Last week, I traveled to Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, which is always a stimulating event. One tour offered by the SEJ took us to a family farm, and to a couple of nonprofit organizations that are promoting local, environmentally-friendly agriculture.
My story this week for The Guardian looks at the work of a farmer named Bill Keener, who works a relatively small (300-acre farm) where he lives with his wife, her parents, his son and daughter. What I tried to do in the story was get behind the romance and mythology often associated with small-scale family farmers and see how their businesses work, or don’t. Bill is a very bright guy–on his way to a career as a farmer, he studied philosophy in grad school at Yale–but his business is harder than it might appear, at least to those who browse by his stall at a farmer’s market.
Here’s how the story begins:
Everyone loves a farmers’ market. It’s pleasing to wander among the stalls, chat with farmers, sip coffee and mingle with like-minded, ecologically-aware, health-conscious folks who buy local, sustainable and organic foods. What’s not to like?
Well, there’s this: Bill Keener, who owns a family farm in Sequatchie, Tennessee, has thousands of pounds of raw milk cheese to sell and can’t make money selling it at the farmers’ market. By the time he pays someone to cut a big wheel of cheese into family-sized wedges, transports the cheese to the market in Chattanooga, about 35 miles away and staffs a stall for four hours, he’s barely covered the costs of producing his batches of Cumberland, Coppinger and Dancing Fern cheeses. That’s true even though his cheese, which is lovingly made by a French-trained cheesemaker, costs as much as $15 a pound – a lot more than Kraft’s.
Five years since getting into the cheese business, Keener is undeterred, using earnings from his beef and lamb sales to subsidize his creamery.
“That’s the thing about agriculture,” Keener says. “It’s slow money.”
Keener, the story goes on to say, has tried to make his business work every which way–through community supported agriculture, by selling to local supermarkets including Whole Foods, through pick-your-own opportunities, and by cultivating shitake mushrooms, which he came to love while studying in Japan. He’s now operating one good business, selling local grass-fed beef and lamb, and one not-so-good one, his creamery. But it turns out that what he really needs was a support system of marketers and distributors–people to advertise and sell his products. That shouldn’t come as a surprise; big commodity farmers rely on a system of marketing, distribution and retail outlets that have evolved over half a century to ecome very efficient.
A support system for small-scale farmers, happily, is developing in and around Chattanooga. One of the best things to happen to Keener’s Sequatchie Cove Farm was the opening of a specialty butcher shop in Nashville to sell local, high-quality meat.
As I write, Keener is “the kind of farmer who environmentalists and foodies from Brooklyn to Berkeley (and, yes, places in between, such as Chattanooga) are counting on to feed them.” I’m hoping that he can make farming work for him, as well as for his customers.