Transitions Breed Opportunity
WORDS BY JOHN LEE
Recently there has been quite a bit of presentation in these pages about transitions in farm management and ownership. This is important and particularly germane as farmers age and their societal priorities change in parallel with their need for less arduous work and more diminished ambition. Real estate pressures, health issues, regulations, increasing environmental pressures (viz. brown marmorated stink bugs, spotted wing drosophilla, climate change in any combination or permutation) can cause a well-intentioned grower to question his or her sanity and make next generation heirs reluctant to pick up the mantle.
I am sure that this in part why the farming population in the northeast declined for so many years (aside from a poor market for commodities and the lure of sunnier climes!). Even a farmer’s crystal ball shows a bumper crop of uncertainty in the near or distant future. Nonetheless, there is a counter-swing afoot in the hinterlands as restless gen-x and y’ers see opportunity and reward in hard work that is creative, satisfying and that hopefully (in a good year) bears tangible results.
What is happening across the northeast right now is particularly exciting to an aging but ever-hopeful farmer in many ways if less so for an ever-hungrier community of consumers. The number of agricultural operations is growing but the average size is diminishing. Thus the opportunity for community amongst budding agriculturists is on the rise (an important factor when you may not be sure what you’ve gotten yourself into). Chefs were chic but now the producers are the social segment of envy and adulation. What could be better than that?
The down-side of this is that here in the northeast corridor, communities of need (viz. senior centers, inner city areas, schools, hospitals et al.) have less access to volumes of fresh, nutritious, locally-grown produce given current market structures ffor smaller scale producers. Thus, there is a concurrent need for a new generation of second-tier food entrepreneurs who understand the production side of the business but also know the distribution side and can aggregate product from a variety of farms for a central delivery. This is beginning to happen in MA.
Herein lie the new opportunities for younger ag-entrepreneurs. CSAs and farmer’s markets, while certainly not passé, are not going to be the best opportunity to make money and have a serious impact on the quality of life of a huge segment of most Massachusetts’ citizens. New markets and market mechanisms are on the rise and the smart producers will see the need to broaden their horizons and do better by doing good. I do not think this is a liberal’s fantasy. Rather, I think that the upper end of the market has become excessively competitive, there are a limited number of foodies and an unlimited number of ‘hungries’, for lack of a better word. Set-asides, whether in acreage or production, will become the market strategy du jour.
John Lee is the manager of Allandale Farm (Boston’s last working farm),which specializes in naturally grown local produce. Each summer, John manages an outdoor children’s program on the farm. He writes for local news outlets and is deeply involved with farming and locally grown issues in Massachusetts.