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Sunday November 19, 2017

All that glitters is not golden on the urban farm

From visions of abandoned inner-city buildings giving way to gardens of heirloom tomatoes and edible flowers to surburban developments centered around truck farms rather than golf courses to skyscrapers with U-picks built into their walls to Eden-styled public fruit trees where anyone is free to forage for themselves, the vision of urban agriculture is common theme within today's new food movement, "not just because it tastes better but also because it builds community, helps with nutrition, generates economic development and can even offer food safety benefits," says a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette superfecta of wishful thinking.

But the harsh light of economics could consign the city farm to passing fad.

That's the implications a new study published in the British Food Journal suggests. This first attempt, according to the authors, to systematically examine U.S. urban agriculture at the farm level used data obtained from 370 farmers responding to a 2012 national survey of urban farms located around the country.

The study found that similar to U.S. rural farms, most urban farms in the survey sample were small. For all farms, average sales amounted to a respectable $54,000; however, several farms raising high-value, premium-priced crops in climate-controlled greenhouses that reported sales above $750,000 skew the average upward. Remove those high-sale farms from the average, and the median urban sold only about $5,000 in produce per year.

Of the total number of survey respondents, 94 reported their farm as operating as a nonprofit, which comprised 33 percent of those responding to questions about business organization. For approximately one-third of all urban farms in the sample, the primary farmer reported earning a living from the farm. There was no statistical difference in the farmer’s ability to earn a living between the nonprofit and market-oriented urban farms, the authors report.

For now, the boom in urban agriculture is being driven by government grant money, non-profit status and over-reliance on volunteer labor. In the long-term, with so few urban farmers making a living, one of the study authors told the online e-zine CityLab,  “I wonder if 10 years down the line, people will be tired of working really hard without making a good living. I wonder if urban farming might just be a passing trend that fades into the background.”

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Farmers markets and other farm-to-consumer outlets continue to be the fashion for food distribution, growing in volume by 60 percent in the last decade, USDA estimates. But despite that rapid growth, several practical barriers have kept many consumers away from shopping at direct food outlets. One of the most often cited: Lack of access.

Questioning whether accessibility really affects consumers’ participation in this food-marketing channel, a pair of economists from Virginia Polytechnic and Florida, writing in an upcoming article for the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, modeled the results of a mailed survey of nearly 1,600 local-food shoppers, to test the theory that more farmers markets, U-picks and roadside stands within an area equals more sales through those channels. Their results, along with some inferred results grocers can use when competing with this segment, include:

  • Additional direct-sales outlets located nearby did appear to make a statistically significant, although very small, difference in whether shoppers would frequent them. The duo's results showed that every additional farmers’ market within a 3-mile radius of their house made it just under 4 percent more likely survey respondants would shop at one.
  • For every two-thirds of mile away a farmers market was from a respondant's home, the probability of their shopping there went down by about 0.2 percent.
  • The distance effect varied between urban and rural customers: The results suggested that big-city residents were more likely to purchase if more farmers markets were to be found nearby. In contrast, even though rural respondents are relatively more likely to buy from a direct source, they were also least affected by an increase in the number of farmers’ markets nearby.
  • In what may have been a surprising finding, at least to government regulators advocating for subsidizing direct-sale outlets sometimes at the expense of traditional retail chanels, the presence of a grocery store, convenience store or specialty food store did not make a statistically significant affect on a shoppers willingness to use a farmers market. The study authors suggest this contradiction with conventional wisdom warrants further study to answer that question of whether traditional and direct market channels compete for consumer purchases, and, if so, what barriers prevent farmers markets from competing.
  • They at least begin to hint at what those "barriers" might be, which also should present themselves as opportunities to traditional community grocers. As other studies have clearly shown, their work reconfirmed that demographics like age, household income and household size, along with attitudes toward local foods, were found to be significant predictors of consumers’ behavior. Respondents who perceived "seasonality" and "farmers market days or times are inconvenient" as "very limiting" obstacles to purchasing at a farmers markets points toward clear promotional advantage for grocery stores that stay open during all normal business hours throughout the year. Price differences may be another factor that still position the grocery retailer ahead of the direct chain: The study authors cited a study comparing prices at farmers markets and grocery stores in Vermont. It showed that the high relative price of farmers markets' goods compared to retail groceries is in fact simply a reflection of the fact organic tends to be pricier than conventional, because farmers markets tend to carry a higher proportion of organic. They suggest this situation presents opportunity for farmers market managers to educate the public on the fact that farmers-market non-organic produce can be competitively priced. But the converse should be true as well. For retail grocers, the message that their organic produce is priced fairly for its value is independent of the need to subsidize a new and untested distribution channel.

Why do consumers like farmers markets?

Why do consumers avoid farmers markets?

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Is the food dessert phenomenon real?

The idea of “food deserts,"  low-income pockets with limited access to healthy foods that USDA says millions of Americans now live within, has an intuitive attraction, says University of Arkansas ag economist Di Zeng. With a supermarket difficult to get to in those areas, residents presumably obtain and consume more energy-dense, unhealthy foods from convenience stores and fast food restaurants, resulting in poorer diet quality and more obesity. It's a narrative that's become conventional wisdom in the new food movement.

The one hole in this appealing story, Zeng will tell the annual meeting of the Allied Social Sciences Association in January in San Francisco, is that the numbers simply don't support it.

Zeng's latest work helps disentangle all the "confounding mechanisms" that are over-simplified by the food deserts narrative. He reports that the widely held theory in the scientific literature that longer distance and thus more difficult access to the supermarket leads to obesity in nearby citizens is not generally true when individual preferences and travel costs are considered. This reality helps explain, at least in part, why researchers who actually measure the association between the food environment and obesity levels have found only mixed and contradictory results. 

To really get at the question of food deserts, he writes, it is necessary to consider the particulars of individual cases which the food-desert generalization averages, including special food environments, extreme preferences, random supermarket travel, and income changes. For example, he points out:

  • Longer distances to a traditional supermarket may incentivize residents to walk, increasing exercise and health.
  • A closer store could allow a resident to make more frequent trips and facilitate her buying fresh items. Yet, the gas money she saves would also be available for additional food items, some of which may be less healthy.
  • In contrast, a nearer store for another might simply mean that unhealthy food items are available at lower time and monetary costs. Longer supermarket distance unambiguously reduces the weight of a person who already eats healthy, but is ambiguous for an unhealthy eater. Supermarket access alone does not determine the effect on weight regardless of the supermarket travel pattern, he says.

Such "heterogeneities," or variability in how real people behave in theoretical settings, generally don't get considered in existing studies given data limitations. Important features are also missing on the supply side. For instance, supermarkets generally provide foods, including unhealthy foods, at lower prices than the alternative retail outlets, which could inadvertently increase food consumption and therefore result in weight gain.

Neither limited supermarket access nor low income has any clearly established effect on weight, Zeng concludes. Until the conflicting forces he identifies are formally analyzed, the concept of food deserts does little to guide policy-makers in preventing increasing obesity rates.

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Natural, the new snake oil

Natural fare continues to be the rage, we all hear:

  • Market research firm NPD Group reports 39 percent of Americans say they now eat or drink something with an “all natural” or “natural ingredients” special label.
  • NPD also says "healthy” is the top characteristic people say they wish they could see more of on restaurant menus.
  • Surveys recently released by Consumer Reports claims the percentage of people who regularly buy food labeled natural has grown from 59 percent in 2014 to 62 percent in 2015.
  • That same phone survey of just over 1,000 Americans said 87 of natural food buyers would pay even more for natural food--if they could trust the label.

But business is far from rosy in the natural aisle. The Consumer Reports survey, released in late January, only underscores what news trends are beginning to demonstrate: Consumers are often surprised to find the natural label is meaningless. Nearly half of the Consumer Reports respondents say they believe the label claim is verified from some oversight agency. (It isn't.) Meanwhile, they continue to express a desire for some health or environmental benefit from natural—whether that’s supporting local farmers to reducing pesticide contamination to decreasing reliance on GMOs to improving animal welfare. Compared to a similar 2014 survey, the percentage of consumers who say any of those objectives is “very important” has notably increased. Yet, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration applies no formal definition to the term, which means no law governs whether or how "natural" must apply any of those traits to the product. No small surprise, then: A recent poll by the Retail Dietitians Business Alliance, the professional association for more than 400 U.S. retail dieticians, found fully 89 percent of retail dietitians think consumers are misled by food claims at least half the time.

In response, organizations including Consumer Reports as well as the Grocery Manufacturers Association, have been urging FDA to define the term, a move one recent survey shows 83 percent of surveyed consumers and nearly two-thirds of food marketers would favor. The agency has responded by asking for public comment on how it would like the word to be defined. Meanwhile, USDA has just announced in mid-January it will no longer continue the use of labels for grass-fed and naturally raised livestock--both terms fraught with confusion and hazy definition. USDA officials say its move is not because the labels aren't accurate, but because they now believe the agency never had legal authority to enforce them in the first place.

But you can't help but wonder how effective that legal definition would be in truly satisfying food shoppers. USDA created its certified organic program for precisely that purpose--to standardize and specify the practice claims most people believe would contribute to a more natural process. Yet while more than half of consumers in a 2013 survey indicate that natural claims for food are important or very important for them, only 35 percent feel organic claims are personally important. A poll from 2009 found 31 percent of consumers believed "100 percent natural" was best label claim to signify environmental friendly products, but only 14 percent chose “organic,” an existing, officially blessed label term that's supposed to signify precisely that.

Consumers facing those kinds of paradoxes are bound to be disappointed. In more and more cases, they are expressing that disappointment in the form of lawsuits.

Whole Foods Market has just been named in a second class-action suit claiming some of its all-natural products are misbranded because they contain artificial ingredients and flavorings, artificial coloring and preservatives. Celebrity Jessica Alba's Honest line of health products, which promises to be "honestly free" of dangerous chemicals, has similarly just been served with a $5 million lawsuit, claiming the company isn't honest in throwing that term around.

This “current surge” of natural-food class-action lawsuits has a decade-long history, according to Babson College Professor of Marketing Law Ross Petty, dating back first to the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s threats to sue several natural-food makers over the presence of genetically modified crops in them, followed by 2004’s “sugar wars,” in which the Sugar Association and the marketer of Equal each sued the marketers of Splenda sucralose sweetener misrepresenting Splenda as natural. Settled in 2008, they led to the filing of more than a dozen similar class actions throughout the country, Petty writes in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.

Petty and others tracked natural-food class-actions brought in recent years, showing a spike in 2011 and 2012 with 49 and 85 case filings. Many have been dismissed without a trial, and others have at least partially survived a motion to dismiss, which often leads to a settlement. Settlements typically are kept confidential, but the few that have been announced for natural food claims range between $4 and $9 million set aside for consumer refunds and attorneys’ fees of approximately $1 million per settlement. Whether the drop Petty identified in 2013 is temporary or permanent remains to be seen, he writes.

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Do large farms really exploit their workers?

"Is it a stretch," historian Dan-el Padilla Peralta asked a lecture the last week of October before the Department of English at University of Nebraska, "to compare today's immigrants with Roman slaves?" The Princeton- and Oxford-trained classical historian, himself a child of undocumented immigrants in this country, lays out an interesting case that a globalized economy that contributes to a necessity to emmigrate may owe something to its immigrants. However, his rhetoric comparing today's U.S. immigrants to Roman slaves as "bound to farms with little to no prospect of relief" betrays the prejudices of many against today's large farms. Factory farms, writes Huffington Post "traveling research scholar" Lucas Spangher, for example, are rampant with poor pay, long hours, harassment, abuse and a frightening pace so strict workers take their bathroom breaks in their pants rather than risk blame for slowing down production.

It's a common meme among advocates, popular food writers and documentaries, writes University of Colorado at Boulder sociologist Jill Lindsey Harrison in the December issue of the journal Agriculture and Human Values: Contrasting the honorable labor of ‘‘family farms’’ with the exploited labor of ‘‘factory farms," or criticizing only the labor relations on large-scale farms while giving small ones a pass.

There's only one problem with that contention, Harrison writes: Nobody's ever really done the heavy academic lifting of actually studying the relationship between farm size and job quality for hired workers. So, she and fellow researcher Christy Getz did it, using two independently conducted, mixed-methods case studies—one on 300 organic fruit and vegetable farms in California and the other on 83 Wisconsin dairy farms of different sizes.

Their results showed that despite the differences between these two commodity sectors, large farms in both cases fared better than or no worse than smaller farms for most job quality metrics studied, with only a few exceptions.

Pay and benefits. Although the small California farms reported higher average entry-level wages, differences in top wages were negligible. For the Wisconsin dairies, entry-level hourly wages were highest on large dairy farms and lowest on medium-size farms, although the differences were not statistically significant. In both states, the larger farms were more likely to report offering nonwage benefits, including health insurance, paid time off and a paid retirement plan. It was also the larger farms in the California study that were more likely to report using formal systems to supervise and manage workers, including an employee manual, discipline and termination practices, formal grievance procedures, formal job descriptions, employment contracts and policies in Spanish. Additionally, large farms were significantly more likely than small farms to report they provide supervisors with specific guidelines or training to ensure formal respect of farmworkers. In contrast, the smaller growers tended to be more ad hoc in their worker management, depending on one-on-one contact and working side-by-side with employees.

No pay difference between large and small farms

Opportunity to advance. In the Wisconsin dairy study, farm size appeared to make no impact on the ‘‘intrinsically’’ rewarding nature of entry-level jobs on dairy farms—in other words, how well entry-level jobs keep workers interested and permit them autonomy and creativity. Big or small, farmworkers equally recognize that milking is boring, dirty and strenuous. However, the study found that workers’ opportunities to get promoted out of that low-level work increases as farms get larger. The data show small dairies, in contrast, tend to hire labor only for the tough job of milking, because the better non-milking jobs go to dairy owners and their families—who also, by nature of the business' demography, tend to be white, U.S.-born.

For their part, the smaller California growers did tend to be more likely than the large farms to claim to use more efforts to protect the safety and health of their workers by limiting handweeding or stoop labor, as well as to a set number of hours each day and pay by the hour to avoid speed-related accidents associated with piece work.

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