Brian DeVore, LSP (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Wed, 10 Jan 96 14:11:27 -0600
A UNITED MARKET STAND
By Paul Homme
The industrial model of agriculture in this country has a marketing and distribution system that is the envy of the world.
Fresh produce from Brazil or Mexico. Polish hams. Fresh meat from West Texas or wherever. European wines and cheeses. Exotic fruit from anywhere. Then there's the infinite variety of prepared or convenience foods available in every urban supermarket or small town. Yes, they have a good marketing system, and sustainable farmers will never be a part of it. But that may not be all bad.
For example, consider the vertical integration of, say, poultry production. It has led to abundant supplies of perfectly uniform chickens, but they are of dubious quality and taste. Chicken now tastes like whatever you flavor it with, but it never tastes like chicken. In addition, high-speed, production-line processing has made bacterial contamination common in the poultry business. An entire generation has now grown up beli
eving this is normal. Concepts such as market share and shelf space seem to take precedence over quality, taste and safety under the industrial "mainstream" system.
So what can sustainable producers of livestock, grain, milk and produce do? They must offer consumers an alternative to stamped-out factory food with its many hidden social, environmental and economic costs. How farmers go about doing that is a tough question to answer.
There is really no available infrastructure for marketing by practitioners of sustainable agriculture. During the past several years, the sustainable agriculture community has made real progress in production methods -- both in developing them, and more recently, in getting the information to farmers with similar beliefs.
There has probably been a parallel rise in consumer interest in the food products resulting from this. However, we have not yet achieved our goals of prosperous diversified farms, land reform (more farmers) and healthy rural communities
. We probably cannot reach these goals until individual marketing achievements give way to some sort of creative, organized effort. In order to sell the much larger food production that our goals envision, we must create more demand for safe, wholesome food and reach a much larger market.
We are going to need some kind of organized infrastructure to do that. That infrastructure will probably have to be outside the present industrial one or we will be no better off than before. For now, maintaining access to the conventional markets is crucial if there are to be any independent family farmers left around to practice sustainable agriculture in the future. Some alternative marketing ventures are occurring within the conventional infrastructure, and they offer ways for farmers to survive until a sustainable model becomes more widespread. For example, the National Farmers Organization has a program underway to pool production from many farms into uniform, large batches, thereby gaining so
me market influence or clout. All kinds of marketing cooperatives are being formed, mostly for conventional producers. Perhaps we could bring cooperatives into the age of cyberspace by matching producers and consumers via computer, at least on a small scale.
But for now, cutting costs, which is what many sustainable practices do, is our main tool for competing in the conventional market place. That has its limits. One reality of farming is that smaller producers must realize much more net profit per unit of production. Sustainable farmers have historically done that by lowering production costs. But after all the cost-cutting is done, a higher price per unit may be the critical element in making smaller operations profitable enough to be viable. Consumers have shown that they value food which is "farm fresh," "Minnesota grown," "humanely raised," "antibiotic- free," or "organic." The favorable impressions of family farms and sustainable agriculture must be enhanced, and somehow tu