Source: Chris Newman
... Go to a big farmers market this weekend and have a look around. Each of those independent producers would tell you interesting stories: 80-hour (or more) workweeks, getting by without health insurance, paying employees next to nothing, and/or relying on volunteers, supplementing with outside jobs. Enduring broken marriages, worn-out bodies, social isolation, strained finances, emotional burnout.
These are the conditions my grandfather’s generation endured that convinced their children to get as far away from the farm as possible. The current and relatively young generation of back-to-the-landers, diving into an ocean of nostalgia for pearls that aren’t there, is setting the stage for a similar generational exit when their children come of age.
Unless, of course, we choose a different way.
Imagine all the producers at that market combining their acreage, expertise, supply chains, and financial resources into a co-op committed to producing food regeneratively, responsibly, and ethically. The results would be astonishing:
- Costs of production would decrease significantly. Orders of seed, feed, equipment, and supplies would no longer just be in bulk, they’d be at a regional scale. Labor hours would be reduced as dozens of farmers are no longer replicating the same tasks (e.g. purchasing, bookkeeping, inventory, etc.)
- Market share would swell. Owing to lower prices, larger quantities, and more accessible markets, we’d be able to service a much larger segment of the market. Increases in volume would reduce overhead costs, more than offsetting the reduction in each unit’s top-line. (e.g. — we net more money selling 100 chickens to a single restaurant at a 30 percent discount than we do to 100 individuals because that bulk order means we’re not paying for individual storage, transport, potential spoilage, transaction fees, the cost at the point of sale, etc.)
- Wages and quality of life for farmers would rise in real terms. The confluence of reduced production costs, cooperative labor, and increased market share will mean individual farmers are working less and getting paid more. We’d actually be able to enjoy creature comforts of other industries like evenings and weekends off, PTO, group health insurance, even retirement.
- The barriers to entry for new farmers would be much lower. New farmers would not have to learn to be entrepreneurs, marketers, agritourism experts, and social media mavens in order to make it work. A farmer could actually make a living as a trade journeyman, just like any other trade, and brand new farmers could be trained by the co-op itself. On a related note…
- Sustainable farming could be de-gentrified since it would no longer be a “labor of love” only available to people that can afford to work for free or next to nothing (i.e. afford to be exploited, which is a bad thing even if they don’t seem to mind very much). Everyone — people of color in particular — would be able to look at farming as a viable career choice.
- Farmers could follow their passions instead of diversifying. The co-op has producers of livestock, produce, fruit, mushrooms, grain, dairy, flowers, etc. Ecological diversity is managed at the co-op/landscape level rather than the level of the individual producer, so the latter can focus on what they do best, still make a living, and still operate within an ecologically restorative framework.
- Farmers could operate at the scale they choose. If someone just wants to grow microgreens in their basement and sell them into the co-op’s single-payer market, so be it. If they want to range a cattle herd followed by sheep and chickens across a few hundred acres leased or owned by the co-op, go for it. The only constraint is that the producer must follow the co-op’s production standards.
The point is, these farmers would no longer be alone. We’d present a united farmer-owned — this is key — interface to the rest of the world — suppliers, customers, landlords, regulators, media, etc. — that, at present, each farmer is left alone to handle. It’s that isolation that makes us weak and ineffective against incredibly well-resourced competition.
We have to evolve if we’re going to survive.