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