[The following is an excerpt taken from my book, 'A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture'.]
Chapter 33. Connecting Farmers and Consumers
The opportunities for consumers to buy food directly from farmers have been increasing. In Iowa, there are now 223 farmers markets, and farmers market sales have increased 92 percent over the past five years. Farmers markets give consumers the opportunity to meet the farmer who produces the food they eat and to ask questions about how their food is produced.
Another system for farmers to market directly to consumers is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). A CSA is a community of consumers who essentially pledge to support a farm operation for the duration of a growing season. CSA members become like shareholders and share in the risks and benefits of the farm’s food production for the season. Members pay for the season in advance to cover the costs of the farm operation and the farmer’s salary. The advantages of CSAs for farmers are that they can do their marketing during the off season; they receive payment early, which helps with the farm’s cash flow; and they can get to know the people who eat the food they grow. The advantages for consumers are that they get to know their farmer and can ask questions about how their food is grown; they get very fresh food; and they get to visit their farm and learn more about farming and new foods. According to the USDA, in 2007 there were 12,549 CSAs in the United States.
There are a number of other direct marketing opportunities for farmers. Farmers with U-Pick farms grow crops that are harvested by customers who come to the farm. That relieves farmers of much of the burden of harvesting and gives customers the opportunity to experience a farm and reduce the cost of their food. Roadside stands and farmstead marketing can also be good options for farms located near a well traveled highway, allowing them to get near-retail prices without having to deliver to a distant market.
A growing number of farmers market directly to restaurants. Restaurants will even sometimes put the farm name and products on the menu if a farmer can provide a consistent high-quality product. Selling directly to schools and other institutions is another growing opportunity for farmers. A number of state, federal and privately supported programs are now available to help farmers connect with school lunchrooms, college dining halls, hospitals and other institutions. These connections not only support local farmers, but also improve the nutritional quality of institutional food and can provide health and nutrition education for students.
The Internet can be used as a direct marketing tool for farmers. For example, the Iowa Food Cooperative uses online marketing to connect farmers and customers. Farmer members can upload information on product availability and prices on the co-op’s website.iii Customers browse the site and put the food items they select into their virtual shopping carts. The farmers deliver the ordered food items to a central drop-off point once a week where their customers stop to pick them up. Because the co-op lists products from many farmers, customers have a wider choice of food products available than is generally possible through a CSA. And unlike a CSA, customers know exactly what they are getting. An advantage of this system to farmers is that, unlike a farmers market, they know exactly what is sold before they deliver, so they don’t have to bring home unsold product.
Another opportunity for farmers is for them to work together and partner with other segments of the food chain to create regional food systems. A regional food system can be thought of as consisting of a value chain of many links. The sequence of links can be delineated as 1) input supplier, 2) farmer, 3) processor, 4) distributor, 5) wholesaler, 6) retailer and 7) consumer. The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture has done some work in helping farmers form value chain partnerships so they can get better market access for their products.
In the northern climate zones of the continental United States, the length of the growing season is a major limiting factor for local food production. A short growing season not only limits the amount of production possible but also can make it difficult for farmers to develop long-term relationships with restaurants, grocery stores and institutions that require a year-around food supply. It usually takes a food purchaser who is sold on the benefits of local food and local economies to make local food purchases work in coordination with ongoing food purchases from national suppliers.
To increase their ability to produce local food for longer during the year, farmers can lengthen their growing season with greenhouses or low-cost structures like high tunnels, which can extend the growing season by as much as 10 weeks.
[Stay tuned to this blog: I will be posting all the chapters from my book, 'A New Vision For Iowa Food And Agriculture' to this blog during the final weeks before the election on November 2nd. I look forward to any comments or questions you have.]