BREWSTER — In April, Eldredge Farm consisted of two greenhouses, a dozen chickens and one very ambitious plan.
“I have to screen out the loam, prepare the beds, install the posts and chicken wire, and install the irrigation,” farmer Jeff Eldredge said at the time, making just a partial list of the tasks ahead of him.
Eldredge was gearing up for his first season running a community supported agriculture — or CSA — farm, a model in which members buy shares in the year’s crops and receive a portion of each week’s harvest. Neon orange ribbons fluttered on wooden stakes, defining the dimensions of the vegetable garden he was planning for one corner of the tree-ringed lot. In the greenhouses, tiny green slivers of garlic and onion plants emerged from the soil in small, black starter pots.
To get to this point, he had prepared for months. He attended classes in beekeeping and compost and other agricultural seminars. He made a farm plan with U.S. Department of Agriculture staff and got livestock permits from the town.
“It’s not just about farming anymore — it’s about all the process and procedures,” he said. “It’s been a lot of work to get where I am.”
The plan for the season was to get the vegetable garden up and running and sell 50 shares in his CSA program. He talked about his goals idealistically, but with full awareness of the practical challenges.
“I think (the CSA) is a great thing, so we’re not trucking stuff across the country. We should be able to provide for our people right here,” he said. But later he added, “It’s hard, because you’re doing all this work for not really a lot of money. I’m just trying to make this viable.”
More and more consumers are clamoring for locally grown food. But as demand surges, the ability of farmers to keep up may not be keeping pace.
Locally produced food has been in an increasingly bright spotlight for the past three or four years. Such food, advocates say, is healthier, safer, more economical and far more friendly to the environment. Furthermore, supporting local agricultural businesses helps encourage economic development within one’s community.
The conventional alternatives — produce and meat from large-scale industrial farms — contribute to pollution, disease outbreaks and obesity, they argue. Workers, they contend, are underpaid and abused and animals cruelly mistreated.
In southeastern Massachusetts, the signs of a burgeoning interest in locally grown food are easy to spot.
Bumper stickers urging shoppers to “Buy Fresh, Buy Local” are becoming a common sight. More and more restaurants are including information about the provenance of the vegetables and meat on their menus. Farmers markets, their tables laden with a shifting array of greens and squashes and fruits, dot the length of the Cape from late spring through the fall.
And the numbers back up these clues.
Massachusetts was home to 90 farmers markets in 2000, according to the state Department of Agricultural Resources. These numbers grew steadily through the decade and, by 2009, there were 195 markets in the state. And sales directly from grower to consumer have also soared, from $7.8 million in 2002 to $17.5 million in 2007, according to reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Clearly, the demand is there.
But as it continues to grow, will Massachusetts farmers be able to keep up? And are the necessary systems in place to make sure local foods are accessible to those who want them?
Right now, the answer to the first question seems to be no; consumers already want to buy more food than local farmers are producing, many in the state’s agricultural community say.
“There is anecdotal evidence that the demand is outpacing the supply,” said Jay Coburn, executive director the Southeastern Massachusetts Agricultural Partnership, or SEMAP.
Towns are looking into establishing farmers markets at a faster pace than new growers are entering the field, said Hannah Freedberg, development and outreach director for the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets.
Restaurants looking to put locally cultivated food on their menus also have trouble securing a stable, plentiful supply, said Coburn, formerly a chef in Provincetown. A small farm cannot guarantee its harvest and the food it does produce can fetch a higher price at a farmers market or farmstand than the wholesale prices paid by restaurants.
“We had a tremendous challenge in trying to secure all the local produce that we wanted,” he said. Restaurants “have huge, huge demand and interest, but they really struggle both to get produce, just getting the quantity and diversity.”
The reasons why growers struggle to keep up with demand are complex and diverse, ranging from the practical to the philosophical.
The lack of available land may be at the top of the list. Peter Reading, owner of the Billingsgate Farm in Plympton, has been farming in the area since he first started doing part time work around a farm at the age of 6.
Preparing ears of corn for sale at the Carver farmers market one Sunday, he listed off a half dozen farms he has seen vanish. The reason for these disappearances, he said, is the unwillingness of farmers’ children to carry on their parents’ agricultural traditions.
Farming is hard work, he said, involving arduous hours, few days off and limited profits.
Almost all of the Cape’s 406 farms fall under the USDA definition of “small farms,” those that sell less than $250,000 in agricultural products annually. In fact, 83 percent of the region’s farms take in less that $50,000 each year before operating expenses are deducted.
Farmers’ children are “not interested in the work and hours of farming,” said Reading, who makes ends meet by driving a truck at night in addition to his farm work. “When the older parents have died, 95 percent of the time, the kids have sold the land for development.”
The numbers bear that out. In 1997, Massachusetts had 578,000 acres of farmland, according to USDA data; by 2007, there were 518,000 agricultural acres. Though there was a slight uptick in the number of farms in operation over the same period, their average size fell from 79 acres to 67 acres.
Of course, not everyone is averse to farming. There is, in fact, a small (but, by all accounts, growing) number of young aspiring farmers trying to get their agricultural careers off the ground. But the steady shrinking of available agricultural land is an obstacle for this passionate group, explained Emily Palmer, a recent college graduate trying to start a small farming operation on Martha’s Vineyard.
She has been working on a farm on the island, but finding land to launch her own agricultural business has been a challenge, she said. Available acreage is scarce and expensive, and those just starting out simply don’t have the money they need to buy land or enter into a long-term lease, especially once other costs — greenhouses, irrigation, deer fences — are factored in.
“There’s all this interest, in general, in building local food systems, but there’s not established channels for putting these young people on land,” Palmer said.
Aspiring young farmers, she noted, have the energy and enthusiasm required to scratch out a living as a farmer, but “paradoxically, we don’t have the resources.”
Beyond issues of supply, there are questions of distribution.
Over the past several decades, the country has become dependent on industrial-scale farms to supply a range inexpensive produce, regardless of the season. And shoppers have become accustomed to being able to buy all of their produce in one supermarket for relatively little money.
“Over the past few decades, we’ve completely dismantled the local distribution infrastructure,” said Jessie Gunnard, the coordinator of Buy Fresh Buy Local Cape Cod.
Small, local growers, meanwhile, have generally depended on three main venues to market their products: farmstands, CSAs and farmers markets. These channels allow farmers to connect directly with buyers, avoiding middlemen and charging full retail prices, which are often higher than those charged by supermarkets.
Therefore, buying locally grown produce frequently means consumers have to pay a premium and add more stops to their food shopping routines. Local food enthusiasts argue that these costs are worthwhile; they point out that the “true cost” of industrially farmed produce and meat — including taxpayer-funded subsidies, environmental damage and possibly unsafe food — is ultimately higher than the slightly higher dollar value of an ear of corn bought at a farmers market.
Especially in the current economy, however, many people who appreciate the benefits of local food simply don’t have the room in their budgets for even slightly pricier purchases. Nor can they get away from work during farmers markets’ limited hours or find the time to make a special trip to the farm to pick up a weekly CSA share.
Most people involved in the local food movement advocate finding ways to get local food into the hands of those who have had less access to it. But for many growers, the economic realities of keeping a farm afloat simply have to take precedence over these more idealistic notions.
“The marketing venues that are really going to be the most profitable for the farmers are going to be those (three) arrangements,” Gunnard said.
Selling their products in more accessible and affordable places may just be a financial impossibility for many farmers, she added.
“When you are talking about getting stuff into supermarkets and restaurants, that’s when you start talking wholesale pricing,” she said. “And when you’re doing wholesale, you’re getting paid less. Our farms are very small and we don’t have a whole lot of farms that can consistently supply cases of lettuce and bushels of cucumbers.”
Even those farms large enough to consistently supply the volume needed by a supermarket may hit another obstacle: insurance. Large grocery stores often require their produce suppliers to carry liability insurance, in case their products cause any illnesses or injury, Coburn explained. And the prices for coverage are high, he said.
“To have $3 million in liability insurance can get expensive for someone who’s only farming a couple acres,” he said.
There are no easy answers to these questions of supply and distribution. But a wide variety of efforts are underway, each addressing one sliver — land availability, distribution logistics, affordability — of the larger issue.
The state’s Agricultural Preservation Restriction, or APR, program is designed to prevent traditional farmland from being sold off for real estate development. When farmers, or their heirs, decide to sell their property, the APR program will reimburse them for the difference between the agricultural value of the land and the price they could get if they sold it for commercial or real estate development, explained Scott Soares, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.
“They can essentially sell the rights beyond agricultural rights to the commonwealth and put a permanent restriction on that land to keep it agricultural forever,” Soares explained.
In fiscal 2009, the APR program closed on 33 properties, keeping nearly 2,000 acres of land in agricultural use. In total, the program has preserved about 64,000 acres, Soares said.
The state’s Farm Viability Program offers environmental, technical and business planning assistance. It also provides funding — $25,000, $50,000 or $75,000 — to put those plans into action, in exchange for a covenant from the landowner committing the land to agricultural use for five or 10 years.
“Beyond preservation of agricultural land itself, it also goes a long way towards enhancing the agricultural business that needs to occur on those lands,” Soares said.
SEMAP is working with aspiring farmers to match them with available property; currently, the list of those seeking land runs to about 45 people, Coburn said.
On Martha’s Vineyard, agricultural advocacy group Island Grown has sponsored several initiatives that get more locally grown food to more people.
Its mobile poultry processing unit is a trailer that contains all of the equipment necessary for killing chickens and preparing them for sale. Individual farmers pay a fee to use the unit; local, trained poultry processors are also available at a fair wage.
“Building a brick-and-mortar slaughter facility is prohibitively expensive for a small family farmer,” said Ali Berlow, executive director of the organization. “Once we built (the mobile unit), it increased poultry production dramatically — we had one farmer go from zero chickens to 600 chickens.”
This year, Island Grown, in association with women’s farming group the Sowing Circle, also launched a gleaning program. Gleaning is a traditional practice, Berlow explained, in which farmers would welcome community members into their field after the end of the harvest to collect any food that remained.
This first year of gleaning yielded so much that the volunteers were able to donate food to local schools, elderly housing facilities and even the island jail.
“They’ve literally harvested thousands of pounds of vegetables and distributed them in the short time that that’s been in existence,” Berlow said.
Though a range of groups are working of different pieces of the local food puzzle, no single organization has control of the big picture right now. Several pieces of proposed legislation would create policy councils to study local food systems and make recommendations about improving them, Soares said. All, however, are still pending.
“Mostly right now, the local food distribution here is being delivered by individual farmers or being picked up by chefs—really creative, individual cobbled together schemes,” Gunnard said. “This is one of our main problems right now.”
Back in Brewster, seven months later, Jeff Eldredge assessed his inaugural CSA season.
The land on which he walked had been transformed. One and a half acres are now cordoned off behind a fence of rough-hewn logs and chicken wire. Inside, the season’s last vegetables — half-buried purple turnips, glossy leaves of swiss chard — lingered on dozens of raised beds.
The CSA program, Eldredge said, was a success; 49 families enrolled and the feedback he got was overwhelmingly positive. CSA member Linda Preston, wandering through the garden collecting post-harvest produce last week, compared her weekly baskets to a work of art.
But not everything went smoothly. There were the vagaries of the growing season: early blight, late blight, a particularly brutal nor’easter and a June that was almost uniformly cool and gray.
“It was hard this year. We were just trying to muddle our way through it,” Eldredge said. “We had a large garden two seasons ago, but I wasn’t feeding 49 families. It was a lot more pressure.”
The anxieties of this year, however, haven’t deterred Eldredge from continuing to pursue his farming dream. He is already laying plans for next year, figuring out how to recruit more families to the CSA. He is considering hanging bird houses in the woods surrounding the farm, each inscribed with the name of a CSA member to give his customers the sense that they have a proprietary connection to the land.
“It was a very rewarding experience,” he said. “Right now we’re planning for next year — what we’re going to grow.”
This story was published in the Cape Cod Times on November 29, 2009. Read the story and see photos at CapeCodOnline.com.