Thoughts on Local Food Integrity

For the last 10 years I have been working on developing our CSA while also mentoring and helping new farmers. When new growers come out to our farm for a workshop or tour I'm regularly asked "why are you sharing this information with us? Aren't you concerned about competition?" My reply... how many folks do you think live in Houston/Austin/Dallas? How many people do you think one small farm can feed? Worrying about competition is thinking in the old paradigm of "get big or get out" which has resulted in the current problem that we are facing today... no local farms to feed our communities. Competition is a good thing... it pushes us to always do a better job at what we do. The new paradigm is to "stay small and stay in". What we have found is that it is necessary and rewarding for small farmers to work together. NO one farm can supply all of our needs. One may do vegetables, one does chicken, the other beef, cheese, dairy, or fruit or lamb, etc. When we can work together with marketing, distribution, purchasing materials and supplies, sharing techniques and tools, etc. we are gradually building the supportive agricultural community that used to be around 100+ years ago when neighbors helped each other bring in the harvest or build a barn or helped when the donkey fell into the well. Unfortunately, as local farmers, none of our current neighbors are farming anymore so we have had to reach out to other like minded producers which are all spread out 30 to 60 miles a part. It hasn't been easy. We are a rare breed today.

In order to survive in this market, it is essential that we get a fair price for our products and labor. Booker T. Whatley published a great book a long while back and he had 10 commandments for new farmers. One was "avoid the middleman like the plague and sale direct to your customer". I have found this to be wise. In the last five years as distributors have sprung up in the Austin market, riding on the local wagon, it has hurt the market for farmers that have been there for 20+ years. On the consumer side the prices appear to have been at the same level, however at the producers side the margins have dropped and many new farms have not been able to last more than a few years in business. Distributors are not loyal to farmers as they are price hunting each week for the cheapest products from farmers. They are going to buy from who ever has the lowest price, at lot of time this exploits farmers and drives down prices as desperate farmers compromise and dump products rather than not taking a complete loss of no sales. The lower the distributor can purchase food increases their margins/profits. Another little hint... distributors cannot find enough local food to meet the size of their business and then have the need to rely on organic wholesalers to fill their shares. When they say they offer "local and sustainable" products, "sustainable"=international organics just like what you find at wholefoods. What's sustainable about 1800 miles? I even have to ask what's sustainable about home delivery? The amount of fuel used in this distribution program is not sustainable, however it is more convenient for the customer.

Another interesting observation, as a local farmer we understand the limitation of supply. That's why a CSA farm has a waiting list because we understand that we can only supply a certain number of customers so we limit our business to the size that we can responsibly commit to serving. A distribution company on the other hand focuses more on growing their business and considers supply later. In this way they find the need to compromise what they consider local and then expand their definition. We used to call local 100 miles. Now it is 200 miles and even more. Citrus and melons from the valley. Beef from west Texas, etc. Just because it is from our great state of Texas, is it local? Farmers Markets have also increased their parameters for local as they discover that there just aren't enough local farms in their area. The demand exceeds the supply.

I encourage everyone to buy directly from the farmers. We don't need anyone peddling produce between us. Committing to local farmers and developing relationships is what builds integrity in our local food economy.

I also encourage farmers to work together to serve our community better and to see our local food supply grow.

Visit your farmer and see for yourself what you are getting into.

Farmer Brad
"We grow righteous food"
Brenham, TX