FamilyFarmed Helps Get Local Produce To Big Markets

By Anthony Todd in Food on Feb 24, 2012 4:00PM

2012_2_24FamilyFarmed.jpg The local food movement is constantly criticized for its small scale. All of these hippie farmer's markets and boutique restaurants are great for rich people who live in Chicago, but they're not going to actually make a difference, right? Setting aside how much we disagree with that sentiment, locavores now have a good retort. FamilyFarmed, in partnership with the USDA, is working to scale up the local food movement - to make it possible for big retailers and food service companies to buy produce from local farmers.

"The food buyers really drove this. They want to buy local food from family farmers," said Jim Slama, President of FamilyFarmed. Here's the problem: large corporate buyers have very strict safety and documentation requirements that apply to any farm they purchase food from. For a huge factory farm with an office staff, this is just part of doing business. But for a local farmer whose office is in his tractor, this can be an impossible burden. Slama remembers the moment when this problem became clear: "We were doing a workshop and I realized that, to farmers, this means 'I need to write a book.' Their eyes glazed over. To them, this means: Either I have to do something I'm not able to do, or pay someone five grand to do it."

Farms need to be food safety certified and farmers need to create a manual detailing how their operation handles hundreds of different aspects of food safety. These are the least glamorous of all farm tasks; it's much more fun to think of farmers out in the fields. Unfortunately, without them, local produce won't move beyond the farmers market. So, Family Farmed teamed up with the USDA and got to work. It took two years and a lot of compromises—large produce companies had different needs than small ones—but eventually 13 different standards were merged into one all-encompassing program. According to Slama, "If farmers create a plan with this, it can pass audits for just about anyone." It's easy, it's free and it doesn't take years to do.

Slama dismissed the notion that big farms will always beat small ones because of simple economics. He pointed out that it costs between $5 and $8 per box to ship produce from California or Mexico, and less than $1 to ship it around the Midwest to distribution centers in Chicago. So, even if the produce costs marginally more from a small farmer, they can make up the difference with cheaper transport costs—if they can manage to find buyers. This means less pollution, more money for local farmers, and local food where you wouldn't expect it. The bottom line for consumers? "Wholesale buyers are looking out for customers when it comes to food safety, which is the reason for these requirements. And they're also looking to buy a lot more local food." Companies will buy local, if local farmers meet their standards.

How do farmers get started? FamilyFarmed and the USDA created a special website, the On Farm Food Safety Project. Farmers register and work through a series of question in 11 areas. After playing with it for a while, it reminded us of tax software: the questions look simple to the user, but behind the scenes the information gives is going onto complex standardized forms. The finished product looks very impressive. If a farmer has to attach extra documentation (water quality tests, for example) the program will ask for it.

What does this mean for you, the consumer? Well, first, it means that local food is not going to remain a trendy niche; it's going to start entering the larger food system. Second, it means that if you want to support local eating, you need to support those who are doing the behind-the-scenes, unglamorous work of getting that food to market. Buy a ticket for next month's Good Food Festival or make a donation to FamilyFarmed.org. You'll be making a real difference.