Kathy Barrett wasn't in a very good mood, she told me. She had just trucked a steer to a local slaughterhouse in neighboring Vermont that morning. "But isn't that your job, as an owner of On the River Farm, to raise cattle and have them turned into beef?" I asked.
"Yes, but that doesn't mean I have to feel good about it. I raised that steer with lots of love, and now I feel bad about it," she said.
Her mood improved as the conversation went on, especially as she explained to me how much more lucrative it has been over the last couple of years to sell her beef directly to consumers, at $5 to $14 a pound, vs. approximately half that at a local distribution company, which also has a nasty habit of not paying her on time.
It turns out that being able to improve her margins so significantly is suddenly making farming look attractive again for the 51-year-old, after it faded from the family during her father's generation. Her grandfather ran the 17 scenic acres along the Connecticut River, outside Lyme, N.H., mostly as a dairy farm.
Around New Hampshire and Vermont, and, indeed, around the country, there seem to be many more farmers like Kathy Barrett. The media are full of stories about the growing popularity of farmers' markets, community supported agriculture (where consumers buy shares in return for regular crop deliveries), grass-fed beef, free-range chicken, and raw milk (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/27/06,"A Raw-Milk Raid Leads to a Special Thanksgiving").
But the big story, from the viewpoint of small-business opportunity, is that direct-to-consumer farming offers financial growth opportunities based on a collision of two trends: First, there's the desire by owners of established farms, many of whom had taken off-farm jobs or been reduced to subsistence levels by commodity-price fluctuations, to make their farms financially attractive. Second, there's the fact that a growing number of consumers, restaurants, and food-service businesses want to purchase locally-grown food, free of the pesticides and hormones that are part of the global marketplace—ideally directly from the people who produce it (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/20/06, "Whole Foods and the Celebrity Farmer").
Vital Communities, a nonprofit organization that encourages local agriculture in central New Hampshire and Vermont, has 200 direct-to-consumer farms listed on its Web site, www.vitalcommunities.org, which consumers can search by location and product. Lisa Johnson, director of the organization's Valley Food & Farm program, estimates that another 200 farms not yet identified by the program are also selling directly to consumers.
Out to Pasture
One of the organization's major accomplishments has been convincing Dartmouth College's dining service to purchase meat and produce directly from a handful of its farmers. The service, in 2004 and 2005, purchased more than $400,000 of locally grown food via wholesalers, and this year has switched to purchasing the food directly from individual farms.
Last August, when Vital Communities organized its first "Feast in the Field"—a white-tablecloth dinner in a Vermont farm field featuring salads, chicken, potatoes, and apple cider from local farmers—more than 300 people showed up to pay $35 a person to support the organization's efforts (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/11/06, "What Entrepreneurs Need to Know").
As part of its transition to selling direct, Cloudland Farm of Pomfret, Vt., was able to convince Vermont Law School's dining service to purchase its beef direct from the farm. The farm is now in its second year of selling directly to consumers and dining services, after a dozen years of "being at the mercy of the commodity beef market," in the words of Cathy Emmons, who owns the farm with her husband. And she says it's moving very close to break-even.
"I like providing healthy food for middle-class families," she says. "At the same time, we want to make our farm sustainable, so when we pass it on to our kids, they won't just have debt."
The only potential fly in the ointment for these small farms may be the federal government, and its campaign to head off potential outbreaks of Mad Cow and avian flu epidemics. A new book, Mad Sheep: The True Story of the USDA's War on a Family Farm (Chelsea Green, September, 2006), recounts the experiences of Linda Faillace, a Vermont sheep farmer, who eventually gave up her small farm after the U.S. Agriculture Dept. destroyed her sheep herd because of fears of Mad Cow disease—even though she contends the disease hasn't been a problem for sheep.
Fighting the Feds
Additional efforts by the U.S. Agriculture Dept. to implement a farm registration and animal identification program before the end of this decade, to help in more easily isolating and monitoring disease outbreaks, has many small farms on edge (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/19/06, "Farmers Say No to Animal Tags").
A number of organizations representing small farms are fighting the proposals. According to one such organization, Rural Vermont (www.ruralvermont.org), "If this program is implemented, it's very likely that many small-scale meat, milk, and egg producers will simply go out of business rather than deal with overly burdensome regulations." The group also argues that the dangers of disease stem more from large "factory farm practices of keeping animals indoors," as opposed to small farms, which mostly raise their animals outdoors.
Nevertheless, Bill Emmons, Cathy's husband, says he isn't worried about the government's animal-identification efforts, since he already keeps meticulous records of each of his 120 cattle. "We know what each pound of beef costs us. It's just good business." I certainly hope Emons is right. As far as we've come as an urbanized, digitized country, there's something refreshing about seemingly going back in history, back to the land, and meeting and learning from the farmer who has produced the food you're purchasing.
Updates on this trend can be found at Gumpert's blog thecompletepatient.com.