Getting Us From Farm to Table

I am an economist only in the sense of being (at certain hours) a home economist. That means much of the time I look at food from the fairly limited perspective of my wallet, my larder, and my plate. In this I am probably not alone; when most of us think about farming of any kind, be it industrial-scale monocultures and feedlots or what we would call small-scale family farming, we tend to think about the food produced from the limited viewpoint of its beginning and its end: from its beginning in the field (or cage), to its ending at our dinner tables.

If that is all we see, then we are missing several links in the chain— links that have to do with preparing food for sale, marketing, distribution, and particularly with price. And yet a farmer who cannot get a decent price for his crop cannot make a living.

As businesses go, farming has it pretty tough. That is because farming gives a slow, solar-powered level of financial return in a world running hot and fast on its petroleum-fired economy. Farming is slow money in a world of the fast buck. It follows a cycle of growing seasons or years, and cannot offer the instant profits of day-trading. Even the larger American farms are relatively small cogs in a world economic machine strongly affected by agribusinesses and foreign competition with its subsidies, low wages, and swings in prices. That the weather is uncertain has always been a given; that soil will play out unless it is rested and fed is another given; but modern farmers have the additional challenge of being in a pre-industrial occupation in an industrialized and service-heavy global economy. In our economy you can make big money by manipulating money, and you can make decent money manufacturing or mining, but you will make relatively little raising the food on which our lives so fundamentally depend.

And so, if we as a nation are truly interested in keeping farming for food as part of the American economy, if we are not content with a future of chicken imported from China, and fruit imported from Costa Rica, and if we want to keep rural America populated rather than hollowed out, as it increasingly is becoming—then we have to figure out how to enable American farmers to make a living.

In the 1930s Troy Cauley was an economics professor at what was then the Georgia School of Technology, and an Agrarian who contributed to I’ll Take My Stand’s companion volume, Who Owns America? In 1935 he published a book-length economic analysis of his own called Agrarianism: A Program for Farmers,1 in which he argued that while farming has always been a good way to make a living—in other words, to raise a living—it has not always been a great way to raise cash.

These days, however, everybody needs cash and needs it more than ever, for taxes and healthcare at least, and there are plenty of other things John and Jane Farmer would like to buy, just like anybody else, and few of those things can be bartered for. Consequently, farmers have been encouraged (often by agriculture economists and extension agents) to think of farming as something that needs to be modernized along industrial lines, so that farmers can make real money and not just make do. Farming by industrial scale and standards requires credit, expensive machinery, seasonal labor, and additives like herbicides and pesticides in order for farmers to make a decent if often highly-leveraged living growing grain on huge tracts of ground—at least in those years when the weather and the commodities markets are with them.

In 2012 The Atlantic ran an article2 by Christya Freeland about just such a farmer in western Canada. The article was unintentionally poignant: Ms. Freeland’s father is farming 5,600 acres—that is eight and three-quarter square miles—with just two farmhands, who work for him just nine months out of the twelve. She does not say what these hands do for the other three months of the year, and she does not say what this tiny proportion of humans per acre means for the town where these men live. (Ms. Freeland herself has left that town far behind. When relating the size of these fields to something her readers can imagine, she uses New York City’s Central Park.)

In any case, however empty of people that corner of Alberta may be, Ms. Freeland’s father is indeed growing a lot of grain and making money with his system, and one of the reasons he farms this way is because it is challenging to make more than a low living wage by farming any differently. In my state of Kentucky, where farms are generally in the hundreds of acres and not thousands, the typical farm family has at least one spouse with a desk or factory job and insurance, while the other works in the fields and barn. Often both husband and wife work salaried jobs and do their farming off-shift and on the weekends.

Yes, people in Kentucky can make money raising corn, at least in years without a drought. Yes, beef prices can be pretty good, if you have the pasture and feed, and a lot of Kentucky farmers raise cattle, though most do not have enough acreage to raise a lot. On the alternative crop side— alternatives to what have been Kentucky’s traditional crops of tobacco, beef, corn, soybeans, and hay, that is—there are farmers’ markets, where a farmer can sell directly off the truck, and some farmers and chefs have fostered relationships that offer farmers a regular outlet and maybe even their names on the menu. There are also a few Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscription farms, though not many.

But neither Kentucky’s traditional commodity markets nor the newer and more direct farm-to-table markets are vital enough to rebuild a farm economy in either my state or in yours, because they do not generally provide enough income, especially on land that has a mortgage. It is hard to make a living at a farmers’ market, for example, if only because the business is seasonal, and to make a living wage you need to sell several days a week, and the farm needs you those days, too—and help is expensive.

People who have thought long and hard about the ability of farmers and farming communities to sustain themselves economically have argued for years that farmers must first concentrate on raising their own living, and that cash crops must be a secondary concern. As mentioned, Troy Cauley makes this point explicitly, as does modern Agrarian Wendell Berry. The farms of Mr. Berry’s boyhood that he values so greatly were small, diversified, and greatly self-sufficient. “They were farmed by families who lived not only upon them, but within and from them,” he writes in The Unsettling of America (a book that is entirely pertinent today, 36 years after its publication).3 Farm families planted a big garden; raised tobacco for the major money crop; raised hogs, cattle, or sheep for their own table and for sale; and had nearby markets for their minor surpluses of foods such as cream, eggs, and chickens.

This kind of farming (Mr. Berry argues rightly) was a culture more than it was a business, and it relied on thrift, and on what is nowadays the very anti-modern, un-American notion of needing fewer bought things rather than more. But it was business enough to enable a farm family to trade for necessary cash. Today all that is left of that old farm economy are the commodity crops—big single bets on single commodities that in their singleness are so vulnerable, as a diverse farm plan is not, to bad weather in a crucial month, or a single devastating pest, or a collapsed national or international market. The big kitchen gardens that used to be everywhere in Mr. Berry’s Henry County are not yet unusual, but they are no longer common.

Add to this the fact that farm families now need more cash than their parents did—for higher taxes, higher healthcare costs, and higher land prices, plus clothes and tools. If our goal is a farming economy that is friendly to the small, family-owned farms that allow for the greatest distribution of land ownership and the greatest degree of economic selfsufficiency, farming needs more markets and more varied and better markets in order to be resilient. Between farm and table there needs to be some middle work done in order to get the food from the field to the plate in a way that is not just environmentally sustainable for the land, but economically sustainable for the farmer.

Finding Markets

Like any other economic network, farming needs infrastructure. “Farming infrastructure” is a term that includes all the various businesses that support and buy from a farming community, but here I am especially concerned with those support businesses that enable farmers to get products to their customers: places to process food for later use, like canneries or freezers; places to slaughter meat under federal inspection so that meat can be sold to the public; and commercial kitchens, too, perhaps, where a farmer can put up sauces or salsas. Most importantly, though “farming infrastructure” generally indicates a thing, it must also mean people who are willing to do the work to run these businesses and to take on a middleman’s role of marketing food for those who raise it.

Farmers go into farming because they want to farm. They dream about a better barn, or better pasture, or a herd of registered Charolais cattle, or about getting a good crop of early tomatoes to ripen before anybody else’s. They do not necessarily dream about marketing. Those who do are often the more financially successful farmers who are generally making a value-added product, like cheese or wine or jam, which is more profitable than a raw commodity such as milk or grapes or berries. They grow it, transform it, and then they work hard to peddle it.

That business plan does not suit all farmers. A lot of them are not wired for selling, do not want to sell, and frankly do not have the time. They are husbandmen and not salesmen. The kind of person who is happy working over a number of years to restore his pasture, or who is willing to get up twice in the night to check her ewes during lambing season, is not necessarily the kind of person who wants to joke around with customers for five long hours the next day at a farmers’ market, or cold-call 15 restaurants. These people need alternatives.

Prominent food writers such as Alice Waters or Mark Bittman or any of the hundreds of chefs nationwide who have made a point of buying local from small and middle-size farms are a help to their local farm economies and a great example. But celebrity chefs and New York Times food writers are not enough. An agrarian economy needs a bunch of regular joes in the middle making the markets—the beef or sheep farmer who decides to expand by marketing meat for other farmers, the ex-state employee who builds a slaughterhouse open to farmers who finish their own beef, the former food reporter who becomes an information broker between area farmers and institutions like universities and hospitals that buy significant amounts of food.

Those are some real examples; let me flesh them out.

In Missouri, in the appropriately-named town of Monticello, population 136, there is a fifth-generation farmer called John Wood, who with his family runs a 300-acre farm that borders the Mississippi River. Back in the 1990’s he went to a meeting about grass-fed beef and decided to try it—and after several years of testing he became a convert both because of the improvement he saw in his farm, including its ability to deal with Mississippi flooding, and because of the improvement he saw in his meat. His cows are now rotationally grazed and raised to slaughter weight without feeding them any grain, and 90 percent of his meat is sold directly to consumers through the website of his company, U.S.Wellness Meats.

The important thing about Mr. Wood, though, is that he does not just sell his own beef. His company was founded in partnership with three other farms (two in Missouri, one in Illinois), and he sources beef from another six farms located from South Carolina all the way to Montana—a diverse base of operations that gives him some protection against weather or other disasters that may limit supply in one part of the country in a bad year. He also sells rabbit, chicken, fish, cheese, butter, and compassionately-raised pork to customers in all 50 states and to a limited number of retail outlets stretching from Connecticut to Hawaii.

He chose to do mostly direct-to-consumer marketing rather than go after a large wholesale customer such as a grocery chain because, he said, he did not want all his eggs in one basket. He told a reporter for a farming magazine that building this business has been demanding work: “If you’re not prepared to give five years of your life to it, then direct marketing isn’t for you.” 4

In central Kentucky, a sheep farmer named Jim Mansfield is doing something similar for lamb, except his business model is to serve precisely those wholesale customers Mr. Wood has largely avoided. He markets Katahdin and Katahdin-cross lambs raised by about 25 farmers located in Kentucky and nearby states. To provide a consistent supply of consistently good-tasting lamb, Mr. Mansfield must find interested farmers, work with them to agree to certain standards of husbandry, find and contract with a slaughterhouse to process the meat, make the sales, and then get the lambs to the processor and the meat to his customers.

Mr. Mansfield says that supply is not the problem; he is working with farmers who would be interested in expanding their herds if the market for the meat grows. His challenge is distribution—in getting access to places where consumers can see and buy his lamb. He has been welcomed into several regional Whole Foods stores, whose customers are looking for locally grown, humanely raised meat and are willing to pay a premium for it. But his relationship with the much bigger grocery chain Kroger ended when that company signed a contract with a lamb supplier who could service all of their stores (Kroger has over 2,400 stores in 31 states). Without access to those customers, he is challenged to find enough outlets where he can sell his meat at the price he needs to cover his costs and make a reasonable profit for himself and his farmers.

Small to midsize food marketers constantly face the problem of either not being big enough to interest the large outlets, and/or not being able to command the price they need from those stores in order to stay in business. Finding capital is not easy, either. When Jim Mansfield went looking for either investment money or a loan to expand his business, he was too big to qualify for a small farm loan, and too small and too alternative to get an agricultural loan based on the traditional agricultural products model. He has also found, to his frustration, that the local foods movement is both driving interest in his business, and boxing him into a limited selling area. He sells meat as far away as Columbus, but is being told by his customers there that they have some reservations about selling meat that cannot really be called “local” in Ohio.

Despite all these challenges, Mr. Mansfield is doing the hard work of creating a market that did not exist before: a market for regionally raised American lamb, where before the only option a customer had was to buy imported meat, often from New Zealand. 
Yet another Kentucky example—and a very important one—is the marketing and networking support offered by Sarah Fritschner for the city of Louisville. Ms. Fritschner was formerly the food reporter for the Courier-Journal, and is the author of several cookbooks. She now works for the city as Louisville’s “marriage broker” for food, where it is her job to foster business between the area’s food producers and the restaurants, institutional chefs, grocers, and large food service companies like Sodexo that serve up a significant portion of what Louisville eats.

Ms. Fritschner works from both ends. She finds markets for food already being raised, grown, or made in Kentucky, and she finds sources for chefs and food suppliers looking for certain items or bulk amounts. She works on both supply and demand.
Her work varies from helping farmers find buyers for their peppers and tomatoes, to helping a new brunch spot find a local supplier for eggs and meat, to helping the University of Louisville reach its goal of sourcing 24 percent of its food purchases from local farms. She also works with the Jefferson County public school district, one of the largest in the country with over 100,000 students, which now has contracts with several Kentucky farmers to supply fresh fruits and vegetables throughout the school year. The school district also buys some Kentucky beef.

One of the businesses Ms. Fritschner works with is Marksbury Farm Market, located south of Lexington in central Kentucky. This is a mixed business that is part butcher shop and part processing plant for humanely raised poultry, pork, and beef, and it was founded in 2010 by four men: a farmer, his businessman cousin, a former Kentucky state agriculture official, and a stonemason originally from Scotland. Marksbury sells retail to the public through its own store, and sells wholesale to restaurants and other food markets and to larger customers such as schools. The partners source their meat from several farms in neighboring counties.

Plants like Marksbury’s are expensive to build, highly regulated, logistically challenging to run, and not generally regarded as a desirable neighbor. (Though in fact they can be perfectly pleasant, especially when they are small. Bardstown, Kentucky has one right in the middle of its historic district, and Boone’s Abbatoir fits in fine.) But slaughterhouses are utterly necessary if we are serious about increasing our supply of locally-raised meat, because they offer the essential step between farmer and consumer of processing the meat. If there are two dozen farmers willing and able to supply grass-fed beef to a city that loves it, but no federally inspected abattoir with the capacity to process that beef, those farmers can’t sell and their customers can’t eat.

Middlemen like these are not all that a revived farming economy needs. There is the challenge of getting money for expansion, as Mr. Mansfield has discovered, or for the high initial cost of buying a piece of land. There is the problem of finding seasonal help in communities that are no longer willing or able to share labor among neighbors. There are health regulations, which are often designed for large businesses and onerous for small ones, and which prevent people from buying foods there is otherwise some demand for (raw milk being one example). But the marketing work done between farmer and eater is one necessary step to enlarging the amount of locally- or regionally-sourced food available to those of us who wish to buy it.

The Tobacco Model

There is also a need for some kind of national farm program that can do what the tobacco price-support program used to do for small farmers in my region of the country.

The tobacco program began in 1938 and died in 2004, having lost its clout as the number of farmers in this country became insignificant as a voting bloc, and as the tobacco market came under increasing pressure from improvements in the quality in foreign-grown leaf and its cheaper price. The program’s demise was also due to the free-market rhetoric of certain members of Congress and their constituents, and the wish many Americans have to disassociate any of their tax money from a product proven to cause cancer.

Nevertheless, the tobacco program is an excellent case of a farm program that did, for decades, exactly what it was intended to do: it supported what was essentially a family wage for small-scale farming families in eight states where burley and flue-cured tobacco were raised. The actual crop buttressed by this program was always incidental, except insofar as tobacco has certain qualities that make it easier to support (it stores well for years, for example, which meant a crop could wait for good prices to return). The tobacco program was, in its essence, a decentralist farm program truly beneficial to farmers, particularly small family farmers, with the laudable Distributist goal of making land ownership and greater economic self-sufficiency more possible for a greater number of people.

For many decades it was a useful shock-absorber between the individual farmer and the giant corporations that bought his product and commanded his market. It helped secure a living wage for a year’s worth of hard work—tobacco can be a 13-month crop—so that small landholders and their families could make a living from their own piece of ground. For anyone interested in the broad-based ownership of land that comes with small farmholdings, or the viability of rural economies that typically depend on such farms—anyone willing to speak up for the rural 99 percent—the tobacco program is well worth understanding as a piece of social (and not just farm) legislation.

Why was a shock absorber needed? Because of the cyclical swing in tobacco prices, which at the turn of the last century caused so much heartache (and violence) in tobacco-growing country. In his Jefferson Lecture given for the National Endowment for the Humanities in April 2012, Wendell Berry told the story of the 1906 tobacco crop his grandfather earned nothing for.5 After a year’s worth of work (and tobacco is hard work), and after paying the transportation costs and the commission on the sale of his crop, Mr. Berry’s grandfather returned from the auction in Louisville “without a dime.” Prices had fallen to the point that farmers were left with nothing. Mr. Berry’s father, John M. Berry, Sr., was only six years old at the time, but he remembered that night for the rest of his life, and the memory of it spurred him to become instrumental in the writing and passage of the tobacco portion of the Agricultural Adjustment Act, which finally became law in 1933, after years of maybes and failed attempts. The tobacco program as we knew it grew out of a revised Act in 1940.

Most of the tobacco grown in the United States is either burley or flue-cured, and a majority of the American burley crop has been grown in Kentucky, though another seven states also have acreage. Those states—Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina—are even today significantly rural, and the program had a great effect on their rural economies, though it did the most for North Carolina and Kentucky. Over half of Kentucky’s land is farmland, for example, and Kentucky has the fourth largest number of farms of all 50 states (behind Texas, Missouri, and Iowa). Things are changing fast here, but Kentucky is still dotted with some 83,000 farms because many of their owners or their owners’ parents paid off a mortgage with a few profitable acres of tobacco.

Also, the tobacco program cost very little federal money—for many years, the net was none, and the No-Net-Cost Tobacco Program Act of 1982 made that a legal requirement. Because the program was broadbased in the distribution of its benefits, and administered by independent co-ops, it did not greatly increase the centralized power of the federal government, either.

Here is how the program worked.6 First of all, it limited the amount of tobacco an individual could grow, and tied that allotment to a piece of ground. That meant a specific number of acres had, as a valuable and mortgageable asset of the land, a tobacco allotment that permitted the growing of so many acres or parts of acres of tobacco. (In 1971 the allotment was changed from acres grown to pounds of leaf.) These limits helped distribute and decentralize tobacco growing, giving many growers a little bit of the benefit of this price-supported cash crop, but no one grower a lot.

In 1957, for example, the year Kentucky Senator John Sherman Cooper gave a well-remembered speech7 on the importance of the tobacco program, only two percent of the state’s burley tobacco farmers had allotments greater than five acres. Ninety percent had allotments that were two acres or less, and a quarter were a half-acre or less. The average size that year was 1.37 acres, but that small piece of ground produced a bit over a ton of cigarette tobacco, worth about $1,300. No one was getting rich growing it, the way large commodity growers today can gross millions of dollars on several square miles of crops. But tobacco did earn enough to enable a family to secure a farm mortgage and then pay it down.

The number of pounds of tobacco allowed to be grown was set by the government, as was the support price paid, so allotments did change in size and value over time as the market rose and fell. Prices were set at 90 percent of parity, a formula that took into account farm expenses (including taxes and freight) under a moving ten-year average. This parity price gave relief from the price swings that had so buffeted tobacco farmers in earlier years.

The tobacco, once grown, cut, hung, stripped, and tied, was sold at winter auctions all over the state, where it was graded by federal tobacco inspectors and sold by grade. In Kentucky, the Lexington-based Burley Tobacco Growers Co-op gave the warehousemen a schedule of rates it would pay per grade of burley, but the bidding was done by the buyers, who were (as they still are) the representatives of the major cigarette manufacturers. Tobacco lots went to the highest bidder unless the price did not reach one cent over the price the co-op would pay. In that case, a farmer sold his crop to the co-op’s “pool,” and he was paid the co-op price immediately, less the warehouse’s fees and any assessments.

The pooled crop was stored in hogsheads placed in insured facilities contracted by the co-op, since tobacco has the great advantage over other commodities of storing well, even up to ten years. The leaf was sold when prices recovered enough to pay back the pool price. The price paid to the farmer by the co-op was covered by a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), which took its money from the U.S. Treasury. When the stored tobacco was sold, the loan was returned with interest to the CCC.
What this meant, in essence, is that the tobacco program asked farmers to exchange a set limit on their ability to grow tobacco for an artificially higher, and less volatile, price paid for what they could grow. Limiting the supply of tobacco raised the price, but there was no direct subsidy. In this the tobacco program differed greatly from most other federal farming programs, which make direct payments to farmers.

For many years, the cost of the tobacco program was covered by the program itself, but when that changed Congress took the action in 1982 of passing a No-Net-Cost Tobacco Program Act, which assessed tobacco by the pound to create an escrow of funds to cover the program’s expenses. Half of this assessment was paid by the farmer, half by the buyer of his crop. Even so, tobacco’s unpopularity and various economic and political pressures continued to undermine support for the program, until in 2004 the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act eliminated the program entirely and bought out quota owners. Some farmers took that money and invested in alternative crops. Many took it and retired. 

Nine years later, the tobacco program is dead and gone and no one thinks it is coming back. In Kentucky tobacco growing has been centralized, with fewer farmers growing larger amounts of acreage, typically under contract with a cigarette company such as Philip Morris. But I have discussed the program in detail here because it is worth understanding as it was, since it is possible that another crop could serve as a similarly-regulated cash crop, with this combination of limited growing allotments and the resulting price support. It would need to be something we could ethically suffer shortages of, which means it needs to be a fiber, perhaps, and not a food. It is also possible that aspects of the tobacco program could be adapted to certain food crops.

As Wendell Berry has said often, and nobody can say often enough: there is no economy outside of the land economy. Every economic thing we do is ultimately dependent on the land economy. Everything goes back to the soil and the resources we find within it: energy, minerals, and especially food. All of us in the United States could live without our iPads or our air conditioning or many things we unreflectingly label “essentials.” But none of us can live without food, or without the rural parts of this country where that food is grown—because whatever the blandishments and appeal of urban farming, city gardens are a very long way from being able to provide their populations with enough. By turning our backs on the farming families in rural America we risk living at the mercy of another country’s willingness to grow our dinner for us, as we become a nation full of teeming cities and abandoned small towns. I hope for more national self-sufficiency and diversity, myself.This article is an expanded version of a speech given at the Front Porch Republic conference “Small Enough to Succeed” held September 15, 2012, in Holland, Michigan. Katherine Dalton is a contributing editor to Chronicles magazine and to She lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

1 . Troy Cauley, A Program for Farmers (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1935).

2 . Christya Freeland, “The Triumph of the Family Farm,” The Atlantic, June 2012.

3 . Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977).

4 . Deborah Huso, “Fortress Against the Flood: Rotational Grazing Helps Decrease Effects of Floods,” The Progressive Farmer, May 2012.

5 . Published in It All Turns on Affection: The Jefferson Lecture and Other Essays (Berkeley, California: Counterpoint Press, 2012).

6 . For a concise history and explanation of the burley tobacco program in Kentucky, see The Producer’s Program: Fifty Golden Years & More; Highlights of the Burley Co-op’s History, published in Lexington, Kentucky in 1991 by the Burley Tobacco Growers Co-operative Association, Inc. See also Jasper Womach’s Congressional Research Service’s 2005 Report for Congress titled Tobacco Price Support: An Overview of the Program.

7 . For the text of this speech see The Producer’s Program, pp. 71-83.