Consumers are hungrier (forgive us) than ever for high-quality, sustainably grown food. Small organic farmers desperately want to feed them. So what’s the problem?
According to The Atlantic’s Yoni Appelbaum, current regulation is more focused on factory farming and gets in the way of smaller producers. Another problem: Industry consolidation and slashed government budgets have stripped away the small farmer’s support system.
Two sets of hurdles lie in their way. One is regulatory. State and federal rules are often tuned for industrial-scale operations, and can be difficult for smaller producers to navigate. The other is a lack of support. “Part of the challenge in the growth of small farms and medium-size farms is that we’ve lost a lot of our infrastructure over the last 50 years,” Pingree said. She pointed, for example, to the consolidation of slaughterhouses, which may now be distant from smaller producers. And a variety of federal efforts that once supported local farmers have withered away.
On Pingree’s organic farm on the island of North Haven, she raises pigs, chickens, and acres of vegetables, and produces cheese and yogurt from her milch cows. As a young farmer 40 years ago, she’d take her to an agent of the USDA’s cooperative extension system. “I asked him things about processing milk, or pests that I had to deal with, or organic soil amendments.” It helped her understand how crucial a role the department could play in fostering small farms.
And it’s left her keenly disappointed with the lack of federal investment or support. Young farmers today may not find an agent from the cooperative extension system who can answer their questions. “They’re now dramatically underfunded, and they tell me that in a state like Maine where there are farmers with a million questions,” they can’t keep up with demand, Pingree said. Young farmers are looking for advice not just on raising crops, but also “with business techniques or marketing their product.” But they find few answers.