How do we save the small farms?

Chef Dan Barber weighs in on what he says is a “generational catastrophe” for local food production.

If you have ever watched Chef’s Table on Netflix and seen the episode about Dan Barber, you’ll know he’s a staunch advocate for small-scale regenerative agriculture and an innovative cook who cares deeply about supporting local farmers. Having watched that episode around the start of the pandemic, and after hearing about so many restaurant closures in the months following, I’ve wondered about how Barber and his Blue Hill restaurants are doing. That question was answered in an article published in The Counter, where writer Karen Stabiner interviewed Barber about the current situation.

Barber puts it bluntly, saying we face a “generational catastrophe” if things continue in this way. He has been involved in a survey called ResourcED that has interviewed small-scale farmers across the country over the past month, and the results show that between 30 and 40 percent expect they’ll have to declare bankruptcy by the end of 2020. While April sales may have been good, the crop sizes are still small and manageable, but come harvest time, there is no way farmers will have enough labor to harvest these crops, individual people willing to buy them, or space to store the surplus.

Jack Algiere, farm director at the Stone Barns Center, which is a non-profit educational center partnered with Barber’s restaurants, puts this new economy of scale into perspective, saying, “I used to have one chef buying 1,000 pounds of squash. Now I have 1,000 people, each buying one pound of squash, a totally different model. To wash, pack, deal with sanitation, the need to process, that’s where the costs are.” And 82 percent of the farmers surveyed have not increased their prices to reflect the increased labor costs. This has all been a crushing realization for Barber:

“Weeks ago I would have said that the short food chain was iron-clad, a farmer selling to you at the farmers’ market, clean and direct. I’ve been an evangelist for that — but Covid has exposed its weakness. You can’t shake the hand of a farmer anymore because you’ll get a virus. The short food chain has turned out not to be resilient. Didn’t take a lot to threaten a wipe-out, though you can help prevent it.”

Making this situation all the more devastating is that over 60 percent of the respondents to the ResourcED survey are between the ages of 25 and 44, fairly young people in the middle of their working lives. Algiere describes these farmers as “adolescents, new enough to farming that they might not be established enough to survive, or might have second thoughts” about their career choice.

Barber’s own role has shifted from celebrity chef to food processor. No longer preparing meals for eager guests, he describes watching his staff break down a pig into charcuteries and sausages, ferment cases of ramps that have just been foraged, and smoke hundreds of pounds of tile fish. He’s not yet sure how it’ll get used – some will go in CSA-type boxes purchased by clients – but what else is to be done?

“My realization — it ranks as a revelation, really — is that I’m a food processor. I’m not a chef, right now. I’m a food processor. But think about American food culture: That’s the most degrading thing you can call someone, next to saying they’re a Monsanto executive. Food processor? You’ve cursed them up, because our understanding of food processors is that they turn out food that’s demonstrably less nutritious and delicious, usually from a source that degrades the environment.”

That’s where Barber wants to see a shift. Food processing does not have to be a process of degradation, as we’ve come to know it, but rather one of preservation and improvement. And this can accomplished if we have a greater number of smaller, regional processors, which gives more options to farmers needing to process their food, to people wanting to buy directly from farmers, and to storeowners wanting to support local growers.

“In the future we have to complicate the picture. Regional hubs might look inefficient, on the face of it, because they overlap, they’re doing the same work — there’s not a central mill in Iowa but a couple of dozen. We should look at that differently… Efficiency is death, actually. We suffer at the whim of a consolidated food system that overall has some efficiencies and is cheaper, but in the end is not worth it.”

What can the home cook do for now?

While we’re waiting and hoping for the government to come up with new bills that can actually throw these farmers a lifeline (such as debt cancellation, rather than more loans), home cooks can make a small yet effective difference with the decisions they make. Barber suggests two actions, starting with Michael Pollan’s advice to vote with your fork: “It may cost a little more, and maybe you can’t do it every day, but that’s very powerful if you can, and it’s critical, especially now.”

Second, support restaurants that support local farmers. Restaurant culture can be powerful and influential, but it is currently gutted, so “buy whatever they’re selling at the moment, and when they re-open, spend your food dollars in places that do the right thing.”

I’d add a third suggestion, echoing Ontario organic farmer Leslie Moskovits who runs the CSA I’ve supported for nearly a decade. In early April she told me she hopes that people will remember how much farmers mattered to them during this crisis and then act on it.

“I would encourage people to educate themselves on the barriers that are in place for local farming to increase and advocate for local food systems, and vote accordingly. In a crisis like we have now, where people are wanting access to a secure food source, they should be very aware of needed supports for a thriving local food system.”

The future will be rough for many of these young farmers, but the fallout can be mitigated somewhat by the insistence of consumers that the local food economy be supported and prioritized at this time. Read the full interview in The Counter here.

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