The Experience of Existing: small family farms in the Northeast United States



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The New Image Niche

Successful marketing is not just a matter of bringing commodities to a market. The quality of what is sold is a determinant of its price. And, quality is largely subjective depending on what the buyer believes is good. The consumer’s idea of what is good is strongly influenced by the information media. Information through the Internet and its social networking sites travels quickly and widely. Exploiting this, family farms have websites, as does the one operated by one of the authors, where farmers promote their produce, animals and other commodities. The image of the farmer is becoming a component of the farm product. At the same time, the image of the family farm is changing.

The image of the family farmer or peasant has often been an unbeautiful one. In the 19th century, a most significant icon of agriculture was Jean-François Millet’s painting, “Man with a Hoe”, completed in 1862. It depicts the farmer as brutish. Poet, Edwin Markham, captured the frightening aspects of this image in his well-known poem, “Man with a Hoe.” The farmer was “a thing that grieves not and that never hopes stolid and stunned a brother to the ox” The poet asks, ‘Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?’ This absence-of-light-within-the-brain view was shared by Karl Marx (1977) who saw peasants as backward, ignorant and doomed. Lenin also held such views. Marx and Lenin were not alone (Reinhardt and Bartlett, 1989). However, negative views of family farmers had little effect on the profitability of family farms. It was not even considered an economic factor by Chayanov (1966 ). Prior to perhaps the second half of the 20th century the image of the farmer had little influence on the value of his/her products.

The invention of television and its development in the authors’ collective lifetime introduced a style of marketing that has attempted to replace through advertising the impersonal image of the capitalist manufactory with a personal one. This transformation we authors witnessed was often accomplished by introducing a fictive producer to replace the corporation in the minds of purchasers. One such example, taken from viniculture, was the ‘little old winemaker, me’ of Italian Swiss Colony Wine commercials. His lovable face could be seen on television and in magazines. It was as if this single animation was responsible for all the production of this large agribusiness. An advertising postcard of the period says: “‘that "Little Old Winemaker – Me” symbolises the finest traditions of winemaking which are carefully followed by the Italian Swiss Colony at Asti in the heart of one of California's finest wine-growing districts’ (Asti Winery, 1965).

While the value of a fictive producer seems to have declined in advertising, in more recent times, the rise of concern over the healthiness of meat, milk and produce produced by agribusinesses has created a role on the market stage for small farmers. The small-scale dairy business in particular along with poultry and beef has benefited from a trend among consumers to bypass mass-marketers and the agribusinesses that supply them. The trend is an outgrowth of the popularity of organic foods and the organic agriculture movement as described in a New York Times article titled “The Dairies Are Half-Pint But the Flavor Isn’t” (20 February 2008). Small dairies are in a better position than agribusiness to produce and market low-volume high-priced products. Organic milk, goat’s milk and artisan cheeses are among the niche markets listed. According to the article, better-tasting products with higher butterfat content are in demand both by individuals and restaurants. The article lists several examples of dairies that sell direct to consumers. This increasing demand for high-fat content dairy products was noted as an opportunity for small dairy farmers in 2001 (Bailey, 2001).

One author of this paper, now a college graduate, has returned to her family farm after pursuing additional studies in cheese-making. She said:


I am now running my own business. I am an artisan cheese maker. After numerous interviews and lots of rejections, I decided to go to cheese school. I am not regretting my college degree. It helped me start up my business. I started a creamery last December selling raw milk at my in-laws’ dairy farm. I started construction on the new cheese house in spring. I have been welcomed by my home town and am doing very well.
Organic farming is a market niche. Created by popular demand (Pivetti, 2007), laws that restrict the use of pesticides and other chemicals have resulted in specialised organic farming. Organic farming, like raw milk production, requires a great deal of individual attention from skilled farmers. Organic farm products sell for higher prices, but the market for them is so large that organic farming may not remain a niche.

Small farming has long been supported by government. A market composed of many independent buyers and sellers may be thought to be more stable and efficient than one dominated by monopolistic competition. Perhaps that is the reason governments tend to support small farming. In Pennsylvania to achieve an effect similar to European practice (Blanc and Cornet, 1993), a program of easements and incentives encourage and coordinate intergenerational farm transfer by allowing farmers to restrict the sale of their land to only other farmers in the future (Pennsylvania Center for Farm Transitions, 2012). This limits land competition with residential land use. Pennsylvania also sets a floor price on milk to support its dairy industry (Pennsylvania Milk Marketing Board, 2012) in order to prevent negative fluctuations that tend to drive farmers into debt. Furthermore, under the 1996 Federal Farm Bill and succeeding modifications, federal milk prices are set for each county in the US. A discussion of milk price regulation and of the Farm Bill is given by Bailey (2000). The regulations are complicated and open to questions of regional fairness as well as fairness between product classes.

One member of a farming family we interviewed spoke of the Wisconsin Farmer’s Union which has been promoting a wider-ranging national floor on milk and dairy product prices as part of a future improved Farm Bill. She complained that large corporations such as Kraft deliberately manipulate milk prices to maximise their profit. Nevertheless, while price regulation seems to give farmers and analysts much to grumble about, the existence of price supports for dairy farmers limits the potential use of strategic dumping by large producers and makes a positive contribution to their continued existence.

Concern over animal welfare (Kirby, 2010; Miele and Bock, 2007) is creating a rapidly-growing body of legislation in the United States (Rumley, 2012) and worldwide in reaction to agribusiness (Ransom, 2007; Buller and Cesar, 2007). While no one interviewed had any cognisance of any direct economic effect from laws setting higher standards for animal husbandry, many of those interviewed who produced dairy and beef products seemed to bask in the light of the heroic role in which the media portrays the small farmer’s comparatively humane treatment of cattle.

The combined effects of beneficial regulation and the small farmers’ new place in the sun of public popularity help them to vertically integrate by promoting direct-to-consumer marketing. Apart from farm stands, farmers’ markets and sales to restaurants, sales to supermarkets, while not exactly direct-to-consumer, still eliminate at least one middleman. Two local food chains in PA and NY, Wegmans and Tops, at this date post the names and locations of the small farms that provide their produce on signboards at the produce counter and by the front door. This gives customers proof that the food is locally grown by real farmers and gives these farmers a brand identity.

Desirable niche markets from the farmer’s viewpoint take into account the cost of production. As mentioned above, the prices of most dairy products are somewhat stabilised by government. However economic rent from the land makes for a better agricultural market when good land is cheap. In the last 20 years, the authors have watched the decline of farm land prices in McKean, Potter and surrounding counties in northern Pennsylvania where exhausted oil fields have been retired and coal mines shut down. One participant explained that when relocating his family’s farm he and his wife “soon discovered that land was much cheaper in northern Pennsylvania.” To this he attributed the unusual success of his dairy farm.




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