Local-based, alternativemarketing
strategy could
help save more small farms

Thomas W. Gray, Ph.D.
Rural Sociologist
USDA Rural Development

Author’s note: This article draws heavily
Growing Home: A Guide for
Reconnecting Agriculture, Food and
Communities, by Joanna Green and
Duncan Hilchey, Cornell Community, Food
and Agriculture Program, Ithaca, N.Y.

he long, historic trend in U.S. agricultural development has been toward ever-fewer, larger farms — a process some have likened to being on a treadmill. Cycle after cycle, fewer farmers on larger farms account for increasing proportions of total production. The process has been fueled in-part by continued adoption of various mechanical and chemical innovations.

These innovations (including increasingly large tractors and machinery, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers) permit greater tracks of land to be farmed more intensively by fewer farmers.

The sheer volume of products produced from this system has been so large that, even in the face of population expansion and exports, prices have tended to remain level or decline.

Historically, farmers not able, or unwilling, to get on the “industrializing treadmill” have found survival difficult. Many of these farms go fallow, or are bought out by neighboring farmers.

As an aftermath of these processes, farm families displaced from their farms tend to leave the local community.

An alternative path
Many rural sociologists — including Thomas Lyson, Green and Hilchey of Cornell, Steve Stevenson and Fred Buttel of the University of Wisconsin, Larry Yee and Gail Feenstra of the University of California-Davis, among others — say that an alternative to this technologically intensive path of farming began to emerge in the late 1970s, called “alternative agriculture.”

This alternative farming path provides strategies linking local production to local and regional consumption, without employing technologies that require an increasing scale of production. Ultimately, these approaches seek to keep as many family farmers operating as possible by improving their economic returns.

Less emphasis is placed upon production of commodities (de-commodification) and on diversification (less specialization). It involves finding local and regional market niches, rather than national and global markets. This approach is often pursued with an emphasis on producing nutritious, safe food in a manner that is environmentally sound. Explicit consideration is given to the social, environmental and economic links to the local community.

This article has a twofold purpose: 1) to review some of the marketing strategies used in these alternative approaches, and 2) to draw implications

for cooperative organization. Following are some alternative farm marketing approaches being used successfully: The local advantage
Nearly all of these activities involve some aspect of localism. Community supported agriculture, restaurant agriculture, farmers’ markets and farm-to-school and institutional buying programs all typically have strong “buy-local” themes. Buylocal campaigns seek to expand the consumption of local products, thereby bringing greater economic returns to the local area, rather than sending those same consumption dollars “out of town.”

Farmers selling their products directly to consumers do not have to share value with middlemen. Dollars spent locally for local products multiplies the economic benefits of this spending.

It also draws out the creativity of local people. Part of buying locally may also involve products that are almost emblematic of shared local values. For example, a rural town may be known as the “pumpkin or blueberry capital” of its state; or the highlight of a town’s annual events calendar may center on hosting the state’s sweet potato, almond or turnip festival. In some states, these are important tourism events. Crops can become a primary focus of community identity — one which the entire population wants to preserve.

This local identity can sometimes be expanded to a regional or statewide identity with a great deal of consumer value. Green and Hilchey note such marketing messages as: your familyfarm neighbors; keeping dollars in the local community; knowing the farmer who produced your food; preserving open space in the community. These types of appeals may be combined with such regional identifiers as:
Pennsylvania Dutch, Appalachian, Blue Ridge, Low Country, Up-Country, Down East, Eastern Shore, Twin- Lakes, and countless others.

Role for co-ops
While many of these strategies do not rely on formal cooperative organization in their development, cooperative formation could be quite useful in resolving some of the difficulties and challenges.

Cooperatives have been successful in agriculture because relatively small producers with similar production operations and output had a strong common need for marketing services and production supplies. Farmers marketing to schools, nursing homes, hospitals and restaurants face similar product assembly, marketing coordination and standardization problems. These market niches require timely, dependable and reliable delivery of high-quality products. They also require a diversity of products — fruits, vegetables, dairy and meats. However, the vagaries of farming — weather being the largest — can make the best of these links tenuous.

A local cooperative organization can provide a mechanism for drawing upon several farmers for a variety of products, while providing for assembly, delivery and standardization that ensures quality. This same cooperative might also provide a bargaining function.

The larger the volume, the greater the number of customers and cooperative members, the more formal relationships become. Beyond a certain size — often thought to be about 100 members in a cooperative — relationships become much more “business only,” and much less personal. Developing trust with chefs and school administrators, for example, becomes more difficult.

Smaller scale allows for more personal relationships, the development of trust and true “localism.” However, larger-scale operations may allow for greater flexibility in terms of both product diversity and processing.

New-generation cooperatives are slightly different from the above activities in terms of localism. They are generally organized for much larger markets than those found locally. They are less experimental, in that they focus on the development of new markets for traditionally produced commodities. However, they are oriented to capturing more value for the local farmer and often do so while emphasizing the regional and local identity of the product.

Lyson, and others, argue that any of these alternatives should be pursued for a number of reasons, not the least of which are the rural development goals of economic growth and quality of life enhancement (see sidebar below on community benefits).

This article has suggested possibilities for smaller cooperative organizations. However, larger cooperatives — even if only in support of the activities of others — could help pursue alternatives that are more directed toward maintaining farmer traditions and the survivability of farmers as a group while sustaining small rural communities.

How small farms benefit communities

Preserving small farms provides numerous benefits for rural America. They help maintain the population base necessary to keep local schools, churches, restaurants and retail stores operating. Green and Hilchey summarize this series of benefits of alternative agriculture development. They note that local farms:

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