Harvest / Is locally grown food getting to be an expensive hobby?
Small-scale farmers talk dollars and cents
Nate Whitehead and family
Photos by Stephen Gabris
Discussing overhead costs and consumer behavior is never as appealing as lauding the merits of a sun-warmed heirloom tomato or a sizzled strip of crispy pork belly. But when it comes to local food and farming, costs paid by both farmers and shoppers are essential elements in the farm-to-table equation.
We sat down with four family farmers representing four of Western New York’s agricultural sectors—dairy, meat and poultry, produce, and orchards—to shed some light on the dollars and cents of small-scale local farming.
Milky Hill Dairy, Freedom
Nate bought his grandparent’s vacant dairy farm fifteen years ago to save it from being parceled and sold. Today, he milks eighty cows and sells his milk to a dairy cooperative.
Erba Verde Farms, East Aurora
Meaning “green grass” in Italian, Erba Verde humanely raises animals on pasture to produce organic pork, chicken, veal, beef, milk, and turkey.
This four-generation family farm grows produce using organic practices for more than 250 community-supported agriculture (CSA) members and a dozen local restaurants.
Robert & Julie Blackman
The sixth generation of the Blackman family is continuing the orchard’s legacy with u-pick apples, fruit juices and preserves, and hard cider under Robert’s watch, while Julie runs Farmers & Artisans featuring regionally produced food from a variety of farmers and makers.
The whole family pitches in at Milky Hill Dairy. Nate Whitehead appears in center photos.
What are some of the biggest factors in farming costs that the customer might not be aware of?
Whitehead: Feed grain used to be $172/ton when I started, now it’s $380/ton. Vet treatments are big. Equipment, too—prices for tractors and mowers are through the roof. The past two years have been a real challenge with springs being too wet to get good feed crops, then the summer turned dry, so we might not get the third and fourth cutting of hay to feed the cows through the winter, and some dairies will have to buy more.
Strzelec: Animal processing on a small scale is costly – we pay $4 per chicken, for example. So is cold storage. Size improves efficiency all around, but lack of affordable capital for small farms makes it hard to grow. We need more volume to earn capital, but we need the capital to invest in equipment that can improve efficiency to build that volume. It really is a chicken and egg scenario.
Oles: Weather and labor. When it’s dry like this year, we spend a lot of time and money pumping water. In 2016, we estimated that we spent between $2,500 and $3,000 just on fuel for the pump, plus twenty to thirty hours per week to manage watering. That time then wasn’t available for other tasks. We have well water, but other farms on municipal water faced rationing or shut offs and lost crops. In terms of labor, we’re small and rely on family and member labor, but other farms are affected by the threat of shutting off the migrant worker path. There isn’t enough help, and I don’t know who they think will do this work.
Blackmans: Increasing costs of labor in New York State, increasing equipment costs, more and more government regulations, and extreme weather conditions are some of the main factors we are dealing with that are increasing food prices. Annual minimum wage increases are increasing wages across the board. Increased food safety and liability regulations add infrastructure and labor costs. Over the past few years, locally, we have dealt with late frosts, extremely wet springs, and summer droughts. All of these conditions affect crop yields, irrigation costs, and increased labor.
Are prices paid by customers keeping up with the costs of production?
Whitehead: Not really. Nearly every dairy production cost has almost doubled, but prices have stayed the same in the store for milk, ice cream, and cheese. That’s what bothers me. Processors are making a killing, but the vets, equipment dealers, and farmers are feeling it.
Strzelec: Not always. So much of our food system is subsidized to stay falsely cheap, so people got used to paying less than what food costs to grow a long time ago. We have to raise prices sometimes, but you can’t do it often. Last year, we built fences, dug ditches, got some equipment, but we can’t really charge much more to cover those costs. As we grow, we gain efficiencies that keep us from having to pass along costs, e.g., it takes the same amount of time to feed seventy pigs as it does forty.
Oles: I don’t think so. We’re able to stay competitive by being more efficient with time, dollars, and space, but how long can you push that envelope? We’ve found a niche market here, but larger-scale produce is at the mercy of the market. Sometimes it costs less to plow a crop under than it does to harvest it and not be able to sell the food for what it costs to grow it.
Blackmans: Many times farmers seem to be forced to absorb increased product costs. We are competing with products from neighboring states that have lower labor and production costs. There is a price point where customers will stop buying locally, and you have to be careful not to cross that line. We can’t risk creating a feeling that local foods are too expensive for the average household; therefore, farmers have to absorb costs at times. Every year, cider-pressing costs increase (including pressing rates, plastic container costs, labor for filling/labeling/selling). We try to stay the same price for a year or two but then have no choice but to increase or it becomes not worth doing.
Under the guidance of Julie Blackman (center) and her father, Robert Blackman (above) Blackman Homestead Farm specializes in fruit juices, preserves, and cider.
What could be done to increase consumer access to locally grown and raised food?
Whitehead: There are farms doing raw milk and making a decent living, but there are so many liabilities and regulations around it. That needs to change.
Strzelec: We need food distributors willing to coordinate with small producers to get products to market—like FreshFix and Farmers & Artisans. We need farmers who understand the food system and are willing to follow a wholesale model—grow healthy food sustainably at a larger scale. We also need more meat and poultry processing facilities. The ones we have are booked so far in advance that if you don’t get on the schedule, you’re left with animals you can’t get to market. I’ve had to book all my 2019 dates already, even though some of the pigs were born two days ago and I haven’t sold one of them yet.
Oles: Education. We as the producers no longer have a relationship with many customers, and there’s no longer that connection where if your local farm doesn’t succeed, you don’t eat—because people want asparagus in January, and they get it. We have to educate people. The CSA model is great for that; our weekly emails tell members what’s going on with weather, bug issues, crop yields, so they understand the connection. Chefs who bring their staff out to the farm so servers know where the lettuce came from and why the strawberries are so good this year are great. Those people tell someone else, and we get more understanding.
Blackmans: A lot has been done over the past few years to promote/advertise locally grown foods, but there is always room for growth. Grocery chains, farmers markets, CSAs, and restaurants have done a great job. More emphasis needs to be placed on the quality and flavor of our regional foods. Our store, Farmers & Artisans, aims to better connect farmers and their products to our local community, educating on quality, flavor, nutritional value, and uses while making sure a realistic agricultural story is being told.
Local agritourism plays a large role in consumer access as well. U-pick operations, farm stands, maple producers, and wineries/breweries/cideries are key to helping make local agricultural products available, as well as providing educational opportunities.
In recent years, have you seen any changes in consumer demand for certain items or ways of shopping? Has that changed what you offer or how you offer it?
Whitehead: They said the Greek yogurt craze would help us, but the one they built near here went belly up pretty quick. If we could get milk back into schools, that would help. Kids are learning that milk is bad for you, so they won’t be buying dairy in ten years when they’re grown up and shopping for themselves.
Strzelec: We started selling chicken breasts and leg/thigh quarters in addition to whole birds, because that’s what people are comfortable with. The chicken stock bags—backs, necks, feet—are selling more now that people are into bone broth. Ground beef, bacon, and pork chops sell better than roasts. Lots of people would like to be committed to using a whole animal, but don’t want to pay for it or prep it, so we do convenience cuts, too.
Oles: Food is trendy; what’s hot on the Food Network is what people want, and if everyone else is talking about it, people want it. So, we try to grow what people want. We still grow rutabagas for our winter share, but people want green and fresh all year round instead of the traditional storage crops, so we’ve increased greens like spinach that can be grown in hoop houses in the winter. And then we teach people how to use things [like beets] differently, like a shaved fresh beet salad instead of boiling them like grandma did. We’re also finding that we can’t overwhelm the CSA box because people don’t cook as much. We could put three pounds of yellow beans in each box, but that’s too much for most people. This year we started offering a bi-weekly share so people aren’t getting behind.
Blackmans: We are trying to bring local food directly to work places, making it even more convenient. We are finding convenience is a factor in maintaining a strong local foods market.
Organic meats (poultry, pork, beef, and veal) are the focus at Erbe Verde. Bryan Strzelec appears in top photo.
Will it be possible to make a living as a farmer ten years from now?
Whitehead: I don’t know. I’m afraid farms my size will be a thing of the past. If things don’t change, I’ll be the last one to milk at this farm. My dad is a beekeeper, and he’s in trouble, too. I don’t think small dairy will be around in ten years, just the mega farms milking 10,000 head or more. It’s looking pretty dark for the little guys.
Strzelec: On a small scale, no. There will be people who still try, maybe as a hobby or because it still sounds cute, and a certain number will do OK for a few years. But to raise a family on a small farm income—that’s barely possible, even if you love it. To make a living, you have to have a vision to reach an efficient size where it makes sense, but you can’t give up when it gets hard. I’m doing this to change the food system, not to get rich.
Oles: Yes, if you’re willing to evolve and make changes. If not, you’ll go the way of the dinosaurs. We appreciate our restaurant connections; they have the pulse on what the consumer wants, and many will ask us to grow certain things for them. We saw squash blossoms were in demand, figured out a variety that grows nice, big blossoms that are easy to pick, and developed a little niche. Ten years ago, we had a roadside market. If we hadn’t switched to the CSA and restaurant model, we might not be here. Hang on to beliefs and principles and don’t let them go, but adapt everything else where you can.
Blackmans: Not in the current trend; there are too many government regulations, rapid increases in labor costs, and having to compete with global imports that are grown under less government regulation and cheaper labor. The US population will need to place a higher value on quality/wholesome food and be willing to pay more.