First of a three-part series on food and the environment.
Frog Hollow Farm peaches. Star Route Farms baby greens. Fulton Valley free-range chicken. Thanks to Alice Waters and the organic movement, menus in Northern California read like farm tour guides, filled with the names of regions, breeders, and specialist producers. According to a panel of economists at a seminar on food and the environment held at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism September 22-26, focusing on singular products is the direction small-scale organic farmers must take if they’re to survive. In fact, the economists said, organic farmers must apply the branding strategies that Target, McDonald’s, and Nike have perfected.
Americans now pay less for food — on average, less than twelve percent of our annual incomes — than we ever have. According to David Zilberman, professor in the department of agricultural and resource economics at UC Berkeley, the cost of a bushel of corn has dropped from an adjusted $10 in 1850 to $3 today. Advances in technology and the breeding of higher-yielding strains of plants have increased the global per capita yield of farms by twelve percent since 1950. And advances in transportation mean that grains are now sold around the world.
The global market favors areas that produce the highest yields of specific crops — say, wheat from Kansas, or corn from Indiana. But even Kansas and Indiana now have to compete with powerhouse grain-growing regions such as Argentina and Ukraine. Farms in lower-producing regions such as the Dakotas and northern Texas just don’t stand a chance in a worldwide market.
The massive economies of scale that keep consumer prices low favor only the largest agribusinesses. Steven Blank, author of The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio, quoted recent USDA stats that the largest eight percent of all American farmers make an average of $117,000 a year. But two-thirds of all US farms generate an average annual loss of $2,800.
So how can small farms stay alive? Using the land for nonfarming activities such as hunting or dude ranching is one answer. So is contracting to produce specific products for consumers, such as potatoes for McDonald’s or organic dino kale for Chez Panisse. Zilberman believes the best solution is to sell a unique product.
This is the strategy that is allowing organic farms to thrive. By producing — and marketing — a product that is perceived as better for consumers, locally grown, and better-tasting, small-scale organic farmers can charge higher prices as they develop consumer loyalty. The Frog Hollow Farm peach is the populist equivalent of the Ridge Zinfandel. It may look long and clunky on the menu, but oh, how sweet it tastes.