The local food economy has changed a lot over the last 5 years and unless you are paying attention as a Market Grower, you may miss the boat or sink all together.
When we first began farming, Community Supported Agriculture programs were enormously successful and growing. We doubled our membership base every season and couldn't keep up with the demand. Of course we were early in the movement starting one of the first CSA Farms in Texas and definitely the first to serve the greater Houston area. Before we new it, we were serving over 380 families every week and had created a successful distribution program that benefited many local farmers in the area. Working collectively, we offered fresh produce, eggs, artisan cheese, grass-fed beef, pastured pork, chicken and holiday turkeys. We had created a model network for direct from the farmer food distribution and it seemed like the sky was the limit... for a time.
Gradually, and about 15 years later, we experienced the slowing pace of the CSA movement as more home delivery programs became popular. Although its not AS "local" but its STILL fresher than the box stores... we witnessed multiple companies move into our market place, but why worry? Houston has over 2.2 million people, right? We found ourselves still fighting for the less than 1% of the population who shopped for local food (and that market was not growing). As a farmer, we could not offer the convenience of home delivery, but throughout the years we have seen these home delivery companies come and go.
"Local" food also became more convenient as farmers markets exploded and grocery chains got on the bandwagon as well. Small farmers and experienced local food buyers knew better, but it did not change the fact that farmers were having to work a lot harder. While some farmers sold at just two markets a week a few years ago, now some farmers are selling at 6 or more markets to see the sales they had previously. Not to mention, the need to commit financially to a CSA program was becoming less attractive when local food appeared to be so more readily available and convenient.
We have also seen many farmers come and go during our 25+ years growing professionally. Of course an aging farm community has a lot to contribute, but so has the market place, not to mention the brutal weather we have experienced in the South over the last decade. I can count on one hand the small farms that are still around that we used to work with 5 years ago. Many went under while trying to expand while the market was changing fundamentally beneath their feet, leaving many too deeply invested to adjust or recover while others just threw in the towel, tired of being martyrs in the local food revolution.
With all things considered and with Amazon/Whole Foods anticipated to play their hand even bigger in the local market place, its time to be dynamic and to reevaluate the future as a market grower. Its time to look at what you can do to be different and to set yourself a part. Do you continue to grow crops that you loose money on? Do you go more boutique and specialty with your crop selection? Do you explore the community and educational opportunities that a farm can uniquely offer? What can small farmers do that no other food distributor can emulate? Is it time to scale up or is it time to scale down?
Over the next few seasons, we will be sharing how our farm successfully scaled down while working more efficiently and increasing profits. Driving our food extremely local. Minimizing risk. Record Keeping. Building a more righteous food system: small scale, community centered and sustainable. Stay tuned... this and many more details will be covered in our up coming Farm Training Series.
Farmer Brad Stufflebeam, "A local food pioneer in the Lone Star State", has served as President of the Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Assoc., Advisory Board Member for USDA Southern SARE, President of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, Chairman/Founder of the Texas Arts and Music Festival. In 2012 Brad received the Houston Mayor's Award: Champion of Food Justice and 2015 edibleHOUSTON's Local Hero Award.