This article was originally published by Agate magazine.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare many weaknesses in our food system. In the spring, with the sudden closure of restaurants, schools, and hotels, farmers were forced to plow under their vegetables, dump their milk, and cull animals even as some supermarket shelves were bare. Although Americans were eating at home more, big farms found it too expensive and time-consuming to switch to packaging products for retail sale. As we watched the supply chains break down and avoided restaurants, many of us scrambled to join a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) farm or to find locally produced meat. We found ourselves wondering, “Why don’t we automatically get carrots grown locally or milk from the cows down the road? And what can we do to put more locally grown food on our plates?”
For decades the American food system has been consolidating, getting bigger, more efficient, and hooking us on dirt-cheap food prices. The average American household spends 6 percent of its household income on food. That’s the lowest in the world.
But as we’ve seen with other industries dependent on long supply chains and just a few big actors, that scale creates fragility. Vast areas of the rural countryside have been converted from a patchwork of traditional family farms featuring a variety of crops and a few animals, into miles of row crops—overwhelmingly corn and soybeans—tended by giant machines and few people. Huge meatpacking plants run by big companies have hatched frightening COVID-19 outbreaks. And many rural towns have suffered.
Interestingly, an engineer from Minnesota invented the first practical refrigeration system for trucks, contributing a key technology that enables the global food system we have today.
Federal farm policy has long favored big producers. The vast majority of subsidies go to commodity agriculture: corn, soybean, and sugar farmers. According to the nonprofit government watchdog Open the Books, 400 entities, including farmers and corporations, received between $1 million and $9.9 million each in federal farm subsidies in 2017.
A few programs in the Farm Bill are aimed at helping small farmers, and when Congress writes a new one, every four years, advocates try to shift more support to struggling family farms. But the overall pattern remains the same.
Banks are conservative about lending to businesses with high perceived risks. Often crop insurance is not available for diversified, small operations, or for farmers just starting out.
A new generation of small growers is stepping into the complex world of farming. Many are driven by a desire to grow food sustainably. These small farms benefit the environment by improving soil health, preventing erosion, protecting water quality, and bringing diversity to the fields. Their products are consumed nearby, avoiding the cost and carbon emissions of long-distance transportation. Although scientific studies have been inconclusive, many of us think the produce is better, not only because it’s grown with such careful attention to the environment, but because it’s picked ripe and simply tastes better.
John and Emily Beaton bought land 25 miles north of Duluth three years ago to establish FairHaven Farm, and they now supply more than 50 families with vegetables all summer long.
On a hot Sunday afternoon, John takes a break from hand-weeding a row of newly planted asparagus and explains that he and Emily are running a “market garden,” a name that harks back to the kind of food system that was common in the area three or four generations ago. The Beatons have tilled and planted ¾ of an acre in an efficient design of standard-sized rows: 100 feet long and 30 inches wide. “This is the accessible way to get into farming,” John says. “We can take care of these crops ourselves, using hand tools, and if we want to grow more, we can add more rows.”
He says more and more young people are willing to do the hard work of farming, and northeastern Minnesota has a bright future for agriculture: “Our soil is not poisoned by farm chemicals, we have clean water and clean air, and the land prices here are much lower than elsewhere,” he says. He even sees climate change as a largely positive force for farming in this region. “It’s as if the equator were moving north,” he says. “We do have new pest problems, but we also get a longer growing season. There’s still a lot of open land that hasn’t converted to forest, because a lot of the old-timers are still haying their fields—thank goodness!” That means there are still open fields to plant crops.
State and local governments, and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are beginning to address the needs of small farmers. John and Emily received a grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, part of the USDA, to build a high tunnel, or plastic greenhouse. In this space, 30-feet by 95-feet, warm season crops like tomatoes and cucumbers twine on strings toward the sky, and peppers and basil bask in the warmth.
The Beatons are comfortable with the scale of their operation so far, but farmers who want to increase their production need bigger markets. Sometimes when they try to sell to restaurants or grocery stores, they can’t provide the consistent supply that those outlets would like. It is much easier for a retail outlet to buy the quantities they need from a large supplier.
Organizations called “food hubs” have sprung up to help local farmers join together to supply larger markets. The Good Acre in the Twin Cities serves 30 small growers, many of them Hmong-Americans, with technical assistance, marketing help, and a well-designed facility where they can wash, store, and pack produce. The grant-funded nonprofit offers CSA shares and deliveries to wholesale markets. It is also responding to the COVID-19 crisis with a Local Emergency Assistance Farmer Fund, which offers farmers who are Black, Native American, or persons of color a guarantee to buy up to $5,000 of produce during the 2020 season. The food generally goes to food shelves and low-income programs.
Food hubs have their advantages, but every service they provide to connect small farmers with consumers can add a cost to the product, observes Helen Schnoes, a marketing specialist with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA). To avoid a middleman, some farmers work together to “aggregate” their products for wider distribution. In northern Wisconsin, 20 small farmers have joined to market year-round CSA boxes featuring local fruit, veggies, pasture-raised meat, flowers and other products under the name “Bayfield Foods.”
Schools, hospitals, and other institutions have increasingly stepped up to buy local foods. Both the federal and state governments fund farm-to-school programs, and USDA says 43 percent of U.S. school districts participate in some way: buying produce, milk or meat locally, or inviting farmers to the school to help children learn to garden.
The meat conundrum
Americans are increasingly interested in the possible health benefits of meat from pasture-raised animals, such as less total fat, more omega-3 fatty acids, and more antioxidants. But farmers, especially small farmers, face a serious bottleneck in processing their stock. Across North America, each community used to have its processing plant where family farmers would bring their cattle, pigs, sheep, and chickens. One by one those “meat lockers” have closed, until now in Minnesota, there are only 55 USDA- or state-licensed processors whose products can be sold commercially. Farmers often must wait as long as six months for a slaughter date. “The workforce issue is a bit of a barrier,” says Ariel Kagan, a marketing expert at the MDA. Butchering is a skill everyone used to have, she says. “In the 1960s there were a bunch of kosher facilities in Minnesota; now there’s none.”
There are more “custom” processors, where the meat cannot be sold commercially. It is much easier for small farmers to get processing time at these custom plants because there are so many of them.
Responding to the roiling meat market produced by COVID-19, the MDA distributed emergency funds in small grants to 46 processing plants in Minnesota. A lot of the money went to these custom processors. “A few used the money to become state-inspected,” Kagan says. “Others bought more cutting tools, or added storage, or upgraded in other ways.”
Ideally, farmers and processors both plan ahead to produce a steady supply of meat. Kagan says companies like Neiman Ranch and Thousand Hills ease scheduling issues by aggregating the production of several regional farmers and creating more predictability for the processor.
The challenge of land
John and Emily Beaton were lucky to be able to partner with Emily’s parents to buy the land they farm. Many young would-be farmers have trouble buying or even renting land. Even in northeastern Minnesota, where land prices are comparatively low, it is hard for many beginning farmers to find and buy land. In his spare time, John makes it his mission to help other young farmers. He is a Land Access Navigator for Renewing the Countryside, a nonprofit with a mission to connect beginning farmers to land and markets. “I share my experience with them, look at their business plan, and advise them as they look for land to grow on,” he explains. Two of his advisees recently bought land in the area.
The Land Stewardship Project, in addition to offering educational programs for beginning farmers and conducting advocacy work, has an online clearinghouse to help landowners and landless farmers find each other. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture has a similar program.
Another strategy to ease the path of young farmers is the land trust. Typically a land trust is a nonprofit organization that helps a landowner create a legally binding conservation easement on a tract of land. The easement can prohibit certain types of development on the land, which reduces its monetary value, making it more affordable for beginning farmers.
Further, donation of the easement may qualify the landowner for a charitable tax deduction on the donor’s federal income tax return.
America’s farmers are aging: The USDA says one-third of farm producers are 65 or older. Facing retirement, some of these farmers do not have family members who want to take over. If the farmer wants to keep the land in production, rather than earning a higher profit by selling it to a developer, a land trust can be one way to do it.
In northeastern Minnesota, people around the tiny town of Finland are organizing the Finland Food Chain and are exploring creation of a land trust for their community. A report commissioned by the Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation recently found that if residents of Minnesota’s Iron Range were to shift just 20% of their food purchases to local producers, more than $50 million annually would stay in the local economy.
Banks are also beginning to pay more attention to small farmers. Compeer, a farm credit cooperative in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois, has a new loan program focusing on emerging markets, local food, and non-traditional agriculture.
The booming demand for organic and locally grown food prompted by the pandemic has left small farmers’ heads spinning. Cindy Hale and Jeff Hall operate Clover Valley Farms just north of Duluth. They have a lot of experience with trying new products and finding new markets. In March, when wholesale orders slumped, they rebuilt their online retail sales platform and sent messages to their regular customers to push sales. When the local farmers’ market opened, they noticed that their value-added products such as vinegars and mustards were not selling as well as fresh food, so they began selling herbs and other foods that they would normally use in their products. And they found that people who wanted to try growing some of their own food were eager to buy the small fruit trees and berry bushes that they had planned to plant on their own farm.
“The emergency showed everyone the importance of diversity,” Cindy says. “And the silver lining in this dark cloud is that people are seeing that they really do need to support local farmers. Demand for local food is far ahead of capacity right now. We need to keep this issue on the forefront, and help people realize that a local food system is a vital component of the economy as well as the environment.”
Cindy is part of the Finland Food Chain project, which is working on several fronts to create a new regional food system. As the word “system” suggests, the challenges are intertwined. “If we convince growers they should increase production, we’ll get too many raspberries and blueberries at once; they’ll have to be converted into a value-added product, and that requires a commercial kitchen and storage space,” she explains. “The growers will also need help to handle a bigger harvest, and if we recruit reliable and skilled seasonal labor, we’ll need a way to house them. The shortage of affordable housing in our area is a big problem. We need systemic changes, as with many issues facing our nation right now.”
The MDA’s marketing expert, Ariel Kagan, says many consumers are taking more responsibility for their food choices. “Younger people are realizing that if we want to have an impact on climate change, we need to think of what we’re buying. When people find they can buy ecologically friendly meat that actually builds soil, they feel pretty good because they don’t have to give up their steak,” she says.
Many of us have developed a deeper awareness of our interconnectedness as a result of COVID-19. We can see that buying locally helps our neighbors, and that buying food from people who take responsibility to care for the earth helps all of us.