Small farmers seek refuge in the city

  Squeezed out of their traditional outlets by larger growers and global competition, Oregon's small farmers are seeking refuge in the cities. They're selling directly to customers at farmer's markets--and, in the process, helping urbanites reconnect with the source of their food.

"This is the farmer's only hope, the only way we can make a living any more," says strawberry grower Tammy Van Domelen.

She and her husband Bart, a third-generation farmer, increasingly rely on sales at a weekly market near their farm outside of Portland. Less and less of their strawberries are going to the local cannery, where, due to competition from larger growers in California and Mexico, the Van Domelens are being offered "1960s prices," according to Tammy.

The switch to farmer’s markets may be an act of desperation, but it is empowering as well. Instead of being told what price they're getting for their produce, they can set their own prices--typically 40 to 60 percent more than wholesale prices.

This direct-sale approach can be empowering for consumers, too, as they learn more about how their food was grown. They also know that every dollar they spend at a farmer's market goes directly into the local economy.

This trend toward direct sale to city customers--lately dubbed "Urban Farming"--harks back to the door-to-door produce vendors of an earlier era and runs counter to the current trend toward increasingly larger and more impersonal purveyors of everything from health care to radio programming.

"For most big-city people, this market is as close as they get to a neighborhood," comments grower Don Baird, passing out sample cherries at Portland's Wednesday market.

In the food industry, the introduction of genetically modified products has only exacerbated the disconnect between consumers and agribusinesses. In this age of Frankenstein vegetables, it is a distinct advantage to be able to stand in front of the food you grow and talk about how you grew it. That may be why farmer’s markets in the United States have increased by 79 percent since 1994, and the number of farmers selling at those markets has tripled in the same period, according to the Department of Agriculture.

The switch to direct sale isn't always smooth. Dealing with all the questions and concerns of customers can be a major hurdle for farmers used to simply hauling their produce to the wholesaler's.

"It took me five years just to get my husband to come up and talk to the customers," notes strawberry grower Kathy Unger, whose husband Matt is another third-generation farmer. "Now," she adds, "I can't get him to stop."

The schmoozing that goes with direct-sale farming is handled with finesse by a certain type of farmer much in evidence at Portland. These are growers who tend to be college-educated and typically on their second or third career, and who have little trouble wrapping their product in a mission statement.

One youthful-looking grower, Chris Roehm, has a degree in mechanical engineering. He has tried social work, and was recently in the ranks of peace activists opposing the war in Iraq. He’s been up to his ears in weeds and bugs, putting in 80-hour weeks and feeling more than a little overwhelmed in his first season as the owner of a 40-acre spread.

But he has no problem telling you why he took the plunge. "I did it to protect Oregon farmland from development," he says. Also, selling produce from a small farm, he feels, is a way to contribute to the local economy and counter the "destabilizing" influence of corporations.

"It just seemed like another way to fight the good fight," he says. The words are delivered with obvious sincerity, but they are also part of Roehm's sales pitch. He appeals, as he puts it, to "my people" -- Portlanders "who support these ideals and who want to vote with their dollars."

For many small farmers, this educational mission is simply a byproduct of their struggle to survive. But whether it's fueled by falling commodity prices or idealism expressed by a first-year farmer, the Urban Farming movement comes at an opportune time, when the needs of the small farmer and their urban customers are converging.

It's no coincidence that phrases like "food security" and "food safety" are part of the Urban Farming vocabulary. With one foot on the farm and one in the city, these farmers fulfill a cross-cultural mission. They not only satisfy their customers' desire for food that’s not mass produced, but also a growing hunger for knowledge about what really goes on down on the farm.

Tim Holt is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is an environment writer living in the Mount Shasta region of California.