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The Challenge of Convenience

Garth Brown |

When I’m lying in bed, not able to sleep, I might be filled with the sort of existential dread that only seems to rear its head near midnight, I might be worrying about whether I plugged the electric fence back in, or I might be preoccupied with a writing project, but most likely I’ll be thinking about food distribution systems. As I stare at the charcoal gray of a moonlit ceiling I sometimes wonder how many other farmers across America are doing the same thing, ruminating on walk-in freezers and box trucks and reefer vans, all mentally arranged and rearranged in a fruitless search for a better way to get good food to the people who want it.

In some ways this is the best time to be a direct marketing farmer in America. More and more people are interested in the provenance of their food, and the internet allows them to find and connect with the people who produce it. Retail software makes tracking inventory and selling the sort of variable items produced on a small farm far easier than it would be with manual bookkeeping.

But these changes don’t happen in a vacuum. Marketers are aware of the public’s concerns - pick up a box of cereal in a supermarket or go to a food company’s website and chances are good that you’ll see pictures of farmers smiling as they stand in verdant fields, the (false) message being that such products are equivalent to what you can get straight from a producer. As advertising is becoming more adept at targeting people skeptical of industrial agriculture, the dire state of dairy and other commodities means more struggling farms are looking to direct selling as an alternative,

An even bigger challenge is a standard of ever increasing convenience. The same technology that makes it possible for me to sell directly allows grocery delivery and meal kit companies to bring orders to customers with an ease and speed I can’t ever hope to match. I’ve thought about shipping food with one of the major carriers, and I will probably experiment with it in the future, but aside from the added cost and extra packaging, my concern is that something will be lost as soon as a middleman is introduced.

Supporting truly local, conscientious agriculture will always be something that takes not just more money than shopping at the nearest store but also much more effort, whether that’s driving to a farmers’ market, committing to a CSA, or scheduling a pick up with a farm like mine. When I put it like that I see how crazy a business model it truly is - what else do you regularly buy that takes so much more work than the commonly available version? Because I’m by nature skeptical of radical change, this state of affairs makes me nervous. But mainstream agriculture has committed so completely to maximizing cheapness and availability over all else that any alternative will have to appeal to different values, like environmental stewardship, animal welfare, and the human connection of meeting your farmer in person. It’s optimistic, but I’m betting that these are the future, even if thinking about how to best make them a reality does occasionally keep me up at night.

Garth Brown

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