Polarizing Production: Ag of the Middle
June 26, 2013 | Trish Popovitch
“Over 80% of farmland in the U.S. is managed by farmers whose operations fall between small-scale direct markets and large, consolidated firms. These farmers are increasingly left out of our food system. If present trends continue, these farms, together with the social and environmental benefits they provide, will likely disappear in the next decade or two.” Fred Kirschenmann
Often we hear about small farmers and Big Agriculture but what about the growers and producers in the middle? Their operations are usually too large to sell directly to customers, but too small to have much bearing on the stock market. The ‘Ag of the Middle’ is a term used to define the farmers caught in the middle of the agricultural debate both physically and politically.
The Ag of the Middle project characterizes a midsize farm as one with gross sales ranging from $50,000 to $500,000 (although the U.S. Census places farms with $250 to $500,000 in gross sales as large farms rather than midsize). Midsize farms are essential to the current food system, bridging the gap between mass produced monoculture and small organic food production. They can be sustainable or traditional in nature and provide meat, produce and dairy for businesses and institutions, but don’t sell directly to consumers.
Census data shows a rise in the percentage of small farms and large commercial farms with a steady decline in midsize family farms starting in the mid-1980s and increasing annually. Indeed, many experts claim that the polarization of the American food system between small growers and large producers is creating a hollow center that was once filled by midsize family farms. The economic downturn of recent years and the aging farm population have contributed to the hollowing out of the midsize farm community.
It’s not all doom and gloom for the Ag of the Middle. There are new opportunities available for those farmers willing to make some drastic changes to their production and their business model. Marketing, value added branding, regional selling and farm-to-farm cooperation could help the family farm compete in an agricultural landscape dominated by polar opposites.
Purchasing agents have taken on the role of buyer for the Ag of the Middle, steering clients their way and creating the infrastructure necessary to get the food where it needs to be. By offering a diversity of products to a number of different stores and institutions Ag of the Middle can prosper. It’s a matter of leaving behind the monoculture thinking of Big Ag and adopting the diversity of produce, which makes small growers flourish. Regional agricultural assistance organizations can help put farmers in touch with marketing experts to guide their business.
Working in conjunction with other midsize farmers may give a struggling farm the boost it needs to meet the ever growing diversity of consumer demand, especially in the organic markets. Regional cooperatives allow farmers to pool resources and equipment giving them a stronger voice in the marketplace. A little research will give farmers the tools to organize a cooperative or work with business assistance organizations to determine the structure of a customized value chain cooperative. The USDA offers a detailed online manual to beginning a cooperative.
Where small growers are often looking for classification that will allow them to qualify for government funding, the Ag of the Middle is often choosing not to depend on federal crop subsidies. Take for instance the midsize farm business Shepard’s Grain, a sustainable no till wheat flour grower in Washington State. The wheat growers for the label Shepard’s Grain come from southern Alberta, the Pacific Northwest and southern California. There are 60 different midsize growers working together to create one sustainable product that can keep up with demand. As founder Fred Fleming states: “By purchasing Shepherd’s Grain flour products not only do you become a food activist, you also become a disciple to save the family farm.”
That’s what most midsize farms are: family farms. They are not the industrial mono-culturists that dominate the grain market or the small organic growers that produce enough grain to feed their chickens. They are the farms in the middle leaving behind traditional methods and embracing profit sharing, cooperative and regional hubs in order to survive the new food order.
Where Big Ag focuses on the national picture and Small Ag focuses on the local picture, the Ag of the Middle is finding its place in the regional food movement. For many midsize farmers a transition period is in effect. And there is help out there. State agencies and university cooperative extensions offer business planning assistance and grant funding. The USDA offers a Rural Business Enterprise Grant for cooperatives that helps with startup, capital and infrastructure development.
For many midsize operations, the need to diversify is essential to their long term survival. A lot of midsize farms are worried that raising their concerns about subsidies, diversification, even training to start cooperatives will place them on the federal radar and lead to inspection and forced upgrades that could burden already stretched budgets and result in even more farms going under. Meeting with local small business advisories may help the cautious midsize farmer consider her options without committing to any federal programming.
Education, diversification and transition farming is essential to the Ag of the Middle. The new Farm Bill does include the Tester Amendment which exempts many “small” farms from much of the new federal regulation and upgrades. This means farms with less than $500,000 in annual sales that sell in-state or within 275 miles of their farm. For midsize farmers that don’t qualify, multistate cooperatives like the folks at Shepard’s Grain may be the way to go.
The Ag of the Middle is a term people don’t really want to hear these days. As we fight for the independence and success of the small grower and protest the size and the chemistry of the corporate player we are forgetting that in the middle of all this tension and change is the historic backbone of American agriculture: the midsize family farm. They may have to alter their way of thinking, adjust their production and take on new partners but they can succeed. There is still a place for midsize growers in this ever more diverse farming nation.