1. Growing Consumer Interest in Local Food
Without question “local food” is one of the hottest trends in America’s food system and the most common way to have access to this fresh, nutritious food is to purchase it directly from farmers. The increase in demand for local food is creating many more opportunities for people to consider becoming direct marketers and is adding new demands and markets for those farmers already engaged in the field.
2. Need for Local Meat Processing Facilities
As the demand for local food increases it is creating new markets for locally raised meat, eggs, and dairy products. While some products, like eggs, have well developed rules for direct farmer-to-consumer sales, other products like meat and dairy can face more extensive rules as to food safety, handling, and marketing. But one of the most significant challenges farmers in many areas face in entering or expanding production of meat is the availability of federal or state inspected animal slaughter facilities which must be used to be able to sell meat by the pound or cut. If farmers have to drive the animals hundreds of miles for processing, the extra cost and the stress on the animals make the marketing opportunity less attractive.
Additional resources about how organizations and policy can help make local meat processing feasible and profitable can be found through the Partnership’s “Expanding Market Access with Local Processing” page.
3. Growth in Farmer’s Markets
The number of farmers markets in the U.S. has more than doubled in the last 10 years, reflecting both the demand for farm raised food and the popularity of such venues as a form of community development and social entertainment. The growth in the number of farmers markets is creating opportunities for new farmers to enter direct marketing and creating more outlets for existing producers to market their production. It also increases the number of communities and other organizations that have to figure out how to create, manage, and operate a farmers market. An important new organization, the Farmers Market Coalition, have emerged to help serve the needs of markets and all of the parties involved with them – from farmer vendors to managers.
4. City Chicken Movement
One of the many strands that are being woven together in the local food movement is the rapidly expanding interest on the part of people – rural and urban alike – to keep a small flock of chickens as a source of eggs and entertainment. The urban chicken phenomena has led to creation of new organizations, the publication of several magazines and dozens of books, and is supporting the growth in a cottage industry of businesses supplying the chicken coops, feeders, and other supplies. It has also lead hundreds of communities across the nation from small towns to major cities like Seattle and Kansas City, to pass city ordinances to address raising poultry in urban areas.
5. Availability of Health Insurance for Direct Marketers
While issues of the cost and availability of health insurance are somewhat removed from direct farm marketing, the topic is of critical importance to farmers. The cost and availability of insurance is an important issue, which might deter people from leaving other non-farm jobs to produce full time. One common solution is for farm families to have one spouse maintain a job with health insurance and use this insurance to cover the on-farm spouse. However, one issue that may complicate this strategy is the fact many health insurance policies may exclude coverage for other family members if the accident or injury was in connection with a business activity – such as farming. As with other issues of insurance cost and coverage, the best way to prevent unpleasant surprises after an accident or illness has occurred is to ask questions of the insurance agent about what is covered.
6. Labor Law Issues and Farm Interns, Apprentices, and Volunteers
Having sufficient labor is one a critical issue for most direct marketing farms and one traditional way many farms meet their labor needs is to use what are often referred to as interns or apprentices. These are typically young people interested in learning about how to farm and raise food, who are paid some form of a stipend (which is less than the minimum wage) and who may receive other benefits in the form of housing and food.
Interns can fill a critical labor need but from the perspective of the intern these are valuable opportunities to gain practical experience in farming, which fill gaps in formal agricultural education and give those who did not grow up on a farm the chance to experience the life and work.
The critical legal issues relating to internships, which has come into sharper focus in recent years in states, such as California, Washington and Oregon, is many common “intern” relations do not comply with applicable state and federal labor laws on wages and hours, withholding, workers compensation insurance and related issues. While these labor law questions have not been joined in many states, in the places where investigations have occurred farms have had to pay significant fines and face uncertainty.
The result is some direct marketing farms have moved to traditional forms of hired seasonal farm labor, reducing opportunities for non-farmers to gain experience. Another option is for states to consider enacting legislation creating labor rules for “farm internships” such as Washington did in 2010.
7. Farm Festivals and Other Periodic On-farm Events and Zoning Law
Land use rules, most often in the form of zoning, continues to be the most common legal issue facing direct marketing farms. How farming is defined and questions about whether it can take place in areas zoned as “non-agriculture” are issues being faced by courts – and farmers – all across the nation.
The newest land use issue relating to direct marketing now popping up concerns on-farm “harvest” festivals and other annual or periodic events that may bring thousands of people – and their cars – to farms and rural areas. The land use issues typically arise from complaints of neighbors about the traffic, noise, dust and other impacts – and legal issue is often whether these activities must apply for “special use permits.” The question may relate to the cost of the permits as well as other rules, such as hiring security to handle parking, oiling roads to reduce dust, or required number of restroom facilities.
While the farmer may see these as a simple end of the year party for the farms customers, the land use officials – and the neighbors may view them more like a outdoor rock concert in the neighbors pasture.
8. Urban agriculture and city ordinances to encourage farming and food production
While the city chicken is one strand of local food, a larger and more significant issue relates to the enactment by cities of comprehensive ordinances and plans to promote urban agriculture.
A large and growing number of major cities, including Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Memphis, Kansas City, and New York, have in recent years developed and enacted comprehensive urban agriculture plans, often including amendments to the city land use and zoning ordinances. Typical provisions may relate to the use of vacant lands for food production, clarifying the ability of residents to grow food on their properties, expanding the availability of community gardens and allowing food grown there to be sold, inventorying city owned land to identify tracts possibly suitable for farming, and provisions to allow production of chickens, and perhaps other livestock such as goats, and bee-keeping.
These efforts to expand urban agriculture, or what can also be referred to as community-based agriculture, are helping make it possible for people to raise food and become involved in direct farm marketing.
9. Raw Milk Issues Stir Controversy
Raw milk is one food product primarily available only through forms of direct farm marketing. While the people who purchase and consume raw milk are generally avid believers in its health benefits, food safety officials at the local, state and federal level are for the most part uniformly opposed to retail sales of raw milk because of fears over the health risks in can poise through contamination with a variety of harmful germs.
The raw milk debate is not new, one of my first assignments as a newly minted lawyer for the state of Iowa over 30 years, involved Iowa’s department of agriculture efforts to prohibit the sale of raw milk. But consumers of raw milk and farmers who market it have been creative in finding ways to bring it to the market – such as through cow shares designed to avoid the “sale” of the milk, and they have pursued state and local legislation – successfully in some states – to create opportunities for raw milk sales.
There is no one – or easy – answer to the raw milk debate, but it is important to recognize that for some consumers, farmers, and even trade organizations – raw milk is the most important legal issue relating to not just direct farm marketing but to consumer freedom. Some groups and individuals have taken to promoting access to raw milk under the theme of “food sovereignty,” casting the debate over individual freedom and the right of local governments to be free of unwanted state and federal health regulations. Several communities in Maine have gone so far as to enact “food sovereignty” ordinances declaring federal food safety laws inapplicable. These efforts are for the most part ill-conceived and unconstitutional attempts to avoid the application of food safety laws. But these debates, and lawsuits like that filed by the “Farmer Consumer Legal Defense Fund” may only confuse the important discussion about appropriate food safety rules, and hijack the positive ideals of local food and direct marketing, by turning what for many is a desire for better food into a political struggle over the rights of individuals to be free of public regulation.
10. USDA Efforts to Promote Local Food and Direct Farm Marketing
The appointment of Tom Vilsack, former Governor of Iowa, to become Secretary of Agriculture in the Obama Administration has set in motion a wide range of changes in how the USDA administers various federal programs and in the priorities of the department. One of the most significant changes promoted by the Secretary has been the broadened of USDA efforts to include support for all farmers, regardless of their size or their method of production, which has brought a significant focus to issues important to small farmers and farmers involved in direct farm marketing. Much of this focus has resulted from the USDA’s identification of expanding local and regional food systems as critical to improving rural economic development and creating more opportunities for farmers and consumers.
The most important indicator of this new priority on local food was the creation within USDA of the Know Your Farmer Know Your Food campaign, designed to identify how USDA programs can be used to increase the connections between farmers and consumers. While Know Your Farmer is not limited to direct farm-marketing efforts, such as promoting farmers markets, these efforts are at the heart of the campaign largely because direct farm marketing is the easiest and most available method to connect consumers with the farmers who raise their food.
As a result, the internal USDA efforts to evaluate programs for how they can be used to promote the Know Your Farmer idea have led to new attention on issues important to direct marketing. Topics such as support for small enterprises for livestock processing, development of new crop and income insurance products suitable for direct marketers, and expanding the use of federal nutrition benefits at direct marketing outlets are examples of how this new attention from USDA will benefit direct farm marketing.