Bob Heuer brings two decades of experience writing about agriculture, finance and regional economies to his work as a public policy and marketing consultant. He represents the Evanston/Skokie School Dist. 65/202 legislative committee as a gubernatorial appointee to the Illinois Local Food Farms and Jobs Council.
Local and sustainable constituencies feed the growing consumer demand for transparent supply networks that shorten the geographic distance between farm and fork. Hindering this fundamental redesign of the marketplace is limited farm-production capacity.
Small-scale farming can drive development of a food system that promotes public health, self-reliant communities and the creation of jobs that can’t be outsourced. Here’s a three-point plan:
- Take advantage of food policy councils.
- Embrace a wide range of training methods, such as SPIN Farming.
- Get acquainted with Farm Credit System.
The good food movement’s biggest challenge is growing the number of farmers profitably supplying nearby markets, farmer David Cleverdon told last fall’s Healthy Farms Healthy People forum in Springfield, Illinois. He envisioned a bottoms-up “farm by new farm” effort to build “a foundation of knowledge, experience, wisdom, talent and relationships.”
Recreating farming’s social capital could be job one for the many food councils springing up nationwide. According to Harvard University’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, these “much-needed mechanisms” are forming at the municipal, county, regional and state levels in order to “identify and advocate for food system change.”
The Illinois Food Farms Jobs Council —a community-led coordinating body authorized by state law—acts as a conduit between state government and the many entities seeking to grow local food demand, access, production and/or infrastructure. Our farmer-training working group promotes cooperation between University of Illinois Extension, community colleges and NGOs around the goal of creating 5,000 Illinois farmers by 2020.
Alternate Training Methods
USDA’s national goal is to create 100,000 new farmers within five years. Part of the solution is a do-it-yourself learning series called SPIN—a.k.a. Small Plot IN-tensive. SPIN’s explicit goal is to teach people how to make money farming without having to initially invest in land or expensive equipment. The SPIN-Farming learning series was created by a Canadian farmer and developed with a U.S. entrepreneur. The business model enables people to generate revenue by producing commercial-grade crops from multiple garden-size plots for direct-market outlets. SPIN’s web-based support group provides a peer-to-peer mechanism for professional development.
“Incorporating the SPIN-Farming learning series into existing training programs can increase their effectiveness and produce measurable, bottom-line oriented results,” SPIN co-author Roxanne Christensen says.
Full disclosure: This article is an outgrowth of a SPIN marketing project. I became acquainted with SPIN years ago while consulting for Farm Credit Council —the Washington, D.C.-based trade group for Farm Credit System .
Farm Credit System
FCS is a government-sponsored, agricultural-lending network created by Congress nearly a century ago. There had been a national outcry that private banks weren’t meeting farmers’ needs. FCS was envisioned as a financial institution to serve American agriculture in good times and bad. FCS has evolved into a vital asset to agribusiness—and an enigma for many others it was intended to serve.
In February 2008, as a consultant for their lobbying organization, I co-authored a report that sought to inform FCS affiliates about the local food marketplace. “Growing Opportunity” definitely caught the eye of FCS’ regulator, the federal agency Farm Credit Administration.
Two months ago, FCA began requiring FCS lending associations to create annual marketing plans showing how they serve all segments of agriculture. FCA’s “diversity and inclusion” regulation encourages FCS lenders to reach out to “local food farmers and other new generation farmers” through training programs in management, business planning, and finance.
Get “more seeds in the ground”
Increased farm production will spur investment throughout the food supply network—aggregation, processing, distribution, marketing and waste management. Thriving regional-scale food systems would provide high-volume wholesale channels with an ample supply of “healthy, green, fair and affordable” products.
There’s consumer-education work to be done to support what we might call foodshed economics. The more familiar term “reducing carbon footprint” could become the organizing principle to integrate foodsheds within the policy framework of watersheds.
The key is growing the number of local-food farmers. As farmer Gary Tomlin told a recent Illinois Council meeting: “we have to get a lot more seeds in the ground.”
“At SPIN-Farming, we’ve seen that new farm businesses track the experience of any other small business startup,” Christensen observes. “For the hundreds that make it, thousands fail. Success is therefore a numbers game. The more farming talent that can be developed, the more new farm businesses will be created. As locally-based farming becomes more commonplace, it will become obvious why real food is worth the price.”