Low crop prices have many Midwest wheat and corn farmers looking for ways to supplement their incomes. One possibility for conventional farmers: producing food for farmers markets.
“Food is a multi-billion-dollar economy in Kansas,” says Missty Lechner of the American Heart Association, who works with local governments to encourage the development of local food systems. (PDF) “If we can change that to increase local food sales by just 1 percent in Kansas, we’re talking multi-million-dollar impact on our local food economy.”
Despite Kansas’s place as a prime farm state, just a tiny fraction of the vegetables and fruits consumed there are produced locally, Lechner says. That represents a massive opportunity for Midwest farmers.
With net farm income forecast this year at roughly half of 2013 levels, are row crop farmers moving en masse into vegetables? Not so fast.
Kansas State University agricultural economist Mykel Taylor says transitioning from a conventional farm setup to one that produces fruits and vegetables for local markets is more difficult than you might think.
“You have to not only harvest your crop and transport it to the market, but if you’re at a farmers market, you then have to set up a table; you have to make it look good; you have to have an employee sit there for the day and sell that product and interact with consumers,” Taylor says.
Furthermore, you need to be located close enough to the farmers market to keep transportation expenses down. Local food systems require much more labor per acre than large conventional farms, too.
“The planting, the pruning, the harvesting…all of it requires a lot more hand labor,” Taylor says. “So that has a very different requirement than what it takes to run a combine.”
Labor is the main concern keeping Andy and Lavell Winsor from switching a little bit of their land near Grantville, Kansas, from row crops to gardens. At a meeting for farmers interested in learning about growing produce, Lavell Winsor said they are not sure it’s worth their while. They have already made huge investments in the kind of equipment needed to farm huge tracts of land in corn, soybeans and wheat.
“Our challenge as a farm is how to make that fit with what we already know that we do fairly well,” Lavell Winsor says, “and to make that work with the equipment and the land and the labor that we have already.”
Still, some local farmers see the Midwest region as poised to take advantage of a powerful opportunity. Thanks to generally good soil and atmospheric conditions, the Midwest is an agricultural powerhouse. Although it is mostly used to grow corn, soybeans, and wheat, the rich Midwest soil can also be used to grow alternative crops.
Kansas farmer Jake Johannes grows a wide range of specialty crops for local customers with an organic operation called Sacred Sun Cooperative Farm.
“The black beans have been really good for us, something that we can grow in the area,” Johannes says. “And I’d say in terms of conventional growers wanting to diversify, I think that diversifying in regard to dry beans and edible beans is a really great way to go.”
Farmers, Johannes says, can use a regular combine to harvest the beans, which may prevent the need to buy new equipment. Johannes says black-eyed peas produced a good yield, but tended to clog the combine with their tough vines and pods. Black beans produced lower yields, but Johannes says that improved when he harvested them by hand, though that requires expensive labor.
“Farms around here, you’ve got someone managing 3,000-4,000 acres of row crops,” Johannes says. “Asking them to take on even an acre of vegetable crops, it’s a completely different business.”
Local governments across the country have established Food Policy Councils, community-government partnerships to identify opportunities for local food production and to support local farmers, to aid farmers looking to break into the local food scene. While many of the councils are clustered on the coasts, organizations have also sprung up in Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska, according to an annual survey by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
Kansas farmer Phil Holman-Hebert, who raises about 900 chickens in Jefferson County and sells their eggs at local farmers markets, works with a local Food Policy Council to develop the infrastructure local farmers need to sell their produce.
"We're looking at building a community of people that want to drive economic opportunity through really good farming and really good food," Holman-Hebert says.
Local produce can often fetch a premium price. The eggs he raises, for instance, can sell for as high as $5.50 a dozen.
Losing money is a powerful motivator for farmers to take a look at diversifying. Experts say new crops are best seen as a long-term commitment, however, not a stopgap.
Bryan Thompson is a reporter for KCUR 89.3 and the Kansas News Service, specializing in rural health and agriculture. He is based in Salina.