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Where will our food come from?

The U.S. largest farms are getting bigger, and are primarily producing commodity crops (e.g. corn, soybeans, and cotton) or animal products (e.g. beef/dairy, pork, and poultry).  Their growth has come from a continuing consolidation of medium and small size farms.  The only other farming segment that is growing is the number of very small farms (<20 acres), many of which are producing vegetables for local and regional markets (USDA/ERS 2016).  To provide some perspective – large farms with >$1M gross farm income represent 3% of all U.S. farms, controlling 23% of U.S. farmed acres and generating 42% of all U.S. gross farm income (USDA/NAS 2015).  In 2014 farmers with > 10 acres of production represented 17% of all U.S. farmers, 0.18% of U.S. farmed acres but generating 3% of total U.S. gross farm income.  The key to success for very small farmers was a focus on the production of high-value products.

A small but growing number of farms sell agricultural products directly to consumers through farmers’ markets, roadside stands, community-supported agriculture (CSA) arrangements, and/or direct sale to restaurants or food services.  USDA/ERS estimates that fresh vegetables and fruits constitute 29% of direct sales of agricultural products in the U.S.  The two top revenue crops for direct sales were lettuce and tomato.  Selling directly to the consumer generally allows value-added pricing for premium quality products.

A recent Texas A&M study demonstrated the financial viability of very small vegetable farms in Texas, but there are also numerous stories of financial failure for such operations.  Some states provide excellent support and education for small vegetable producers in marketing, financial planning, applied production research, etc. (e.g. TX, NY, and NC), but too few producers have access to or are plugged into these support networks.

At the WTS we see small farms as a critical component of ensuring consumers have ready access to high quality, nutritious and great tasting tomatoes.  The historic U.S. model is for large growers to produce varieties of tomatoes that are selected primarily for high yield, easy harvest, and the ability to ship long distances without fruit injury.  Furthermore, the fruit is customarily picked green, shipped to the receiving point, and gassed with the plant hormone ethylene, to quickly “ripen” the fruit to an acceptable pink or red color.  These fruits taste nothing like the great tomatoes produced in our backyard or sourced from local farms that choose the variety based on the flavor of the fruit and that is picked when ripe.  Consumers are demanding an alternative model.

Since tomatoes are the biggest source of income for many small vegetable farmers, helping small producers be more successful with tomatoes will help with the viability of the whole farm and provide support for all the other fine produce coming from it.

What can we do?

  1. Encourage state/local investment in applied research on production practices, variety selection, marketing strategies, and basic finance.  Virtually all land grant universities provide this on commodity crops planted by large producers – small vegetable growers are under-served.
  2. Encourage more collaboration between farmers, breeders/researchers, and chefs/restaurants.  Restaurants will almost always be the highest margin market for great-tasting tomatoes.  The University of Wisconsin is developing a great model.
  3. Help develop a database to aid growers in selecting the best tomato variety for their local environment and for their production method (e.g. organic vs conventional or open field vs hoop house).  Selecting the best variety for your farm and your market will be critical for tomato profitability.
  4. Encourage regional collaboration on all of the above, and provide easy access to key web links for growers to keep up to date and to learn from each other.

Consumers are demanding better quality food, and tomatoes continue to grow in popularity as America’s favorite fruit/vegetable.  Many consumers are also willing to pay a premium for sustainably produced vegetables and fruits and favor local production.  We believe there is no better time for executing the initiative described above.


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