Commercial Farm ProjectsEconomicsVillage Development

What’s Holding Our Local Farmers Back?

As much as I love fresh local food, why isn’t there more of it? Why aren’t there more small farmers selling their amazing produce to their own communities? What’s stopping them?

For sure, the local food movement is growing, but why is it still at the fringe of society? Or am I just being impatient?

In my last post, I looked at excuses consumers make to justify their supermarket addiction. Today, lets look at it from a farmer’s point of view. What’s holding our local farmers back?

Farmer or marketing guru?

It’s one thing to coax nature into providing a healthy bountiful harvest. It’s another thing to find a market for it. Most farmers I know are much happier tending their plants and animals than brainstorming a clever marketing strategy. Is there some characteristic that makes for a great farmer but a lousy marketer? Or is there something about the often deceptive side of marketing that turns farmers off?

Whether it is an aversion to slick marketing or a lack of experience, the bottom line is that without customers, there is no farm. Having access to a vibrant market eager to gobble up your fresh local food is key to any farming business.

Is farming a business or a lifestyle?

It may be due to the idyllic rural environment, but I’ve noticed that many small farmers see farming more as a lifestyle than a business. But if a farm is not run like a business, then is it worth taking all those risks for minimum wage, or worse, losses? I think that there’s no good reason why farmers shouldn’t being earning a decent white-collar salary and drive a BWM like city folks if they want to.

I would argue that natural farming, with all its variables and uncertainties, is one of the most intellectually challenging occupations out there and it should be financially rewarding enough to attract the best and the brightest minds.

They’re farmers, not computer geeks

Most farmers don’t have a degree in computer science either. Setting up basic software to do accounting, to keep the business organized and communicate with customers is not just technically challenging, but expensive and time-consuming as well. If farmers want a professional website that represents the quality food they produce, say goodbye to 1000s of dollars and huge chunks of their their time — resources they could be using to grow food.

Money doesn’t grow on trees

Traditionally, farming is a capital intensive business. Land is expense, tools and machinery are expensive and it all requires solid infrastructure. Farmers have the unique challenge to earn a year’s salary in one season. That means there’s often very limited surplus capital to invest in tools, websites, business management systems, marketing plans, advertising, and professional education to learn to farming methods and develop business skills.

Small farms, big red tape

You want to plant vegetables or a mixed fruit and nut orchard, but the government says “sorry this land is for corn only”. Want to farm-process your own livestock for meat? No problem, you only need a cool million to invest into a state-approved industrial slaughter house.

No only do we live in an overly regulated world, but the game is rigged by the biggest players in order to keep us little guys out. You can’t win this game, so you have to invent your own. The successful small farmer is an innovator. And we need a space to share our creative ideas with each other if we’re going to dodge the bullets of corporate-sponsored government bureaucracy.

Why aren’t more permies farming professionally?

There are wonderful permaculture demonstration sites and education centres all over the world. And we need more, many more. But what about permaculture demonstration farms turning a healthy profit through the sale of food with open financial reporting to back it up?

It is definitely not a question whether ecologically sound farming is economically viable. I think it is more a question of identifying the challenges of being a small polycutural farmer and seeking answers.

After all, the problem is the solution, right?

30 Comments

  1. No mention of the fact that corporate agro-industrial food is subsidised by about $1bn a day (globally), not including the $1.2 trillion annual fossil fuel subsidies keeping fertiliser production cheap. Small, local farmers struggle to compete against massively subsidised food. consumers want cheap food.

  2. It’s true many consumers want cheap food, but markets are created and ‘grow’ when customers demand fresh, organically produced food from local growers. This system has worked well and expanded in the US and Europe, especially over the last decade and now local organic produce is mainstream. More social media attention!

  3. I know plenty of kick-ass permaculture farms in Australia turning a good profit from primary production – but they don’t call themselves permaculture. They just call themselves farmers. Go looking for really good farmers and you’ll find systems that could easily be called permacultures.

  4. “If farmers want a professional website that represents the quality food they produce, say goodbye to 1000s of dollars and huge chunks of their their time…”

    Not true any more! See web-based website builders like SquareSpace, Wix and Weebly. Easy to use and they make great looking, functional sites.

    (no affiliation)

  5. If people can get over the idea that food should be cheap and actually support local farmers it would make a difference.
    Farming is a Lifestyle first, if you can make a profit all the better, it’s a rigged system at the moment with subsidies as mentioned before.
    Also for most starting farmers it’s a huge learning curve without a traditional family farm handed down. besides the land cost, the bulidings, animals and of course fertility from prior years are worth thousands of people hours invested in the farm.
    Also its hard to be innovative when you are trying to just pay the rent/mortage and deal with the weather :-)
    Trad farming is permaculture.:-)

    1. Your comment makes me think of Rob Roy’s ‘Mortgage Free’. If starting out, the strategies in that book is a much better way to go than going to the banks. Now that might mean ending up on degraded or drought prone land but that is where the opportunity to utilise PC strategies just simply kicks in. If one does not have the money then trying to follow the idyllic but expensive land purchase can lead to disheartening bank debts with all of the problems that you have pointed out. As Scott Nearing would say, ‘in life, pay as you go’.

  6. @ Catherine – That’s true but only to a very limited extend and only around big cities (in the US; don’t know much about other places). In many places 95% of the people believe that they can not afford to pay fair prices, not to mention that after 50 years of looking at the prices skewed by subsidies and industrial farming practices people don’t even know what fair price is. “$6 for a dz of eggs? Are you kidding me?” – coming from someone who has no problem paying like $100 for a computer game. Farming is a difficult work and having to convince people that $6 is actually just above your break even price for organic eggs is just the last straw. I know many farmers who grow just enough for themselves and for barter with other local folks because growing for the market is just not worth it with the prices that exist now. Why would you turn your nice lifestyle into a stressful business and fill your days with back-breaking work for $5/hr.? So, most folks just have a town job or some other stream of income not connected to selling food.
    I think the points that Mr. Bliss raises are all good and valid ones but skewed food prices is the reason number 1, outweighing the rest of them, at least in the areas that do not have access to big city markets with substantial numbers of educated and/or well-off buyers.

  7. All good points. We could probably boil the issue down further to policy and education… Thanks all for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

    I will be bringing into discussion even more on this theme, including some pretty interesting solutions, over the next few weeks and months. I hope to be able to continue the dialog with you then.

  8. We are building a market garden farm from the ground up and trying to do everything we can without incurring debt. Once we have most of our infrastructure in place and sell our current residence, my husband will quit his job and we will move to the farm full time. We figure the only way we can do this is without a mortgage, and even then it is still scary. It will take us longer than we’d like (and we are not spring chickens!) but we don’t want to end up like so many small farmer’s before us – mortgaged to the hilt and not enough money to make ends meet. If we can also figure out how to grow most, if not all, of our livestock feed and figure out a good marketing strategy, then we may be able to pull this off. I am looking forward to your next article on possible solutions!

  9. I would support local organic farmers if there were any to support. I have lived here 45 years and there are two organic farmers within a 50km radius and another two (that I know of) within a 200km radius that are selling locally but they only grow one or two crops. The rest of our farmers (and I live in a rural farming area) are big ag operators. I know a lot of farmers but I do not know one who would want to change their lifestyle to a polyculture small income farming operation. Farming land here is big business using huge amount of expensive inputs to produce stuff for intrastate and export markets. Farmers here are not struggling or on marginal incomes. They have ‘status’ being huge property owners and they drive around in expensive cars and send their children to private boarding school over 300kms away. They own machinery and equipment worth millions of dollars. They are hardly going to start growing vegetables and sell them locally when they are dealing with forward contracts worth hundreds of thousands. The paradigm shift to change from that sort of scenario to small family run polyculture farms selling locally is just too radical for most farmers and not something they even contemplate.

  10. This is a dilemma I am having here in the US (Texas). I can grow great food in an ethical manner, but I can’t attract steady customers throughout the year to make ends meet. I don’t have time to focus on marketing on top actually farming. I also have to compete with farmers who spend a large portion of their time marketing and having fundraisers. They care more about their brand than the quality of their produce or their agricultural practice, and the fact of the matter is, the customers do too. My main competitors don’t even farm, they hire laborers at about half minimum wage or have unpaid interns who are work mules and turn over every month or so. It is absolutely green washed factory farming but customers eat it up as long as they have a cool logo and website or staff their market stands with hipsters. I live in a city where the food movement has taken off, but its already been co-opted. What’s worse is now the middle men are taking over the game where they buy from hundreds of miles away and call it local because the get a small percentage from local sources. They can deliver for less than what I have customers pick up on farm. They get most of their produce from where the box stores buy. But again, with their marketing the customers eat it up and are none the wiser. Customers think they are supporting meaningful change, but all that is happening is the industrial model is being replicated closer to home. Feels good, but its completely hollow.

  11. WHAT IF the best farmers were rewarded the most?

    WHAT IF there was a way for the little guys not only to compete with the big boys, but to blow their socks off?

    WHAT IF small farmers could leverage the advantage of million-dollar business tools and marketing campaigns just like corporations do?

    WHAT IF farmers could save hours of admin time every week and sell more?

    WHAT IF polycutural farming was more profitable (revenue – expenses) than large scale ag?

    WHAT IF the biggest problem small local farmers had was meeting demand?

    WHAT IF there was a way consumers could find, know, trust and buy fresh local food in a way that was not only easier than popping into the supermarket, but educational?

    WHAT IF I told you that all this was not only possible, but easy and within reach of anybody that shares a passion for fresh local food that you can trust?

    As I hinted upon above, I will soon be sharing with you something revolutionary. Something that will take small local farmers and their patrons into an era of absolute abundance. Something that has been very quietly developed over the past 18 months, a real working solution and example of chapter 14 of the Permaculture Designer’s Manual.

    Something that that was conceived at the Permaculture Institute in Tasmania, conceptualised in British Columbia Canada, and developed and refined in Scandinavia and the Austrian Alps.

    If you can rough it for just a wee bit longer, you could be first in your local area to benefit from it.

    This might be the biggest leap forward since portable electric fencing.

    But for now I can’t say more. Stay tuned.

    (anyone getting emails of follow-up comments here will be notified automatically)

  12. Have a look at the Moruya model, in southern NSW – a small knot of organic farmers working in smallholdings with incredibly diverse food offerings coming off each farm, running 2 food markets per week in a small town.

    That’s two fresh food markets. a week.

    Many of our regional cities in Oz don’t offer that, or have the local consumer buy-in to sustain it (yet). It’s providing multiple full-time livelihoods for farmers who are walking the talk of integrated systems, microfarming and polycultural intercropping, while getting a yield thats providing multiple living livelihoods, strengthening the local food system and creating a precedent that is spreading thru the south coast. it’s awesome.

  13. Absolutetly, I think the next step in the growth of the permaculture movement is to have them earn from what they produce. My partner and I are trying this out in Nerang (QLD), It is early days, but things are looking ok. Marketing is the key I recko. I would like to put up a website that can act as a hub for growers, so we aren’t so isolated.

    Eagerly waiting for the next installment!

    Scott Hall

    1. Ok Liz, I’ll make moves to set up a website. I’ll need a bit of time because i can’t do it myself. If we all link up we could really move forward! Please email me at seahorsey(at)gmail(dot)com and we’ll go from there, anyone else interested, please by all means email me. Once we get something together we may be able to put a call out on this website.

      Scott

      1. This is the kind of innovation I’m talking about! And it needs to be done in a way where we can build off the skills and expertise of each other, so that the wheel doesn’t need to be reinvented every time.

        I know you guys are chompin’ at the bit to get going on this, I am too, but as a permaculture teacher and IT professional, I would highly recommend not spending hours of your precious time on this if you can sit tight for just a tad longer… ;-)

  14. You wrote in your article “Why aren’t more permies farming professionally?”

    Well the Permaculture Skills Center in Sebastopol, CA is aiming to achieve just that. We’ve created Taproot Farm as a living example on how you can use permaculture design to successfully run and manage a production farm. We’re pretty young, but all of our research and findings will be available for anyone to replicate. We firmly believe that we need to train more people on how to run a successful farm business. Look forward to more coming soon.

    Thanks for the article.

  15. I farm professionally but cannott find anyone interested in sharefarming ie polyculture pigs chooks berries herbs,educationand im only 4 hrs from the coast so god help anyone in the outback!

  16. Hi Folks,

    Aspiring permie here….I was hoping to buy a piece of dirt and converting it into a commercial perma farm…I can’t seem to find a suitable piece of land in my budget close to the city. If I go too far in the bush, I am done. Any one have leads to small pieces of (not astronomically priced) land, 2-3 hrs near Melbourne. Any direction is fine.

    BT

    1. Why buy land at all? With the average age of farmers around 60, with nobody to take over the farm, there’s opportunity for all sorts of interesting partnerships that enable you to invest in income generating assets instead of pouring it into expensive land. They may even pay you for it! Eg. Mowing with geese or chicken tractors in conventional orchards.

      The modern mobile farm (mob grazing, portable electric fencing, designed/stacked systems) with the tools to stay lean and direct market their produce is a powerful combination…

      1. Fraser, you make a very interesting point. I’d still be concerned in relation to the large corporates picking up land and then dedicating that to * farming *.

        Already happening as I see it.

        B

        1. Indeed, that is evident here as well.

          What if there’s a day when industrial farming is the one that can’t compete because consumers demand high quality local, small farms have the tools to be hyper-efficient, governments can no longer afford to subsidize unsustainability, the soil has been already fully exploited by big Ag, and they no longer have the advantage of cheap oil?

          Maybe I’m dreaming, but for me it is still worth waking up every day to take at least one small step in that direction.

      2. But where’s the connection to land in that model? That’s just providing a service and pumping out meat. Where’s the joy in that? Its also capital intensive to acquire all the equipment, including trucks, etc. it would require.

        Curious, do you farm? If so, can you offer more info on how you do it?

        1. I’m not a commercial farmer, but I have been Mollison’s farm manager at the Permaculture Institute in Tasmania.

          Look into the model of farming that Joel Salatin advocates. He has written many books and just recently launched an excellent series of how-to videos with Verge Permaculture…

          If someone already has access to land or bucket-loads of cash then owning land is a great option! But the “portable farming model” mentioned above is a nice way to get started without taking on debt when a young farming enterprise is at its most fragile.

          1. Yeah, you don’t need trucks and heaps of capital intensive stuff to farm at all, they’re just toys these days, why plough? I have a tractor and don’t use it. Granted, I have had earthworx done, but they are a one off cost. The new farming model is lean. No shed- stuff on pallets under tarps. I made a lot of things like poultry shelters etc out of found and thrown away objects, I gravity feed all my irrigation, which is all low pressure 3/4″ and 1/2″, fittings are cheap. The main things I find essential are portable electric fencing, solar energizer, hoses, and odds and bobs like float valve stock waterers etc (connected to a water drum). Mostly these costs are one off, and just about everything else is comes out courtesy of the system. BUT!! the one thing you need is a LOT of time and energy!! And willing friends and family that you can press gang into service!! That’s the tradeoff. I chose not to purchase land and get involved with grubby banks and went for (creating) a landshare model. I really want to share what I am learning so others can benefit and I can benifit from them, so c’mon Fraser, what have you got for us? :-)

            PS I will post my books (accounts) and inventory when the appropriate web thingo is going.

  17. Hi Folks,

    Here’s the update I promised.

    Response has been phenomenal and there’s already a sizable waiting list, but if you drop me a line that you’re a farmer and a reader of Permaculture News, I’ll make sure you’ll be one of the first to benefit.

    Simple web software for stress-free farming: FoodForest

    The time has come to show the world what a noble and rewarding profession farming can be!

    Wishing you success and happiness,
    Fraser

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