Last Saturday, at our local farmers market, I met a man selling bread and pastries. He told me that his Denver bakery has no store front and only sells at farmers markets, craft fairs and festivals ranging from Fort Collins in the north to Colorado Springs in the South – a drive of an hour and a half either direction. It’s his bakery’s solution to getting the best prices possible by selling direct to the consumer. That’s the same reason that farmers and ranchers sell their products at Farmers Markets, and have created CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) and Co-ops. These sales outlets cut out the middle man and are supposed to help farmers and ranchers take home more of the profit.
This direct-to-consumer marketing has been applauded by “Buy Local” movements and is seen as a return to the way things were done in the past before “industrial agriculture” took over. But, according to author and farmer Bob Comis, the idea that we’re returning to the past is really a myth we have created. Bob has been reading plenty of old agriculture books and journals dating back as far as the 1800s and what he’s discovered is that what we may think of as a return to the “good old days” may actually be a new way of marketing and selling food that has never been done before in the United States.
“Back in the day,” farmers didn’t farm for retail customers, such a concept would have been absolutely foreign to them (they might have sold to the neighbors, but that is just something they did, not their way of making money), they farmed for the market, and back then “market” meant a wholesale market, not a retail market like what we have today. Every couple of days if they grew vegetables, and a few times a year if they raised meat, they loaded up their trucks and drove down to the market where wholesale buyers (who resell to large retailers) and purveyors (who sell themselves) bid and haggled to purchase the produce of their farms. By mid-morning, the truck was empty and the farmer was on his way back out to the farm with a pocket full of money.”
Actually, we knew this all along, and we’ve even watched it on TV. Clint Eastwood and “Rawhide” showed us the cattle drives to railheads in Kansas City that hauled livestock to the Chicago stockyards. From 1866 to 1886, cowboys eventually herded 20 million cattle to rail towns, in herds of of about 3,000 at a time. To move the meat from Chicago to major population centers in the east, meat-packing magnate Gustavus Swift perfected the refrigerated rail car in 1880. (We can also thank Gustavus for the use of animal by-products in oleomargarine, soap, glue, fertilizer, hairbrushes and more. His packing plants developed these uses in response to public outcries to reduce pollutants generated by his plants. And without him, we probably wouldn’t have the Federal Meat Inspection Act of 1906. It was written after Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” shocked the nation by documenting the horrifying conditions in and disgusting products coming from meat packing plants.)
So, if you are one of the farmers and ranchers direct marketing your products to consumers, the reason it may seem so difficult is because it’s never been done before. You are setting up completely new distribution channels, and doing something new is always hard. Bob Comis also notes that it’s especially frustrating for those who “just want to farm” instead of loading up products in coolers on weekends and heading to a market to man/woman a stand for an entire day.
If you’re one of the “I just want to farm” folks, selling in the commodities market may make the most sense. But there are also other possibilities out there that, with just a little more effort, could work for you while increasing the profit you take home. We’ve already shared one example with a pilot project being tested by Cornell Cooperative Extension. Co-ops may offer another way to step away from commodity markets. In a way, they may reflect a lesson from our past, when ranchers combined their herds to make their drives to market more efficient and cost-effective. But to be successful, you’ll need a good infrastructure. To help you with that, we’ll share some examples of other successful Co-Ops. And, we’ll also be sharing more of Bob Comis’s ideas about how to create a “profitable non-commodity local-regional wholesale opportunities for the majority of farmers out there who “just want to farm.””
Editor’s Note: Thanks to Bob Comis of Stonybrook Farm for sharing excerpts from his blog pieces.