Saturday, April 17, 2010

Value added and Values-based

For American farmers, the size of farm operations are pretty bipolar. On the one hand are the operators growing some variation of grain and beans on thousands of acres. On the other are extremely small scale producers, farming a few acres for farmer's markets or for specialty products. Mid-scale farmers are largely an anachronism at this point, long since either retiring from farming or swallowing up their neighbors. There are very well-defined reasons for this, largely revolving around public policy, but I'll leave that for others to discuss (like Michael Pollan or these fellas from the University of Tennessee. This has been identified as a significant obstacle towards moving towards a more sustainable and responsive food system. A national project known as Agriculture of the Middle seeks to find ways to support a renaissance of medium sized farms. Agriculture of the middle was started by Fred Kirschenmann, sustainable agriculture luminary and former head of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

A large part of the problem for small farms, according to this executive summary:

Mid-sized farms and ranches are disappearing
because, individually, they are often too small to
compete successfully in international agricultural
commodity markets, yet they are not positioned
to bypass these markets and directly market food
to local consumers.

The summary goes on to discuss cooperative direct marketing, producers working together to create a larger market and thus accessing the benefits of scale. These cooperatives offer a premium, or "value added" product to consumers, and appeal to a shared set of values between producer and consumer. This value added, values-based formula can allow producers to offer a superior product to interested consumers at a scale unavailable to very small producers and in a manner that larger operations are unable, by the nature of industrial agriculture, to meet.

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