Making a living off "food farms" instead of USDA commodity farms isn't easy. But it's OK.
One thing I’ve learned from being a farmer is that the government generally thinks it knows more about my business than I do.
Most farmers I’m acquainted with aren’t comfortable with harvesting a crop while the seed’s still in the bag, but that’s what the U.S. Department of Agriculture does every year, with its predictions. Like most farmers, I generally scratch my head when I read the first projections out of Washington telling the world what I’ll earn and what I’ll grow in the next twelve months.
Already this year USDA is spreading the word that my income will be down 20% even though I’ll grow as much as ever. (I sure hope Mother Nature doesn’t read those reports.)
My business is an open book to the world, but big corporations have learned to keep their secrets to themselves. Big banks are really good at that, but they’re not alone.
Big Food and my government have convinced Americans to consume concoctions of unknown origin from colorful wrappings. It’s all about packaging, and tolerance, because there is tolerance for contamination of everything we eat, even salmonella in peanut butter. It’s strange, sometimes, what governments really do know and tolerate.
But we still have choices, and to quote a friend, “Hey — it’s OK!”
That’s what I heard Joe Maxwell say at the Missouri Farmers Union annual meeting in late January when he spoke on the current condition of our nation’s farms. Joe is a former Missouri Lt. Governor, an attorney, and, along with his brother Steve, a fourth generation Missouri family farmer.
According to Joe, there are different approaches to farming, and they’re all OK … as long as no one gets hurt.
Joe and Steve have figured out that the same farm that has provided for their family for four generations is no longer large enough to sustain itself as one of USDA’s commodity farms producing just corn or beans. That’s definitely NOT OK with them.
So the Maxwells started thinking about what would make their farm profitable and sustainable. That’s the type of thinking behind several businesses around here, such as Heritage Acres Pork, Sappington Market, Missouri’s Best Beef, and Gateway Beef. All are Missouri cooperative businesses, products of the Family Farm Opportunity Center (FFOC). FFOC is an outgrowth of Missouri Farmers Union that seeks to build new generation cooperatives offering better marketing power and products for Missouri family farms.
The way Joe Maxwell sees it, if farmers want to produce USDA regulated commodities, “It’s OK.” But if farmers want to grow and market food to earn a better return and sustain the family farm, then that should be OK, too, even though moving out of the commodity production comfort zone can require a commitment of time above and beyond the call of duty.
In addition to his full-time, off-farm job working in a local warehouse and operating the Maxwell farm, Steve Maxwell took on the task of driving a refrigerated delivery truck for Heritage Acres, the cooperative organic meat producer. That was his commitment to building market share among food retailers, and just one example of the extreme level of dedication offered by many of the farmers associated with the cooperative.
As with Steve’s mobile marketing entreaties, the challenge of building markets was borne out late last summer when I attended a Growing Growers of Kansas City market gardening workshop in St. Joseph. What I learned there confirmed that the challenges of marketing food can be almost as great as those involved in producing it.
Growers attending the workshop heard from agronomist/grower Tim Walters, Kansas State plant pathologist Megan Kennelly, and K State entomologist Ray Cloud. Then we all traveled south to the outskirts of town and Nature’s Choice, a “food” farm owned by Fred and Helen Messner.
Fred told us that small farms cannot compete on the same playing field with big commodity farms. Originally a Northwest Missouri dairy farmer, Fred took time out from farming to work in Australia. That’s where he met Helen. Eventually Fred and Helen came back to Missouri to settle down on the 40 acres that became Nature’s Choice.
Fred calls Nature’s Choice an “enterprise-based farming operation.” He said that food farmers need to innovate continuously because competing farmers adapt rather quickly to gain market share. Signs of Fred’s and Helen’s innovations are scattered everywhere around the farm.
Fred learned that the consumer’s idea of a bargain wasn’t buying cheap food but getting his money’s worth. So whenever Fred weighs out a purchase, he always tips the scales toward the heavy side. That earns him hearty customer ratings.
As Steve Maxwell learned with his delivery truck, a big part of marketing involves getting acquainted with buyers and building relationships. Fred found that to market effectively, getting the buyer’s attention at a farmers’ market takes some doing. It sounds strange, but Fred said that he was displaying too much of what he had to sell at the market. Customers had trouble seeing it. So Fred started featuring only a few of his vegetables so customers could focus.
According to Fred, “The bigger the heap, the better it sells.” He said that time after time, consumers would ask if he had a particular vegetable or fruit even though he had them covering the table in plain sight. So he developed the practice of keeping most of his stock out of sight, except for one attention-getting heap in the middle of the table.
Fred’s mantra is, “Make a sale.” Any marketing practice that helps a customer decide in favor of making a purchase is worth pursuing. Keep in mind, too, that conventional farmers’ markets are only open a few hours each day. The most popular products normally sell out quickly. Customers are more focused and buy more readily when they believe supply is limited.
That approach stands in contrast to something I heard Joe say, that as big corporations grow and gain more control of markets they tend to let some business fall away. Big business views small, specialty customers as too time-consuming and expensive to maintain. That opened up an opportunity for Heritage Acres, when proprietary sausage makers in places like Kansas City, or even as far away as the West Coast, were finding it harder and harder to locate reliable local supplies of high-quality fresh meat.
While the perception of limited supplies worked for Fred, it is the fact that supplies of certain products are indeed limited that makes other markets work.
Heritage Acres is a perfect example. Joe told the story of introducing some pepperoni makers to free-range hog producer and MFU president Russ Kremer. After riding in the car from the airport to the farm and seeing how more than 50 Missouri farmers grow Heritage Acres antibiotic free pork, the buyers were sold.
With Sappington Farmers’ Market in St Louis, a wide variety of Missouri food — everything from asparagus to zucchini — is available in season alongside Heritage Acres Pork, Missouri’s Best Beef, and other Missouri products. Sappington’s advertises the origins of its food right down to the farmers who grow it. They display the pictures of producers like Nancy Smith, Jim Byrd, and Ron McNear prominently on their website in order to acquaint patrons with the farm side of the food equation.
They’re even showing a profit. That is definitely OK.
Harder than marketing the pork, however, was finding a reliable meat processor. Heritage Acres had buyers, but struggled to find a company that could slaughter and process the meat. There simply weren’t enough slaughter facilities in the area.
That problem seems to have disappeared with an agreement struck between Heritage Acres and Tai Shin Foods, a Taiwan-based food corporation. When Tai Shin came to Pleasant Hope, the company intended to buy and slaughter some of the thousands of hogs grown in and around that part of Missouri. After purchasing a state-of-the-art facility, complete with worker dormitories, Tai Shin found that most of the hogs grown in confinement facilities in the area were already under contract to other companies.
Heritage Acres surplus met Tai Shin’s deficit and now, thanks to an agreement with Tai Shin, Heritage Acres is able not only to process their own pork but also to buy and process additional hogs from other local producers in order to satisfy growing demand.
A modern, efficient and humane slaughter facility is a dream come true for the Maxwell brothers, Kremer, and all the other members of the cooperative owning Heritage Acres.
Chances are if you ask the members of Missouri Farmers Union if it has been worth it, they’ll agree that the struggle is real and ongoing. But like Joe Maxwell says, “It’s OK” because the reward of markets has been a chance to stay on the land. For Missouri Farmers Union family farms, that has been worth the wait.