The persistent question for me as we explore local food issues here at Strong Towns is: Could any of our communities actually survive on local food alone? Could we ever get to a point where local food makes up most of our diets and where local farmers are successfully supplying that? These questions (inspired by the Strong Towns Strength Test) have been buzzing in the back of my mind and, while I want to believe it’s feasible to live off of local food, the more I study this, the more I realize it would be pretty darn tough, if not impossible.
But, being an apartment dweller who hasn't had the opportunity to spend much time on farms, I wanted to talk to some real farmers to find out if this rang true from their perspective. Were they supporting themselves with their farm income? Could their harvest (and the harvests of their neighboring farmers) feed a community? I interviewed six farmers from around the country (as well as two people who serve in roles supporting local farmers) in both urban and rural settings, growing both produce and animals. All of them opened their farms in the last twenty years and most started in the last ten years.
Here are some of the farmers and farm advocates I spoke to:
In our conversations, each farmer stressed the challenges of creating an economically viable food business, particularly in getting started. But they also discussed their creative transformations of repurposed land, their deep connection to their local communities, and their incremental strategies for growing their farms.
An Uphill Battle
Between the high start-up costs, physical labor required, a regulatory environment geared for corporate farms and the public’s expectations about how much food should cost, it’s very hard to make it as a small-scale farmer. This was clear in my conversations with farmers and it bears out in the statistics as well.
According to the USDA, two thirds of all farms in the US are family farms where the owners are either retired or have a primary occupation outside the farm. Even for those whose primary occupation is on the farm, more than one third worked elsewhere to supplement their income. In fact, nearly 50% of all farms in the US have annual sales of less than $10,000. So where is all of our food spending going in America? Primarily to the 10% of farms that are large-scale family and non-family farms who truck their goods far and wide. Making a living off of farming is far from impossible, but it’s also not the norm by a long stretch. Every single farmer I spoke with had another job or source of household income.
Hog farmer, Gene Ambrose, who recently opened End of the Road Ranch on Vancouver Island remarked, “A lot of people don’t realize how much it costs to start a farm.” If you haven’t inherited a substantial amount of money or made it somewhere beforehand, he says, you’ll have a tough time getting off the ground.
Mark and Kena Guttridge opened their family farm, Ollin Farms, in Longmont, CO, just over a decade ago. They spoke honestly about the economic challenges of their profession, even ten years after getting started:
Kena: We do have other jobs because economically we cannot survive with the farm. It sounds beautiful and amazing but if we do just that, the farm would probably close.
Mark: It’s not that it’s impossible to make a living, but when we started this farm there was no infrastructure. We took out loans from the Farm Service Agency and we’re still paying those off. We’re getting closer every year to where the farm can be economically viable but to get to this point is […] capital intensive. Everything we made in the first ten years got pumped back into the farm. Once the infrastructure is built out, it could be an economically viable thing…
Both Mark and Gene Ambrose also related the barriers presented by strict government regulations around food production and processing. Historically, most vegetable farms have used manure produced by their animals to fertilize their crops, but government regulations are putting an end to that. “The regulations are getting to the point where they discourage any animals at all on a vegetable farm,” Mark explains. “For regenerative farmers [like us], who understand that healthy farming comes from balance in ecosystems, things seem a little backwards.”
Other government regulations that hinder the productivity of Ollin Farms have to do with processing and cooking. For example, Mark and Kena would love to be able to take the tomatoes that don’t sell from their farm-stand by the end of the day and turn them into salsa for sale. But that would require them to have a commercial kitchen with regular inspections. They can't afford to construct something like that, especially since it's not the focus of their farm. “It’s kind of prohibitive,” says Mark. “This is the stuff we bring into our house and feed our kids. We’re eating it ourselves and we know our customers, so it should be more safe [than food sold in a store].”
Gene also remarked that it’s increasingly challenging to get his hogs butchered and processed because the regulations around kill licenses have grown very strict. He currently has just two slaughterhouses within an hour of his ranch and they’re aware that they have a monopoly on local butchering so they’ve inflated their costs.
Brian Williams, a local food planner based in Columbus, OH highlights food infrastructure like processing plants and transportation companies as some of the greatest needs of local food systems, and argues that without enough of those, a region could never hope to rely mostly on local food for its sustenance.
Overall, the challenges that small-scale farmers face when they begin their operations make it an incredibly tough profession. Add to that strict regulations governing food production and processing, and it's certainly an uphill battle. But, with some key tactics, it's not impossible.
Repurposing the Land
Most of the farmers I spoke with built their farms on repurposed land, a move that brings with it both challenges and advantages. For some rural farms like Ollin and Ambler Farm in Wilton, CT, an old, non-working acreage was transformed into a productive farm. This meant that land was affordable or free (in the case of Ollin, it was family-owned land and in the case of Ambler, it was a historic estate that the local government acquired), but that a lot of work went into restoring farm structures and preparing the land for successful planting and growing.
Urban farms also almost always repurpose space for their use. Milwaukee Grows is an agricultural program based in Milwaukee, WI that supports neighborhoods in developing community gardens on vacant lots. Repurposing challenges include creating growing space and procuring water. Another urban farmer, Jeff Seibel, works at Hamilton Farms in St. Louis, MO which supplies produce to a local chain of restaurants. Hamilton Farms is built on a former parking lot so its creation required completely removing the pavement and refilling the area with soil—building a farm completely from the ground up.
In both cases, the transformation is a positive one for the community; who wouldn’t rather look out at a field of vegetables than a mangy plot of grass or a neglected parking lot? Antoine Carter, who runs Milwaukee Grows, said 99% of neighbors enjoy and support the community gardens on their street. His colleague, Nick Montezon, even said that people sometimes stop their cars when they drive by a group of neighbors working in a garden to say thank you for filling this space with something positive.
Most cities and towns don't lack available space. Between big lawns and vacant lots and structures, there's ample space to start farms for those who want to; it's just a matter of getting permission and financing, then working to make the land farmable.
Connecting with Community
Every single farmer I talked to stressed the importance of connecting their communities with their local food efforts. Many of them host farm-to-table dinners on their properties, teach classes to children, and open their doors for neighborhood festivals. “We have a very active educational program during the summer and school year for kids,” explains Neil Gluckin, a board member at Ambler Farm. “They get involved in planting, weeding, seeding, harvesting, and cooking.”
Kena Guttridge also leads educational activities at Ollin Farms. She says, “The role of the farm is to bring the community together through festivals, educational programs, and story telling […] The more we concentrate on local [efforts] and helping each other, the closer the community will be.” Mark Guttridge also explained that community events are a very good marketing tool for the farm. “Farms don’t have marketing budgets,” he says. “We do it by making noise in the community.”
Jeff Seibel at Hamilton Farms also says the farm where he works was created partly to be a draw for restaurant patrons and to help them see where their food is grown. The restaurants connected with Hamilton Farms serve regular farm-to-table dinners on the land and give tours to visitors.
Community events and classes thus provide not just a way to educate neighbors about food and farming, but also a way to get neighbors invested in the success of their local farms.
Patience and incremental growth were vital for the farmers I spoke to (and we're not just talking about the patience required for a growing season).
Ollin Farms began as a large family garden with a surplus initially shared with neighbors. Mark and Kena eventually decided to start selling their produce and cultivating it more strategically and they continue to grow their business today.
Hamilton Farms began with simply an idea from a local restaurant owner—to grow produce that he could serve in his restaurant. He started out as the sole farmer of his former-parking lot urban farm, and today he’s built it into an operation with greenhouses, aeroponic systems and several employees.
Gene opened End of the Road Ranch with a focus only on pork. Once he builds up that base and gets a good system going for raising his fifty pigs, he hopes to add chicken into his business as well.
Matt Rudman, who co-runs People Power Farm in Milwaukee, WI, got started just a year ago. He’s found that partnerships with existing gardens and restaurants have served the farm well. “Next year we’ll tailor more to what restaurants need,” he says. “This year [we were] kind of testing it out.” People Power Farm already has several orders from local restaurants for the next growing season.
Incrementally growing farm operations is essential for farmers who can't afford an immense financial output from the get-go, and it also helps them tailor their crops and animals to their customers' changing needs.
So, is it possible to build towns that could be sustained with local food alone? Most of the farmers I interviewed said their regions are nowhere close to that right now and that their own output is only a tiny fraction of their communities' food consumption. But down the road, it might be feasible if we take the long view.
It would require dedicated people willing to work very hard and risk years of not turning a profit. It would demand that we do the groundwork of developing good food production and transportation systems. And it would rely on a surrounding community that is invested in the success of local food enough to pay a little more for it and work a little harder to procure it (although “a little harder” really just means looking outside the default grocery store). The reward, though, is a strong local economy, a community that can weather global economic shifts, and delicious, fresh food for all. We've done it before—for centuries, in fact. Could we do it again?
(Top photo source: Ollin Farms Facebook page)