Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Question of Competition in the Local Foods Movement

The last year has been a wonderful experience for Patt and I. We've made a lot of friends at the markets at which we sell. We have been able to volunteer our time and skill to help our friends and neighbors. And we have learned a great deal about living within our means, being content where we are, and accepting help when it is offered and giving it without thought of repayment.

It has also been a frustrating year in a sense as we have seen local markets open up, flourish, and then slowly recede. All too often we local-foods farmers blame the customer or simply accept this market dynamic and move on to the latest, newest market that opens. It has been my observation that the life-cycle of a local foods market does not need to be one that opens-grows-tops out-and then slowly dies. The frustrating part of the whole thing is that, well to be perfectly blunt, the local-food farmers are doing it to themselves.

This has been typical of our experience in the last year:

We start a new market selling high-end (expensive) farm style breads. We do not skimp on ingredients so naturally if the dollar input to our product is higher the revenue generated by the product needs to be higher or we can't live and one of us has to re-enter the rat race. Typically we are the only bakery represented in this new market and the dollars spent there spike upwards resulting in more customers and more dollars for everyone else. A smart market manager (we know of a few) knows that this good thing can be duplicated to a certain extent by allowing other value-added products to the market - like cheeses, jams, meats, growers that grow heirloom varieties (not just the ordinary hybrid-round-red-tomatoes, for example), eggs, etc. The market under these conditions begins to thrive - local farmers, earn local money which they spend locally, and the customers meet local people and eat local food. It is like something out of a fairy tale! in all fairy tales, there is something sinister lurking in the local foods movement. But first I must make the following statement:

I am not a communist, socialist, liberal, or conservative. I do not hate America or capitalism (if it is accompanied by a compassionate use of wealth).

The wicked witch in our local foods fairy tale is COMPETITION.

Before you know it, we've helped make the market successful, earned a little money, and made a lot of friends, but then all of a sudden there are now 2,3,4, or more local foods enterprises offering some sort of baked goods. And all too often, baked goods are not their primary product. Somehow, local food producers have come to believe that their primary competition is the farmer in the booth next to them.

Wendell Berry in many of his essays warns against diluting the local markets with too many of the same products. In one of his examples he describes a local community where there is one blacksmith operating a thriving business because everyone in that community relies on THE blacksmith for their metal works. If another blacksmith moves into the community and insists on competing directly with the first, the market is diluted, each blacksmith's income is reduced and eventually one goes out of business. This is American Capitalism at its worst and does not help the small local community thrive. Instead, the second blacksmith must find a product to offer the community that is, even if the second blacksmith continues metal working - he must find a niche market within the community or find another product to offer. This is the fundamental basis on which communities thrive - foregoing one's own personal interests for the sake of others.

That does sound almost un-American!

Local foods markets in neighborhood economies will only continue to thrive if the local producers realize that their competition is NOT the farmer in the booth beside them on Saturday morning. Instead of directly competing and thus drawing customers away from our fellow farmers, we should be marketing our individual products as complements to others. If our bread would pair perfectly with a meat producer's chicken for an outstanding dinner, then we need to be advertising that because the market will only be as strong as each of its individual local foods producers.

By directly competing with the farmer next to us we eventually reduce the number of growers at that market and we reduce the variety and volume of products available in the local community. That being said, our competition is really with those that provide enormous variety, volume, and quality. Our competition, as local producers, are the WalMarts, Krogers, and Fresh Markets.

From the point of view of the local foods customer, lack of choice, lack of quality, a diluted struggling local market will drive them back to the industrial food change before the local farmer can say "Buy Organic".

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Difference Between LL Bean and Mr. Bean as Seen in a Wood Pile

When I was working full time in my spare time, I would ask the kids (my three boys) to stack fire wood that I had cut whenever they got finished with school. I tried to give them a mental picture of what the stack of wood should look like when they got finished. It always seemed to fall short of my expectations when I got home in the evening.

I tried different analogies, metaphors, and similes to no avail. "I want it to look like a wood pile you would see in a beer commercial." I would say. But when I got home to something that looked like this:

They would whine and moan and offer up excuses like "But we are weak, we are stupid, we're only four! We don't have a TV so how can we know what wood in a commercial looks like!"

I flirted with the idea of getting cable just so they could see what I meant by the beer commercial stack of fire wood but chose, instead, to offer another mental image from something they did know. Being addicted to LLBean clothing and gear, we got several catalogues every year. I tried to find one with a good picture of fire wood but it was spring and all the catalogues had pictures of women in bikinis and men in plaid shorts...

So, I think I now have the perfect analogy since I am responsible for stacking firewood on my own now.

This stack of firewood:

Looks like it was put together by:

Mr. Bean.

This stack of firewood:

Looks like it was put together by the marketing team of:

So kids, now you know. Now don't get upset, sometimes the truth just plain hurts.

One other thought; I am so proud that my boys are out on their own now. Incidentally all serving their country in the US Army. But I do miss their haphazard wood piles, the broken dishes, the eating us out of house and home. I miss teaching them, watching silly movies and epic football games like the Miracle on Markham (the first Razorback game we all sat together and watched on our own television).

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Recovering from the Rain

 Le Grand Jardin, ( The Big Garden) now mulched and growing nicely.  Asparagus to your right, garlic and onions at the top, beets to their lefft and the 85 tomato plants. The bare spots were under water for a couple of days so seed germination was low. I will be reworking those beds and planting summer veggies soon!
 Potato patch is finished, now I can let them grow. we dug two 8" trenches 2ft wide and planted the seed potatoes. Then, as the plants grew, we filled in the trenches.
 The melon patch. After 12 inches of rain in less than a week the weeds took over and the melon seeds rotted in the soil. The tomatoes around the border survived though.
After pulling (and I admit mowing with the push mower)  the weeds are clear, and 4 bales of old hay later, a new melon patch. You might be able to make out a row of tomatoes on the right fence row.

We figure, after nature "blesses" us with a foot of rain all at once that we would take advantage of the situation and protect our number one renewable resource - the soil. All of the weeds that sprung up have stored their respective nutrients - nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous (and many others), that was already in the soil. They also stored energy from the sun. The weeds were mowed and left lying where they fell. These will compost down which will add these nutrients to the soil. A thick layer of mulch will suppress further growth from the weeds, preventing them from going to seed.

The soil absorbed heat from the last few days of the sun and a good deal of moisture. Just beneath the hard baked crusty layer on top is rich, moist, well-aerated earth perfect for pumpkins, melons, and tomatoes. The mulch keeps the moisture from evaporating off as well. In addition, the mulch will break down over the summer adding a thick layer of organic matter to the soil.

In essence, our soil is a battery that is storing energy for our next crop.

This is Old Solar Agriculture.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

HillCrest Farmer's Market

Second Saturday to sell at the new Hillcrest Farmer's Market, a community service provided by Pulaski Heights Baptist Church and one of the most organized and best run markets we've sold at in our 10 years of farming!

Last Saturday we were thronged, overrun by large masses of shoppers who were radiant that the market was right in their "hometown". Most shoppers walked from their homes in this beautiful secluded center of Little Rock Arkansas. Opening day we sold out of all of our produce and baked goods in an hour and a half. We had beautiful weather which, I think, contributed to the large turn out as well.

This Saturday we didn't have the large masses of crowds partly due to a cold snap (and I mean cold!) but we had a steady stream all day. Most of our product was sold by 10:30 AM! We even had runners stop by, halting their organized 5K in downtown Little Rock, to buy granola, etc. One of these runners was my former boss at Arkansas Children's Hospital.

Thank you Hillcrest and Pulaski Heights Baptist Church! See you next week with organic dog biscuits and be sure to ask us about the BARF diet pet food we have available!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Shamrock and Thistle on Facebook!

We've started a FaceBook page that will allow us to link to this blog. So now you will have an easier way to follow the progress of our farm and receive updates for our new products and markets AND you will still have access to Boyd's schizophrenic ramblings!!/pages/Shamrock-and-Thistle-Farm/216065625090317?sk=wall

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Good Market Week

We had our most profitable market week this week. We had a rough couple of months during the winter and with the poor weather this spring we were starting to lose hope...

We sold at the opening of the Hillcrest Farmer's Market in Little Rock this morning and it really gave us a shot in the arm.

I have to say that this market was very well put together with intensive advertising and exemplary organization and support from the market managers (Pulaski Heights Baptist Church).  Next week I'll get some pictures of the massive crowd of shoppers who know the value of locally grown produce!