Small Growers in Short SupplyMay 15th, 2009
Local food boom increases demand. Expanding the pool of farmers ‘something that takes time.’
By Coleman Wood
When Jonathan Tescher began the East Atlanta Village Farmers Market in 2006, he had to start small despite the growing demand for locally grown organic food.
The operating budget that first year was a mere $250, half of which came out of Tescher’s own pocket. But the bigger problem was one facing many upstart farmers markets in Georgia – a shortage of local farmers.
When the East Atlanta Village Farmers Market debuted midseason, Tescher had just a handful of vendors, only two of whom were farmers.
“It was weak [at first], but it was there and people supported us,” Tescher said.
By the second season, Tescher had developed a business plan and formed local partnerships that provided, among other things, financial assistance for a marketing budget, supplies and other operating costs. The market grew to 25 vendors, including four or five farmers.
Today, East Atlanta Village Farmers Market, which opened for the season Thursday, is thriving. But as demand for community farmers markets continues to increase, the dearth of farmers remains an issue.
“The problem is we’ve had this explosive growth in interest, particularly in the past two to three years, and to [expand the number of] growers is something that takes time,” said Alice Rolls, executive director of Georgia Organics, a nonprofit organization that promotes organic and sustainable agriculture in the state.
Out of the $20 billion in food Georgians purchase annually, $16 billion comes from out of state, according to Georgia Organics. Meanwhile, the number of farmers markets in Georgia expanded from 12 to 62 between 2004 and 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Survey.
“One of our ultimate goals is to grow more growers,” Rolls said.
Tescher hopes the proliferation of markets will encourage more people to take up farming. And assistance is coming from the federal government. The 2008 farm bill had several provisions in it that increased funding for various organic and sustainable farming programs.
It should be noted that farmers markets are not limited solely to organic growers; the only condition of these “producer-only” markets is that the farmer selling the food has to be the one who grew it. And many local farmers adopt the same environmentally friendly growing practices as those certified organic by the USDA (the only people that can call themselves organic), but do not want to go through the red tape associated with being certified. These practices include not using chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as well as not using genetically modified seeds. A local market will often contain a mix of certified and non-certified sustainable farmers.
The farm bill increases the amount of funding for the Organic Agriculture and Extension Initiative, the USDA’s main grant program for organic studies. The bill also increases the amount farmers are reimbursed for the cost of organic certification and supports those who wish to convert to organic farms.
But a turnaround will be needed soon. The number of people going into farming has been decreasing for decades, and most farming today is done by large-scale industrial operations rather than family farms. According to Georgia Organics, less than 1 percent of farmers are under age 25. The average U.S. farmer is 56.
Farmers are well aware of the demand. Moore Farms & Friends is one of the area’s most popular community-supported agriculture groups – a subscription service in which members are delivered produce each week straight from the farm. In one recent week, Moore Farms added 30 new members to its CSA and three new drop sites for deliveries.
“We’re able to meet demand for our delivery schedule right now, but we get calls literally every week wanting to add a drop site on the other side of Atlanta,” said Will Moore, who runs the CSA and his farm out of Woodland, Ala., with his wife, Laurie.
Despite today’s shortage of local small farmers, there is optimism that the local food movement in Georgia will continue to grow. Local groups and government agencies are coming up with new ways to attract farmers, and slow progress is being made.
“I think it’s going to be years before we can meet the demand,” Moore said. “I think growing the farmers is really crucial. We don’t have enough growers in this area, but I have seen a lot of new growers come along, so it’s not a gloomy prospect.”