I ran into a farmer I know in December. "I'm not going to make my operating loan in February," he told me, meaning he might lose his farm to foreclosure. A grower of organic vegetables for 50 of the top restaurants in farm-food-obsessed Portland, Ore., he had lost 4,000 pounds of his carrot crop during a bitter fall cold snap. Selling beet tops to a vitamin maker had helped, but the season's poor potato yield meant another hit to his bottom line.
It's not the first time I've heard such worries. As the chef-owner of a new farm-to-table restaurant in eastern Oregon, I see up close how many farmers, ranchers and growers are barely making a living. It makes me wonder whether much has really changed for food producers in the rural West. My husband's family raised spring wheat for more than a century out here, and they watched neighbor after neighbor struggle and fail under the natural disasters and financial hardships of raising food; eventually even they decided it was better to sell off the land for cash.
Farm-to-table as a concept has gained such popularity, it's tempting to presume that it's making a real difference in the livelihood of small-scale food producers. In major cities like Portland, the winning model of direct sales from farms to restaurants is unifying chefs and farmers in support of sustainable agriculture. Local food is also more available for more Americans at farmers markets, through Community Supported Agriculture programs, and at some groceries. So in some respect, sales are slipping from the grip of big agriculture. National magazines, television shows, radio broadcasts and podcasts showcase young people's return to agriculture, artisanal food production and a revival of lost food arts like canning and curing.
But I think we are celebrating how far we've come in our food culture way too soon.
Here in rural Oregon, food producers are only just beginning to feel the effects of a widespread food movement. Until 10 years ago, the tons of wheat, feed grains and beef produced here went straight to the commodities market — that is, the national trade exchange where large volumes of raw
ingredients are sold at set prices. Today, new opportunities in the natural and organic markets, especially for grass-fed beef, have given ranchers a modicum of control over prices.
Selling direct to consumers yields a higher return. It also brings producers into contact with their consumers, which is personally rewarding. And success can beget success: The microbrew explosion is creating demand for locally produced grains while heirloom pork producers are calling for wholesome feed grains. All around, it's getting easier — though only just — for family farmers to find and seize new opportunities and spot some financial rewards on their horizon.
As for the romanticized image of the contented modern farmer? Day in, day out, the work of producing food is still one of the hardest, messiest, most all-consuming, inconvenient and financially risky occupations. Just ask the grass-fed-cattle rancher worrying about the sky-high cost of hay feed this winter, the farmer hoping for enough return on his wheat harvest to make it through next year, or the salad grower making ends meet by catering during the summer tourist season.
Agriculture still requires a second income. According to the USDA's 2012 Census of Agriculture, 70% of America's 3.2 million farmers earn just one-fourth of their annual household income from their agricultural efforts. More than 60% of all farmers work some days off the farm. Or, as one fourth-generation heritage-breed cattle rancher told me, "The reality is that we're still not making it."
Recently, I told another chef about how it had been hard to find enough local eggs to supply my restaurant. "Just get some chickens," she said. She didn't quite get my concern. The solution for rural economies and small-scale agriculture is not to DIY everything but to build a multifaceted, participatory food system of fully employed food producers, not hobbyists.
The mission for everyone who cares about food — even if you raise chickens or garden tomatoes, can barrel-aged hot sauce, or brew pale ale — should be to buy local. And then buy some more, regularly, every week, month and year. With enough momentum and time, consumer demand may bring on the substantial infrastructure and policy changes that small family farms need to truly thrive.
Just the other day, I heard from the organic farmer that he'd pulled together enough money from his city relatives to make his February payment and fend off foreclosure. Why? Because farming good food has never been as valued in the greater culture as it is today, and it motivated them to preserve their family's tradition of working the land.
Herein lies the promise. But it's much too soon to declare farm-to-table "been there, done that." Far from being cliche, the food movement — at least for the people who labor so we can all eat better — has only just begun.
Lynne Curry is the owner of the Lostine Tavern, a farm-to-table pub in eastern Oregon, a contributor to Zester Daily and the author of the "Pure Beef" cookbook. @ruraleating