When Small Fails

With news of Wal-Mart shifting their purchasing priorities to attract proponents of local food and the mainstream agriculture industry launching a $30 million PR campaign to fight against their rapidly corroding image, it seems like we should be glowing in triumph… the people have spoken and the corporations are responding in fear! But it isn’t that simple.

The risk of green-washing will certainly cloud the judgment of most citizens (and Wal-Mart shoppers) rather than inspire understanding of the complex layers of contradictions “sustainable food” issues present.  Even those of us who have pledged most of our lives, and finances, to supporting and promoting the small food businesses that actually do adhere to ethical, fair, small scale practices have a hard time sorting through it all.  But what hurts the most is, even in a time when terms like “sustainable” or “artisan” or “local & organic” seem old hat and cliché, the hard facts remain that the real people working so hard to produce these foods for us still can’t always succeed.

In 2004, a young couple in Santa Cruz, California started a small pig farm called TLC Ranch. At the time, very few options existed for us to get local, pasture raised meats locally, and when the stall appeared at our farmer’s market, our community exclaimed a collective, “Finally!”  Opportunities to engage in the whole process of meat production were at hand, pig roasts ensued, and the best chicken eggs outside of your own coop blossomed into a popular business.  In the beginning, they teamed up with a craft butcher who brought us amazing, innovative delicacies.  TLC was tagged on menus up and down the coast, and to all outside appearances, they seemed to be flourishing.

A few weeks ago, the monthly newsletter we receive brought quite a shock. With our mouths agape we read through the reasons why TLC Ranch has officially thrown in the trowel.  Probably the biggest challenge for them is the cost of land.  Here in Santa Cruz and Monterey Counties the monstrous berry industry, long time cattle ranchers, or housing developments speak for the majority of usable pastureland.  The price to purchase is, even right now at the lowest point in the busted housing market, ridiculously high.  The cost to rent is equally as prohibitive.  “For all 48 acres we rent, we pay about 10 times the going rate for pasture.” states TLC owner Rebecca Thistlethwaite.  She goes on to discuss that typical leases are too short to sustain long-term business systems, coupled with the feeling of throwing away bundles of cash into the landlord’s pocket and never building equity for their own family.  These reasons hold true to the organic farming community as well.

Another huge issue had to do with meat processing and our nation’s current laws and regulations.  These are the same reasons we keep hearing about mobile slaughtering units and how they might alleviate the lack of high quality meat processing.  Thistlethwaite comments on TLC’s experience within the monopolized governmental system:

California has only a handful of USDA-inspected slaughter and butcher facilities. Because there are only a few, it is hard to even get an appointment to bring your animals in (one place we called had a seven month waiting list!). Also, because these abattoirs don’t have much competition, they don’t have to provide high-quality customer service to ranchers. They can charge what they want, they can choose not to follow your detailed butchering instructions (for example, put nitrates in the hams that you asked for “nitrate-free”, cut all the fat off your pork chops when you asked for two inches of fat on them, etc.). These abattoirs charge you by the carcass weight of your animal and then sometime they won’t even give you the whole animal back that you paid for, such as taking the head, the organ meats, the feet, etc. So we work our butt off to raise this amazing animal and then the butchers devalue your hard work. Having zero control over our processing is extremely frustrating and costly.

And finally, aside from just pure exhaustion and depleted quality of life while they struggled to keep going, TLC felt that too many consumers are not willing to actually put their money where their mouths are.  The price of quality, local foods are insulated with built in costs of organics, transportation, fair labor, taxes and fees. Cheap, highly processed foods with subsidized ingredients shed those layers, keeping them transparent and letting them land on our healthcare industry and float into our ozone layer.

Despite the saturation of local and organic options, or perhaps because of them, let’s try to remember that those extra few bucks really are worth it.  It takes a hardcore amount of backbreaking work, and energy, and motivation, and thought, and money to make a small-scale, sustainable food business succeed.  If we all claim to want them so much, let’s keep supporting them too.

You can visit Thistethwaite’s blog to follow the former TLC family on their next adventure, road-tripping and volunteering across the country.

Photo: TLC Ranch

5 thoughts on “When Small Fails

  1. I heard about Rebecca and her family on their facbebook wall and their blog. I was heart broken. I felt like I knew them since they represent so many of the local farmers in my county. Glad you featured their story.

    On another note…..
    I love your blog. Great posts. Can’t wait to explore it.

  2. Pingback: Today in Organic: Nov. 2nd, 2010 – plotyourgarden.com

  3. Amber- thanks for writing this. I just wanted to clarify that according to USDA definitions, our farm is considered a “large family farm” based on our annual gross sales, we are not a small farm. We worked hard to scale up to a commercial level and do this for a living (which obviously did not work, but we tried).
    Also, I really hope that people will think harder about who controls the land in their regions. Is it a handful of large agribusiness corporations, a few wealthy families that control vast tracts of land, land trusts who were given public dollars to protect land but only lease that land to large agribusiness? When there are many people who go hungry and many others who don’t get the right kinds of healthy foods, should our society make any efforts to get farmland into the hands of those who want to work their butts off to produce sustainable food for their local & regional populations? Or would we rather see it go fallow, fumigated for mass export production, or have a little hobby equestrian facility while we get our food from further and further away? Should farmland be thought of as a public good?

  4. Thanks for a great article on some of the challenges facing small farmers. The question of land prices near metropolitan regions is really at the heart of the issue, when we try to grow food near where people live. I’m hoping that more attention to these sorts of stories will get people thinking creatively about how to keep land in production – forging partnerships between farmers and land owners who care. Rebecca’s point about a public good is right on – if we saw farming as a public good instead of a corporate enterprise, we might be more inclined to allow farmers to use public lands, like utility easements, and make regional ag plans, in order to preserve farming in urban regions.

  5. I really appreciate this post. As a small, young farm in southwest Wisconsin, we are excited by the increased enthusiasm for local, ethical foods and yet just as the market gains momentum, the bigger guys up the road are ready to cash in on these buzz words.
    I recently read about how Sun Chips got rid of their biodegradable bag because too many customers complained about how noisy they were. One columnist opined that green enthusiasts should stop being horrified and just make a product that is convenient and then people will buy it. Whereas that’s true (that making a good, affordable product is a way to success), it’s frustrating that having integrity is not worth an extra buck, a or noisier chip bag, as the case may be.
    I really appreciate the comment about farming as a public good. I know a man in Northern Minnesota who is working on a feasibility study to see if their region can fully support itself with locally produced food. Seems like a good model to support your suggestion of a publicly supported regional food system – Superiorfoodweb