The travails of a family farmer

Food for sale at a farmers market in London.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.

 

Comments

  1. Good post.
    You’re describing exactly the problem that Michael Rozyne more than 15 years ago. Michael is one of the 3 co-founders of Equal Exchange (for other readers: EE helped pioneer Fair Trade in the late ’80s) and in the mid-90s he wanted to see what he could do to address the problems of small family farmers like Keeners in the Northeast. That desire led him to create the non-profit Red Tomato (www.RedTomato.org) and a big part of what they do is the marketing, distribution, etc so that the participating farmers can focus on farming.
    In short they do a lot to connect the small local farms with metropolitan markets (like Boston or Providence, RI) so that the large grocery chains don’t simply continue to do what’s easiest – namely place huge orders from huge corporate farms in California or Florida.
    Also, as some of your Guardian readers mentioned, the problems of the Keeners is part of what has over the decades led farmers to join together into co-operatives like Organic Valley, Cabot, Ocean Spray, Farmer Direct, and more. In fact, it’s probably not a coincidence that co-ops are so popular in the dairy industry. The co-ops, of course, take care of the marketing, sales, distribution, and often the processing, too. It can work for artisan cheesemakers, too, as demonstrated by Cabot, who sells both moderately priced “grocery store cheese” and a line of $$ hand-made cheeses.

  2. Marc Gunther says:

    Thanks, Rodney, I wasn’t aware of Red Tomato. It didn’t occur to me to mention Cabot or Ocean Spray but of course you’re right that they, too, can help smaller farmers get to market. What may (or may not) be newer are the idea of local or regional food hubs that connect small-scale farmers to nearby consumers. I didn’t get into it in my Guardian story, but that’s what Gaining Ground and Crabtree Farm are trying to do in the Chattanooga area.

    • Thanks for the great, thoughtful story; and Rodney, thanks for the shout-out to Red Tomato. (www.redtomato.org) We are what is sometimes called a ‘food hub’–we work with a network of family farmers to find a place for local and eco-grown produce in the grocery stores, and do it in a way that allows smart, dedicated farmers like Keener to make a living at it. There’s an emerging support system for these farmers all around the US, but the pressures they are under are tremendous. The more articles like yours that help consumers understand what’s behind that great cheese or beautiful apple, the better chance we all have of there being vibrant, diverse agriculture around to feed us for the future. Thanks again for capturing the story.

  3. Lewis E. Ward says:

    Mark,
    Thank you for your excellent article that describes the travail of many farmers. Here in the Finger Lakes, Regional Access and Finger Lakes Organics have been marketing and distrubuting to larger markets for 32 and 28 years respectively. Growers and producers always face the problems of scale and reaching the markets.
    Hope to see more articles like this in the future.

  4. Thanks, Marc, for your piece and to all of you posting on this topic. As you point out, creating an effective support system for small and medium-sized farms in regions across the country requires a deliberate, coordinated effort, including the great work of Red Tomato, Gaining Ground and Crabtree Farms, among others. At Five Acre Farms, we’re opening up a new channel for local farmers by bringing their food to grocery stores and rebuilding the connection between farmer and consumer. We reward great farmers who adhere to sustainable practices by paying them not the “market” rate, but rather what it costs them to hire and treat people properly, carefully maintain their livestock and protect their farmland and ground water. We call this being Positively Local.

    Dan Horan
    Five Acre Farms

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