Contrast these two recent articles, both discussing the business implications of small farms and local food.
The first is that the market for locally grown products is expanding, rapidly. That’s wonderful news for my friends and clients. This is more reassurance that this is not a fad, but a permanent part of our culture. While the dollar signs are great news, to me the subtext is more important. This economic success means that the ad hoc supply chains local farmers have established to get their products to the customer are working. If almost $5 B has changed hands in this ad-hoc system, that is a promising sign of permanence.
Secondly, both the NYT and NPR recently ran the EXCLUSIVE STORY that it is tough to raise capital for a farming enterprise. I know, I was totally blown away too.
Would this story be at all interesting if it were about the entry costs of a private dentistry practice? Of course you would be bored to tears reading about that in the Times. It’s not interesting because the reader already assumes it’s expensive. Why do we not think it is just as tough to get into farming?
The perception that it is easy to get into farming is unfortunate. There is a naive assumption out there that a farmer is someone who just puts some seeds in the ground and tickles them occasionally with a hoe until perfectly formed organic carrots spring forth. Farming, especially in America, is a highly diversified, sophisticated industry. We actually have very good farmers here and the most successful ones treat their “farm” as a professional enterprise. It should never be a shock for any business to have to fight for capital. A Times article this patronizing only feeds the presumption that farming is for hicks.
More broadly, it is time for the neophyte farmer to replace their zeal with the steady realization that farming is hard physically, logistically and financially. Small farms and local food have already had their Thomas Payne Moment, courtesy of Messrs. Pollan and Schlosser, et al. It is now time to conduct the boring administrative details in order to consolidate the gains made by the pioneers. That means scaled-down logistics, food lawyers, ag economists, accountants, local and farm-friendly commercial lenders, and all that clerical stuff. This is the real infrastructure of an alternative food system that will not go away as a fad but will continue to make its market participants lots and lots of money. It’s evolution, not revolution.
I encourage any growers among my readership to share their tips or anecdotes on raising capital in the comments box, especially how you overcame the business challenges.