter, and market
the meat. With the Animal Welfare Institute, the company set
high animal husbandry standards including humane methods,
natural feeds including pasture, and allowing animals to mature
naturally. Niman Ranch sells fresh beef, lamb, and pork, and
processed and cured meats such as hot dogs, bacon, sausage,
and lardo to shops and restaurants nationally including Trader
Joe’s, Whole Foods, and the burrito chain Chipotle.
The brand is famous for quality. Niman Ranch was a ranch in
1971 and it still is. The company itself raises beef cattle
and much of its pork, which makes good business sense 7.
‘We understand firsthand the challenges of raising livestock,’
says Niman. The company also owns the cattle during finishing,
which means it has a greater stake in healthy, happy animals
and maintains control over care, feeding, and handling in
the crucial weeks before slaughter. But as a business, the
company is more middleman than farmer, and that’s just
what farmers and ranchers needed.
The market for local foods needs more farmers and entrepreneurs
like Bill Niman to create other missing components of the
food chain. How exactly they do it need not concern us too
much. Some functions, such as distribution, are best set up
as businesses. Others, like regional farmers’ market
networks, commercial kitchens, or slaughter facilities, could
be run for-profit, as nonprofits, or as public-private partnerships.
A creamery could be publicly financed and privately managed.
Other functions are both social and logistical, such as cooperative
joint processing, marketing, and distribution organized by
producers 8. These are
a few concrete examples of missing components:
Inadequate slaughter facilities
for regional meat producers. Animals travel
too far from farm to slaughter. This is inefficient for
farmers and leads to poor-quality meat, because of the stress
hormones that build up on long journeys. Know-how is missing.
Butchers are unwilling or unable to produce cuts of meat
or recipes farmers and consumers demand. A knowledgeable
butcher can discuss with a chef how every cut can be used,
which allows the chef to buy the whole animal instead of
only the common or best-selling cuts, such as tenderloin.
Chef and farmer benefit when the cuts are affordable and
the farmer sells a whole animal.
Inadequate storage, transportation,
and sales equipment to sell chilled foods—including
meat, fish, and dairy—conveniently and attractively.
Most farmers’ markets, for example, do not provide
Inadequate processing facilities
for fruit and vegetable producers to make
juice, preserves, sauces, salsas, and dried fruits to their
own recipes. We need to extend the season for local foods
in cold climates with preservation.
Inadequate wholesale markets
for regional produce to serve larger growers and institutional
buyers such as shops, restaurants, and schools. Such a market
is under review by New York State, and it appears there
is substantial demand from farmers and from buyers.
Lack of creameries for bottling
fluid milk and cream and for making fresh
dairy products such as yogurt, crème fraîche,
and sour cream. This is closely linked to the inability
of small dairy farmers to break free of the co-op system
that sells milk to distributors, food processors such as
Kraft, and retailers. Increasingly, the co-ops do not represent
the interests of dairy farmers. A major obstacle to earning
more money per gallon of milk is the farmer’s inability
to leave the co-op system to bottle or process and then
market his milk. Yet technology makes small-scale processing
possible. In New York, experts designed a small cheese-making
unit costing about $65,000. It can move from farm to farm.
A Future for Local Dairy Farms
To illustrate how we could develop the market for local foods,
consider creameries. In New York, dairy is critically important
to agriculture—much hilly land upstate is good for little
but grazing—and the need for independent processing
facilities is urgent. This problem is political as much as
logistical, in that rural development policy has not favored
local foods values. Cornell University estimates that over
the next 15 years, New York will lose 6,000 independent dairies
with fewer than 200 cows. By 2020, those dairies will be replaced
with 100 feed-lot dairies averaging 1,400 cows. As these 6,000
farms go under, milk production will remain constant. According
to Thomas Lyson, director of the Community, Food, and Agriculture
Program at Cornell, ‘This policy sets the stage for
the collapse of small farm dairying in New York.’ Furthermore,
Lyson points out that consolidation is not necessarily efficient,
as its proponents often claim. To stay afloat, the same large
dairies rely on tens of millions in subsidies, usually related
to the environmental cleanup costs from manure lagoons. In
New York City, meanwhile, there is huge demand for fresh local
Imagine what a healthy New York dairy industry could look
like. Those 6,000 small dairies could send raw milk to 100
creameries and 100 artisanal cheese makers. The creameries
and cheese makers could be independent businesses or cooperatively
owned by dairy farmers. They would make bottled milk, cream,
butter, crème fraîche, sour cream, ice cream,
yogurt, and cheese. The creameries and cheese makers would
sell to shops, chefs, schools, and individuals at public markets
for regional foods in New York State and especially New York
City. They could market and deliver products themselves or
hire a distributor. The food chain would look like this:
markets, chefs, shops & schools
This is not direct marketing, of course. Each arrow represents
a transaction—a middleman. Of course, a dairy farmer
could also bottle her own milk or make her own cheese and
sell directly to consumers, and some do. In Ancramdale, New
York, the family-owned Ronnybrook Farm and Dairy produces
milk without pesticides or artificial hormones. In the summer,
the cows eat grass. Thousands of New Yorkers buy Ronnybrook’s
unhomogenized milk, cream, butter, yogurt, crème fraîche,
and ice cream. But demand for fresh dairy is huge. New York
State, and especially New York City, could drink the milk
of many Ronnybrook dairies. Moreover, not all dairy farmers
want to bottle milk and sell it retail, and still fewer can.
Only a generation ago, thousands of dairy cows grazed the
green rolling hills of the Catskill Mountains. In 1955, Delaware
County ranked tenth in the nation for milk production on more
than 2,000 farms. In 1987, there were fewer than 400 farms
in the county. Reminders of the thriving dairy industry are
everywhere. Peeling wooden signs for ice-cream stands long
abandoned dot the country roads. If Cornell’s own bleak
statistics come true, the local dairy industry will soon be
lost forever. Already economically depressed, the Catskills
will take another hit, even as New Yorkers clamor for fresh,
local milk. The alternative is to create a new local foods
chain. The result will be more farms, a healthier environment,
cleaner water for New Yorkers who drink from the reservoirs
in the region, more independent rural businesses, more rural
jobs, and regionally distinct tourist attractions. The most
important benefit, of course, will be more fresh local milk
and butter in New York City kitchens.
Bring on the middleman, before it’s too late.