Small Is Beautiful 

In the world of the small farmer, cotton and beans take a backseat to squash and peanut butter.

Even as large agribusinesses continue to tighten their grip on the American system of food production, some small American farms are finding new markets and new ways to make a living from the earth.

But it's more than just free-market forces driving so many small farms out of business, says Kathy Lawrence, executive director of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture. Agribusiness has hijacked farm legislation and the major channels of processing and distribution, she says.

The newest threat to the family farm is a new farm bill that's only had 15 minutes of debate in the House of Representatives, Lawrence says, adding that the bill, which could be passed by the House as early as this week, neglects small farmers, increases subsidy payments to large agribusinesses, and maintains policies that keep prices for commodities low. "It's a continuation of our national farm policy of 'get big or get out,'" Lawrence says. "I would hope that, at worst, government would do no harm, but small- or medium-sized diversified family farms that are not focused on maximum use of land, maximum output per acre, and large monocultures are getting run out of business."

Tinker Talley knows this only too well. Standing over a table of two-tone squash, exotic greens, and vine-grown spinach in the parking lot of the Midtown Food Cooperative (where this reporter is a board member), he speaks about the difficulties facing the American farmer.

A lifelong farmer, Talley started growing unusual, pesticide-free produce for farmers' markets and restaurants because he couldn't make a living from the cotton and beans he used to grow.

"From 1972 to 1997 I got over $6 a bushel for beans," Talley says. "But since 1998 I haven't gotten over $5.50, and mostly $4. How would you like to make the $1.40 per hour minimum wage people made in 1972?"

Bean and other commodity prices have stayed low since the 1997 farm bill ended government regulation of the amount of crops produced. The markets were flooded, and Talley says cheaper imported goods have also added to the problems of America's small farmers.

Talley says he has lost $100,000 per year since 1997 and will lose $80,000 this year. But he says he's learned a lot this season about the kinds of produce consumers and chefs want. It's taken him several seasons to change his tactics, but by direct-marketing he's bypassing the low prices of distributors and commodity brokers, who are often controlled by large agribusinesses.

"I'm trying to find a niche market," he says. "In this part of the country people know of two kinds of squash -- crooked-neck yellow and zucchini. But these different varieties allow people to add new colors and flavors to their diet. They love them," Talley says, motioning to his colorful squash.

Nobody seems to care about local farmers anymore, Talley says. He thinks most politicians are tied to the agribusinesses that contribute to their campaigns. But small- and medium-sized farm operators all over the country are having similar problems, Lawrence says. She thinks they deserve a farm bill that helps level the playing field. Only the largest farms get subsidy payments, she says, and smaller farmers are paid less at processing plants because they don't offer the same volume as large producers.

As well as working for fair legislation for small farmers, Lawrence's organization tries to help them find new ways to market their goods. Farmers' markets, cooperatives, and pick-your-own arrangements help farmers increase their margin. And instead of growing peanuts, for example, farmers can make and sell peanut butter.

"Every day consumers open up their wallets to buy food, and we are trying to find ways for farmers to capture more of that food dollar," Lawrence says. One way is teaching farmers how to do more direct-marketing. "It's extremely important but extremely difficult because we are rebuilding an infrastructure that has been destroyed," she adds.

In several small towns in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, small farms are feeding their communities and preserving a suburban greenbelt through farmers' markets, says Marcie Brewster. Brewster and a partner work the Wildfire Farm outside of Berryville, Arkansas.

"We are still losing farms," she says, "but small farms and little-market farms are growing because farmers' markets are growing." Wildfire has had success with community-supported agriculture, which allows consumers to pay a flat seasonal fee for a weekly supply of fresh vegetables. This method gives Wildfire startup money for the season and guarantees a dedicated market for its goods.

Organic, or chemical-free, produce is a fast-growing segment of agriculture and is favored by some small farmers because it requires less equipment and fewer chemicals and commands good prices. Brewster says growing without chemicals is important, but certification (as chemical-free) is expensive and unnecessary when selling directly to the consumer.

"The extension service has always said chemicals are the best way to farm," she says, "but all it has done is made the chemical companies rich and put people out of business. It's part of the government's policy because it's more efficient." Chemicals make it possible to farm with less manpower and more machines, she says.

A former Memphian, Brewster isn't the only one to give up urban life and steady paychecks to make a living off the land. Several other small farms have sprung up around Wildfire, proving that even when up against big business and misguided government policies, the American small farmer will find a way to survive.

You can e-mail Andrew Wilkins at letters@memphisflyer.com.

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