Farmers' markets & beyond:
Expanding the market for local foods
Part 2 : A prescription for making these markets successful and competitive includes professional management. Creating an even broader customer base for local food requires pulling up even more reserves of savvy and imagination. Click here for Part 1.

By Nina Planck

Reform 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 instinctively.

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 sites.

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 1.

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 for inattention.

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 Management

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.

Publicity. 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.

Fundraising. 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.

Farm Visits. A farm attending more than one market need only be visited once.

Expansion. 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 new farmers.

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 cities 3.

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’ markets.

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, and dairy.

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 or sustainable.

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 include:

  • Food produced, processed, distributed, packaged, and sold using efficient, humane, sustainable, and healthy methods
  • Regional distinction, so the bioregion is evident in the food
  • 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 benefits.

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 electricity.

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 dairy foods.

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:

farmer creamery distribution
markets, chefs, shops & schools consumers

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.

Click here to read Part 1 of
Farmers' markets & Beyond: Expanding the Market for Local Foods

• London Farmers’ Markets: www.lfm.org.uk
• FreshFarm Markets in Washington, DC: www.freshfarmmarket.org
• New Orleans farmers’ market: www.crescentcityfarmersmarket.org
• Ronnybrook Farm & Dairy: www.ronnybrook.com
• Niman Ranch: www.nimanranch.com