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This usually requires getting into the business of marketing and selling. Some high-value farmers run their own stands or stores, deliver to regular buyers at urban restaurants or gourmet food shops, or run phone or mail-order operations. Their goods generally command price premiums over competing mass-produced products.
This strategy has made a big difference in some parts of the country. The number of farms in several northeastern states actually rose during the 1980s. Maine added 400 farms in five years. In Massachusetts, the number of farms went up by more than 10 percent in just four years. The number of farms in New Jersey rose 9 percent from 1982 to 1987, to 9,032. Most of these new operations, and many of the older existing farms in New England and the Atlantic states, prosper by running diversified low-cost operations, by taking advantage of their proximity to major urban centers, by selling direct to consumers, and by concentrating on under-served niches for high-value products. “Niche farming is particularly important if one views agriculture from the point of view of practitioners rather than acres,” says Bill Baumgardt, director of agricultural extension services at the Purdue Agriculture School. It can occupy lots of farm labor even while the vast bulk of land remains devoted to conventional husbandry. And niche farmers need not turn out a brand new, or especially exotic, product. Soybean farmers, says Baumgardt, may simply concentrate on the slightly different varieties that are exported to Japan for tofu making. Some corn farmers may plant only the strains that are desirable for industrial starch uses.
Missouri corn farmer Blake Hurst hopes to break out of the bulk commodity strait jacket by relying on a commonplace yet nontraditional crop. He and his bright, high-energy wife Julie have just built four large greenhouses behind their home and recently bought a flower shop in a nearby town. They plan to run a bedding and ornamental-plant business, selling to local homeowners. They hope that business, plus perhaps some journalistic income from Blake, will allow them to get out of the row-crop trade.
Hurst writes that some of his Corn Belt neighbors are venturing out in similar fashion to put their family finances on firmer, more independent footing: “West of town, land that used to grow the best corn in Atchison county is now planted to potatoes, a crop that doesn’t depend on subsidies, but rather on America’s appetite for potato chips. North of town, some neighbors are experimenting with broccoli, another nonsubsidized crop. Further north, a group of farmers’ wives distribute their handsewn clothing to yuppies nationwide.”
Not all diversification ventures will succeed, and they can be oversold. “Some of these things come and go. I can remember talk about rabbit farms, worm farms, you name it, and none of them took,” warns Martens. Adds Iowa extension agent Mike Duffy, “There is a lot of room for more diversification on Iowa farms--an acre of strawberries, three acres of blueberries, whatever. But high-value crops have higher variances. Only if a farmer has the labor and management skills, and if he markets the crop before it goes into the ground, is it a good idea.”
“I know a guy who planted 100 acres of asparagus without giving a thought as to how he was going to sell it,” reports farm consultant Eldon Hans. “He ended up plowing 85 percent of it under.” Says Hurst, “We’re not going to solve the farm problem by everyone growing shiitake mushrooms. But people are trying new things, and efforts to broaden the agricultural economy will eventually pay off. I know our greenhouse is growing rapidly and helping us a lot.”
Other families eager to stay in small-scale farming have turned to what Missouri Farm publisher Ron Macher calls “agripreneurship.” Writer Anita Evangelista, who herself lives on a farm, describes how one Missouri farm wife signs up families in her small town on a “subscription vegetable” list. Every couple weeks, she delivers 10 to 20 pounds of just-picked veggies to each home, taking away $15 at each stop.
She hopes to have 25 or so enrollees next year (that’s $750 a month), and she does it all on less than four acres. A six-acre family operation in Maine provides 100 families with a full spring/summer/fall array of garden crops for about $320 each annually. Comparable crops, less fresh, would cost about $550 in the supermarket.
In the mid-l950s, Robert Bitz began to focus his family’s small central New York farm on turkey raising. Today, the operation, thriving and no longer small, is both remarkably specialized and astonishingly complete in its field-to-dinner plate production cycle. Robert and son Mark supervise the growing of corn on more than 600 acres of land, the combination of that corn and other ingredients into turkey feed at the farm feedmill, the raising of 400,000 turkeys a year, and the processing of all of those gobblers right at the farm plant-not only as roasting birds but also into a growing range of specialized products like turkey pastrami, smoked turkey, and sausage.
The Bitzes market and transport their products throughout upstate New York and run a broad promotional effort for their own Plainville Farms brand, including a popular visitors center and an ambitious advertising campaign with its own cartoon character. As if that were not enough, the farm also operates two restaurants-one sit-down, one fast-food-that serve prepared Plainville Farms products directly to the public.
In addition to allowing careful quality control at each step, this remarkable string of value-adding processes lets the farm capture for itself more of the income that derives from its product.
Although many farmers can prosper by selling more effectively in their own backyards, most of the future demand for U.S. agricultural products will come from abroad. Purdue University Agriculture Dean Robert Thompson argues that American farmers “have viewed the export market too often as a place to get rid of transitory surpluses, not as a regular and planned outlet for a significant fraction of their product.”
To build export markets, U.S. agricultural groups need to further develop offices and long-term relationships abroad, and to help American farmers tailor their output to the needs of other countries. The Third World in particular offers enormous export potential. As people become wealthier, they sharply increase the amount of meat in their diets, and those animals must be fed grains and protein meals that in a great many cases can be supplied at low cost only by American growers.
Another area where farmers need to become much more active is in what might be referred to as private price insurance. Farmers have price problems: They sell an undifferentiated product into a market made up of thousands of small suppliers all selling the same thing. As a result of this intense competition, they have no control over what price they get. And in some cases the price shifts dramatically in the brief interval between planting and harvest-turning an expected profit into a loss.
Insulating farmers from some of the shock of these price swings has long been a major aim of government farm programs. They have done so fitfully, with many strings attached, and at great cost. But for most of this century farmers had few alternatives. Fairly recently, however, a host of new trading institutions and pricing mechanisms for farm products has sprung up, giving farmers a chance to shift much of the risk inherent in cultivation onto their customers and onto financial speculators.