Remember when bats were vermin, musicians were slackers, and organic farmers were hippies? My, have perceptions changed. Austin farmers are now superheroes and our city is saturated with farm-to-work, farm-to-school, and — my personal favorite — farm-to-face interests.
Everyone — cosmetologists included — wants in on the local farm fantasy. Who can resist dewy photos of handsome farmers glistening in lush fields of organic vegetables, a towheaded toddler at their hip? My husband posed for these photos when we started our community-based organic farm in East Austin almost 10 years ago. We were flattered at first. Having given up the comforts of our public health careers to start a farm from scratch, we naively thought folks would clamor for a healthier, tastier local option.
Our experience has brought us down to earth:
- Though customers praise the flavor, quality, cost and convenience of our certified organic vegetables, our prices have remained flat and in some cases declined during the past nine years.
- Currently, only two restaurants of the 40 that receive our wholesale list place orders weekly; these orders are usually for less than $100 per week.
- Our farm requires more than 200 Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members — spending $25 per week during our 48-week vegetable season — to meet payroll and basic expenses. Each season we struggle to fill memberships.
What are we doing wrong? Turns out, we’re not alone. A CSA vegetable farmer in California shared her dilemma in an essay in Salon last week — “What Nobody Told Me About Small Farming: I Can’t Make a Living.” She echoed the frustrations of a Long Island farmer, whose New York Times article last summer was titled: “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to be Farmers.”
Small-scale farming has always been a marginal existence. Few farmers today would argue that the local food movement has not benefited their bottom line. Buying directly from farmers not only increases their profits but reconnects consumers to the land, the hardworking people who make a living from it, and the complex health and environmental issues arising from factory food production.
So, why aren’t small-family farmers rejoicing? Why are 90 percent of them still dependent upon off-farm jobs? Indeed, why — more than a decade into this movement — do we have to ask this question?
What’s different today is the Texas-sized gap between popular image and private reality — and between the potential to grow the local food economy and its actual share, estimated at less than 3 percent, of total food consumption.
No surprise then that all the farmers I know are scrambling. We’re pickling and fermenting, hosting weddings and camps, teaching classes, writing books, selling plants — doing whatever we can to supplement the production part of our farm incomes.
Austin’s talented, funny, determined and — it must be said, photogenic — sustainable farmers are a scrappy bunch who regularly endure biblical plagues and the tyranny of bureaucrats enforcing misplaced regulations. Yet, they are setting the table so more folks can sit down and take a bigger bite out of the local food movement.
This month, the Growers Alliance of Central Texas — a newly formed nonprofit organization — is ramping up its mission to unify and empower sustainable farmers while also celebrating chefs who truly buy local. Among its concerns are reduced farmers’ market sales, loss of organic certification by Texas Department of Agriculture and the urgent need to improve sales and distribution infrastructure.
I see the past decade of the farm-to-table movement as a mere appetizer in terms of what is possible and needed. Now, it’s time to prepare the main course: a radically different approach to food and agriculture, as summarized in Slow Food’s Declaration for Healthy Food and Agriculture. These 12 principles include “promoting economic structures and programs to nurture the development of just and sustainable regional farm and food networks.”
Structures and programs like these are beginning to bubble up in Austin. Here’s just a few opportunities where you can get involved:
- Create a food hub where farmers can aggregate and brand their own products.
- Build a permanent farmers’ market facility to help ensure year-round sales in all weather.
- Strengthen the city of Austin’s Sustainable Food Policy Board.
- Help launch the first Buy Local campaign.
- Host CSA pickup sites at your offices, schools and neighborhoods.
In the meantime, spring is right around the corner.
Who’s your farmer?
Flynn is co-founder of Green Gate Farms, certified organic community farm and executive director of New Farm Institute, farm-based education.