With a shift in consumer demand to more locally grown and produced food, the number of large national farms is decreasing while local farms are on the rise. An early 2019 article in Fortune Magazine reported that local foods generated $11.7 billion in sales in 2014, are expected to climb to $20.2 billion by 2019, according to Packaged Facts, a market research firm.
According to Gail McWilliam Jellie of the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, the trend in agriculture continues to be direct to consumer and niche crops, both of which are gaining momentum. Farmers are finding their niche — sometimes a niche within a niche — and having success. The demand for specialty livestock breeds and their products continue to grow, driven in part by the farm-to-table and localvore movements.
Consumers want to buy directly from the source of their food, which is reflected in national statistics. According to the most recent USDA farm census, there has been little to no growth — and in some cases a decline — in agriculture selling to the wholesale market.
New Hampshire, as a whole, reflects the national trend. As of 2017, the most recent USDA census data, New Hampshire is home to 4,123 farms. This is a decrease from the previous 2012 census counting 4,391 farms.
Cheshire County tells a slightly different story. Between 2012 and 2017, there was an increase of 13 small farms. Interestingly, the acreage of farms in Cheshire County has decreased by 9,672 acres. This reflects the downsizing of the average farm: More farmers are choosing to move away from a wholesale model (which requires more acreage to produce more income) and into a direct-to-consumer model.
In our region, the increase in the number of farms (comparing the 2012 and 2017 census) could be attributed to the opening of the Monadnock Food Co-op, along with other initiatives such as Monadnock Menus, a program run by the Monadnock Farm and Community Coalition that connects local farms with local chefs at restaurants and institutions. These initiatives have opened markets for the local farms to sell what they grow and raise.
Nate Page, perishables and frozen buyer at the co-op, points out that the Monadnock Food Co-op focuses on carrying local products and has become a valuable retail outlet for area producers. These additions to the area may have helped to encourage small farms start-ups, giving them more places to sell their goods.
Gail McWilliam Jellie points out that farmers have to shift their business approach. Focusing on direct-to-consumer practices and establishing their niche has been beneficial to some small farms. This brings a new skill set that is needed for farming: marketing. Small farms are a small business and need to keep up with current marketing trends. This adds more work to an already large workload for many farmers and producers. This might mean having to take on an additional employee, raising expenses and ultimately raising product pricing.
IS TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING BAD FOR SMALL FARMS?
According to a March 2019 National Public Radio report, there has been a worrisome trend of farmers’ markets oversaturation in some areas, causing smaller, newer ones to fail.
Meghan Houlihan, manager of the well-attended Brattleboro Area Farmers’ Market, points out that farmers’ markets thrive when certain conditions are met. Community support is key. Another key factor is having committed vendors who produce high-quality products.
“We’re lucky to have so many farmers in our area, and it seems as though more are popping up all the time. Each of these farmers is producing high-quality produce, eggs, meats, cheeses, etc. and there is no shortage of quality offerings at the many markets in the area,” Houlihan notes.
However, some area farms are still struggling. William Jahos, owner at Flying Cloud Farm in Alstead, is feeling the pressure. He says that in the 23 years he has been in business, things don’t seem to be much better; he speculates that things may actually be worse now. Jahos shared that he is functioning on minimal income while carrying debt for essential farming equipment.
Since Jahos was three years old, he knew he wanted to be a dairy farmer. For him, this is a labor of love. However, love alone cannot pay to rebuild after a house fire took his home a few years ago. The demand for raw milk is there. However, many consumers either can’t afford the price or don’t want to pay the premium. Regardless of the reason for lack of growth, Jahos continues to produce and sell raw milk, knowing it is wanted and needed.
“(This) is good area for agriculture,” Jahos says. “There is a demand; enough people want local products.”
However, echoing the NPR report, Jahos went on to wonder if the demand for local may have spawned an increase in smaller farms and, perhaps, the market is becoming too saturated.
NATIONAL TRENDS: LOW PRICES, PLANT-BASED ALTERNATIVES TAKE A BITE OUT OF DAIRY MARKET
In 2012 the United States hosted 2,109,303 farms. Five years later, that number dropped to 2,042,220 for a loss of 67,083 farms. Farmland decreased by over 13 million acres in that period.
This could be attributed to the decrease in wholesale dairy farms. These farmers are strapped in by a pricing structure from the 1950s. Also, dairy farmers are losing profits as plant-based alternatives and the demand for local dairy rises. Sales of wholesale dairy milk plummeted by $1.1 billion in 2018, according to statistics revealed by the Dairy Farmers of America. This has led to some large dairy farmers selling their land to developers.
One bright spot in the region is Chickering Farm in Westmoreland, the Monadnock Region’s largest remaining dairy farm that has been in the Chickering family for more than 200 years. The 400 dairy cow farm, run solely by Arthur “Jim” Chickering, 85, has been protected for perpetuity by the Monadnock Conservancy for recreation and/or farming. The protection, in effect since March 2019, required that the nonprofit organization raise $1.4 million in private and public funds to protect the land.
But ultimately, the agricultural trend both nationally and locally, is leaning towards a more smaller and local approach. The idea that big commercial agriculture had been sending to farmers for years — that bigger is better — is being countered by both small farm advocates and consumers alike — that smaller and local, is better.
Michelle Stephens writes from Hinsdale, New Hampshire.