Farmers Front and Center: A Down to Earth Conversation with our Local Food Producers

Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties are home to many farms, large and small, raising a variety of crops, livestock, and other food products. The average American is multiple generations removed from agriculture, leaving many of us with questions about how crops are grown, what organic really means, or what makes a farm sustainable. Local farmers and ranchers play a pivotal role in defining and driving agricultural sustainability measures while helping feed the nation. While noteworthy progress has been made on behalf of growers to make their operations more sustainable, critical environmental, social, economic and institutional challenges are still to be overcome.

From left to right: Eric Cardenas (moderator), Phil McGrath, Johnathan Reinbold, Sarah Nolan, Jesse Smith, Elizabeth Poett, Chris Sayer

On Saturday, Sept. 9th at the LoaTree headquarters (508 E. Haley St.), farmers, policymakers, students, and individuals convened to foster connections and demystify topics related to agricultural sustainability. In a twist from normal Better World Series programming, we asked our panelists who they would like to speak in front of. The overwhelming consensus by our farmers was that they desired an audience of policymakers and elected officials. With local city council members present, and even a representative for Assemblywoman Monique Limon, the panelists acknowledged and thanked policymakers for being in attendance.

Our panel included:

LoaTree’s Chief Operations Officer, Eric Cardenas, moderated the panel.

Our sold-out audience was limited to thirty people, yet we wanted to make sure that others benefited from the great lessons that were learned at the event. With this in mind, here is a brief recap and some key takeaways.

The True Cost of Food

A challenge farmers often run into is consumer demand for high quality prices, compounded by a desire for low prices. As one can imagine the demand for higher quality drives an increase in time, energy, and labor, thus leading to an increase in food costs.

Elizabeth Poett (photo courtesy of Poett)

Elizabeth Poett has been experiencing a growing plead from customers to raise her beef on a grass fed diet. It can take a farmer up to a year longer, and an extra year’s worth of food, care, and labor, to get a grass-fed animal to reach slaughter weight than for a conventionally raised one. Grass-fed cattle also tend to be smaller at slaughter, so there’s less meat to sell per head. When bringing her beef to markets, she’s been met with raised eyebrows and confusion due to her increased prices, which are a direct result of her customer’s requests. Chris Sayer shared a similar example he finds personally perplexing: when shoppers have no problem spending five dollars on store bought guacamole or salsa, yet ask questions about why avocados cost $1.50 each. Chris says that the cost of two local avocados, a lime, and some cilantro for homemade guacamole not only costs less than store bought counterparts, but also tastes better and supports local farmers. 

Another challenge farmers face is when consumers reject produce that is visually imperfect, though still delicious. An apple grown on a farm local to you is not modified in the same processes than the apple you buy from Vons is. When these visually imperfect fruits and vegetables don’t sell, they become food waste.

Market trends such as property values affect food prices in a way that we as citizens are directly responsible for. In communities everywhere, processing facilities and infrastructure critical to the viability of farming are facing pushback from residents who would rather not have the smells, sounds, and eye sores that occur with these facilities. This rejection forces growers to ship products to San Luis Obispo or the Central Valley for processing, thus increasing food costs due to costs accrued from fuel usage and handling fees.

Lessons for us:

  • If you want quality products you should expect to pay slightly more. Surprised by the cost of an item? Have a conversation with you farmer at the market about the inputs and price breakdown.
  • Increased prices aren’t always a guarantee. Farmers markets and direct-from-farmer sales often rival store prices. 
  • Consider it an act of environmental sanctity to buy the wonky looking apple.

‘Sustainability’ in Practice

Everyone has a different definition of what sustainability means and, while many farmers incorporate sustainable practices in their businesses, major challenges present themselves in these efforts. Here are a few quotes from our panelists when we asked what sustainability means to each farmer, and what sustainability looks like on their land:

“To me, sustainability is the Four E’s: economically viable, environmentally sensitive, socially and environmentally ethical, and educational.”

“I do not know any sustainable farmers. This is a buzz word that is washed down. Many are working towards it, but very few truly sustainable farmers exist now [that incorporate all 4 E’s].”

“My perspective on the word sustainable shifted when I saw a continuum with extractive (degenerative) on the left and regenerative right, with sustainability nestled in the middle of these two extremes. We should be shooting for resiliency and regeneration.”

Credit: Kiss the Ground

“All throughout history we have done things that we thought were good ideas at the time, many of which turn out to be disasters. We need to make sure the sustainable practices we are implementing now are well thought out before we learn the hard way that they might not have been the best ideas.”

“We are a conventional farm that subscribes to the organic philosophy. We use cover crops, we use compost, yet, when our plants experience ecosystem disruption, we will use harsher methods to bring processes back into equilibrium.”

Lessons for us:

  • It takes significant time and effort to transition to sustainable practices.
  • Sustainability continues to be a contested concept with different interpretations advocated by mainstream industrial farmers and by environmental stakeholders.
  • The economic costs and benefits of sustainability for any farming practice can differ across farm types and regions and are influenced by a wide range of characteristics.

Certification Standards

Farmer at Abundant Table (Photo courtesy of Abundant Table)

Standards and certification programs are specifically designed for marketing “sustainably produced” foods which provide validity to the public, and support claims about sustainability and environmental sensitivity. While these certifications offer benefits to consumers, they can pressure farmers to adopt practices that go against practices that serve their specific farms and operations.  Jesse Smith explained that many companies that produce packaged foods and beverages, such as kombucha or a tub of guacamole, require their farmers to have certain certifications so that they can slap those on the label.

Poett explained that when she was attempting to sell to Whole Foods, there were requirements they demanded of her that would complicate her operations. For example, her herd needs to be branded so that she can identify individual cows, yet Whole Foods does not buy from ranchers who brand their cattle. Poett explains that from this experience among others, she now sets her own values based on her own ideologies and enjoys informing her customers exactly how and why she follows her practices, increasing trust and authenticity.

The conditions of raising food vary from place to place as well; raising livestock in California poses different conditions that raising them in Minnesota. Generic (but well intentioned) certifications can lump all ranchers and farmers together and disregard individual, place-based factors. Not all was negative though. Jonathan Reinbold shared that for larger companies, certifications show that lowest common denominator has been met. Of course, they add transparency which can benefit farmers.

Lessons for us:

  • All panelists stressed that it is of great importance to have the trust of their buyers and to build an authentic relationship with their supporters.
  • Think beyond the label. Develop relationships with your farmers so that they can tell you exactly what processes they follow.

Role of Policy

Photo courtesy of SOAR Ventura

There are many layers of government that farmers face in their work, including city, county, state and federal regulations. We asked our panelists about how policy makers are currently playing a role in their operations and what initiatives policy makers could take to make the lives of farmers a bit easier. Here are some takeaways:

  • Farmers would benefit from a more regional approach when government implements standards and restrictions. A regional body looking at rules and regulations would ensure the most appropriate approach for a given growing region and the surrounding environment.
  • Panelists shared the need for federal and state agricultural grant application processes to be simplified as they are time and energy intensive. 
  • Policy makers should examine what would it look like for there to be more money spent on food for school systems to make school food healthy. The distribution systems are already in place and using them for healthy, locally grown food is a very real possibility
  • Consider the buying power of educational institutions and city/county agencies when looking to support regional farmers.
  • Generally, the group expressed that they feel there is a tremendous misunderstanding about what farmers do by many governmental individuals.
  • The panelists were grateful for the recent passing of ‘cottage food law,’ in California, which allows individuals to sell homemade goods from small certified kitchens and homes.

Phil McGrath at his farm (photo courtesy of Phil McGrath)

Purchasing food from someone we know personally is an experience that gives us a sense of place, rooting us in our communities. Understanding regional food networks bring together urban and rural communities, leading to better policy-making and appreciation for different circumstances. Supporting a local economy has the power to shift diets and encourages us to eat in season. This process shifts dollars to other local businesses, creating a more resilient community for all of us.

Farmers continue to get creative in how they are connecting with buyers, such as creating regional food hubs and farm stands, along with food cooperatives. Let’s join them! As individuals, let’s encourage one another to support this local food economy. Creating a more intentional dialogue between growers and consumers is essential to our social and planetary health.

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