Farm to table’s dirty little secret

Farm to table restaurants are a growing concept, but many farmers aren’t making money off it

It’s a growing trend in the U.S., the farm to table movement. Restaurants team up with farmers, filling menus with fresh local meats and produce. The National Restaurant Association says it has been the No. 1 trend for the last five years. Chefs say there are countless benefits, including better tasting food, more humane practices and support of local farmers.

But there’s a dirty little secret: Despite growing demand, many farmers are still barely able to make ends meet.

“The immediate income for farmers in the country is just below $1,500. So we’re making negative $1,500 a year. This is just stunning,” says Bren Smith, an oysterman on Long Island Sound off Connecticut who provides sustainably raised oysters, clams and seaweed to local restaurants. “We’re celebrated at events. People write about our stories. So it’s really exciting and rewarding time to be a farmer, but we need to figure out a way that the farmer loves what they do but also makes a living.”

Nearly 30 percent of U.S. farmers sell their wares directly to customers through farmers markets and community supported agriculture (CSAs, groups that sell shares shares in advance for farmers’ produce for a season) as well as to restaurants. Even though the latest industry estimates value local food sales at $7 billion annually, three-quarters of small farmers have sales below $50,000 a year. While the farm to table movement has brought a slew of new customers to farmers like Smith, sales volumes are often too low to translate into living wages.

“The thing I really struggle with is being a small-scale operation and not being able to produce costwise as efficiently as larger-scale producers. There’s a risk,” says Kenneth Foster, head of Purdue University’s agricultural economics department. He’s also a honey farmer. “Having the volume of production to generate enough income — even if there’s profit per unit, it’s harder to make an income for a household from this type of farming.

Bren Smith, an oysterman with Thimble Island Oyster Co., says farmers are living below middle class as the farm to table movement grows.

The other problem, says Smith -- profit margins are slim.  

“Say an oyster sells for $.55, $.60, $.70 apiece, in NYC some of the best restaurants sold it for $2.80 or $3.10 apiece. That’s a lot of markup that isn’t going to the farmer, when the farmer has all the risk.”

Risks that, for Smith, included Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy, which wiped out his oyster stock – twice.  He says the farm-to-table movement has been critical in raising awareness and celebrating farmers. But it isn’t translating to his pocket. Problem is, restaurants are on tight margins as well.

“The rule of thumb with chefs is, you keep your food costs to 30% of the plate. That’s is not much money,” says Smith. “But if we’re stuck to that 30% as farmers, it’s going to continually be a beggar’s game.”

“Maybe that 30% on the plate is a model we need to rethink as business people,” says Jason Sobocinski, chef and owner of Caseus Fromagerie in New Haven, Connecticut.  The restaurant specializes in local, fresh, organic foods – including Smith’s oysters.  Sobocinski says he often spends more than the 30% rule, but says local, sustainable food is expensive, which makes his menu more expensive, with an average dinner entrée costing around $20.

“It’s expensive to be healthy in America,” he said. “It’s expensive to have healthcare if you don’t have a lot of money, it’s expensive to eat well if you don’t have a lot of money.”

Locally-sourced food can be expensive. And raising prices to increase profit isn’t necessarily the answer for local farmers. “If I have to charge too high of a price customers will choose commodity based honey because it’s much cheaper,” says Foster. “I don’t know if it’s insurmountable but it’s a real challenge to be price competitive and maintain a profitable margin over my cost of production.”

Foster says the solution for most farmers is to find work off the farm in order to have a reliable source of income.   “It’s the off-farm job that provides health benefits and the majority of income -- the things essential to maintaining a household,” he said. “It is tough for smaller scale farmers that are focused on this niche type market to make a living that’s comparable to the rest of society.”

Bren Smith says he’s had to work second jobs through much of his time as a farmer, driving lumber trucks and working for non-profits to make ends meet. “Everyone’s doing what we call hoofing it – just trying to piece it together,” he said. “But it’s not like they want these other jobs off the farm. They piece it together to keep their farm alive.”

This is the first year Smith has made a profit in the last four years – and it’s largely because he keeps low overhead and has diversified his business, working with CSAs and partnering with schools and universities.

“I really want to celebrate the first stage of the food movement,” says Smith. “Who would’ve guessed that food would have been a centerpiece of the national debate and discussion? It’s now time for a Food 2.0. Another stage to really think about this.”

There are many theories about what “Food 2.0” might look like for local farmers, but Foster says one key element is branding, and using the internet to connect more local farmers with customers.  

“The thing that hasn’t developed as well as it could are relationships between retailers and local farmers; stores that want to focus on different food, restaurants that want local menus – they need to be in longer term relationship." Websites like Goodeggs, Farmigo and Quinciple might change some of that. They're startups that facilitate delivery of local farm goods, making them more accessible to a wider consumer base. It’s just one step in what Smith hopes will be a renewed national conversation that will not just celebrate farmers, but better support them.

“We should be the firemen, the nurses, the doctors the lawyers of the land, he said. “Because we provide incredible social value, good healthy food that people value and I think we need to have a debate about how much we value our small farms in our communities and create a policy around that.”

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