The growing gap between consumer demand and the ability of the farm business community to meet that demand presents a dangerous vacuum for small farmers, believes Charlie Touchette, executive director of the North American Farmers’ Direct Marketing Association.
It could, he says, become a vacuum that gets filled by corporate entities rather than local producers.
As he sees it, farms that got into direct marketing in order to preserve farming as a lifestyle are coming under threat.
“My concern would be that there is a big enough consumer demand that a non-farm, non-back-to-the-earther, non-agricultural or a non-traditional farm corporation, such as something that might be designed on Wall Street, could actually become the farm-direct marketing of 20 years from now,” Touchette says.
Farmers who see themselves as back-to-the-landers, making a romantic and possibly short-lived attempt at commercial farming may exacerbate that production shortfall, inadvertently paving the way for big-box stores to capitalize on a local aesthetic, rather than actually promoting local food production, says Touchette. Even large amusement parks could hop onto the bandwagon.
“You could one day have a Six-Flags that offers something very similar to the agrotourism farm down the way, a pick-your-own pumpkin patch for example,” Touchette says, adding that he isn’t trying to be provocative, but rather wants to encourage direct marketers to take a hard look at their industry.
“I despise fear-mongering, but I don’t mind slapping ourselves upside the head with a two-by-four once in a while,” Touchette says.
Phil Veldhuis, the association’s Manitoba president, says the fact that large chains are attempting to latch onto the ideas of local, healthy food is a sign that direct marketers have succeeded in getting their message out to the consumer.
“But I don’t think they are fooling anyone,” says the beekeeper. “No one who goes to a grocery store that’s decked out like it’s a bistro in downtown Montreal really thinks that they are.”
Consumers who are passionate about local foods won’t be sucked in by supermarket schtick, Touchette agrees, but he says middle-of-the-road consumers who could go either way might be caught up and confused by such marketing. If that happens it will be direct farm marketers that lose out.
Back in Allison’s Fenske’s tidy Winnipeg kitchen (see main story), it’s clear she is one of the passionate ones, drawn to direct marketing because it offers something even the most creative advertiser can’t recreate — a real and personal relationship with the farmer who grows her food.
“One of the things that’s really interesting for us is that we get to learn about vegetables that we probably wouldn’t have bought if we came across them in the grocery store, so we are getting to try new things and be a bit more creative in our meal planning,” she says, adding it’s also drastically reduced the amount of food that goes to waste in her home.
“Now when we are sitting down to have a salad or to roast some veggies for dinner, there is not that distance between the immensely hard work put into growing the vegetables that go on our plate,” she explains. “So all the fermenting and pickling is really just a direct response to me not wanting to waste a single thing — when you are just grabbing a box of mushrooms off the shelf in the grocery story for whatever reason it doesn’t resonate the same way, I mean I never feel good about wasting food, but now that we have an actual farm and a group of people to connect it to, I just feel a really strong sense of responsibility to make the most out of everything we are so lucky to be provided with.”
Those like Fenske who buy shares in Jonathan’s Farm don’t just get vegetables, they get a weekly newsletter with updates, recipes, news about farm employees and information on what to expect in the week ahead. They can also follow the farm on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram, and most importantly they have the opportunity to meet Jonathan in person or visit the farm.
But social media is doing more than just helping producers like owner Jonathan Stevens tell their story and make sales, it’s challenging the very idea of what the farm gate is, creating confusion as farmers and regulators work to redefine parameters around first sales.
“Sometimes the regulations don’t take into account how the world has changed,” says Veldhuis. “Does a farm gate sale include a Facebook post that is read by your friend list? I don’t think we have thought very much about how we define the farm gate in the 21st century.”
That is of particular consequence for producers who offer value-added products to consumers such as jam, ice cream, cheese or even meat products. While regulations are important for food safety and consumer confidence, they also have to be modern and easily understood.
“One of the reasons our organization has come into existence has been to try to create a dialogue on some of those issues,” Veldhuis says.
However, amid all the regulations and trials that come with direct farm marketing, Touchette says there is something else the small farm offers, which can’t be forgotten in the quest for success.
“I do like to remind those of us in agriculture that the rest of the public does not solely associate farms with food and vice versa,” he says. “I would like to submit that as farmers we also grow fun. And that is how you hit the real sweet spot as it applies to farm-direct marketing… so let’s not get so up on our high horse that it’s only about food, only about fuel or fibre, because it is about fun, and anything else you want to talk about that hopefully maintains good stewardship of our farmland and our farm families.”