Locavores Moving the Markets

DESCRIPTIONMonica Almeida/The New York Times Dairy farms: from small to huge, then back to small.

I grew up on a very small farm in upstate New York. We mostly generated food for our own use, and didn’t sell much except the corn or pumpkin or tomato surplus from our garden. We usually kept a dozen chickens and, at one time or another, a goat or two, a pig, and sometimes a cow. The cow would provide all the milk our family of 10 needed (and lots of cats too; at one point we had 23 cats, though most of them thankfully did not live indoors).

During the years we didn’t have a cow, we’d drive to a neighbor’s dairy farm about 10 miles away and draw milk from the vat into one-gallon mayonnaise jars. By the time we got home, the cream was already rising to the top. In a one-gallon jar, there would be at least two inches of cream. It was amazing stuff. My mother was an Adelle Davis-worshiping back-to-the-Earther many years before “locavore” or even “organic” were buzzwords. She felt she was committing treason – and bad parenting – whenever she had to buy milk from a store.

By the time I went off to college, that kind of little dairy farm began to disappear from upstate New York. Few of the farmers’ kids I went to school with went into farming. The economics were punishing; and consolidation was the rule.

From today’s Wall Street Journal, however, there’s an interesting report by Melanie Grayce West about the resurgence of small dairy plants in New York State:

Decades after most small dairies were forced out of business in New York, a new crop of boutique dairies is springing up in the state to produce fancy cheese, milk and yogurt.

Much of it is being devoured by “locavores,” people who try to eat locally produced food and are willing to pay up to get it. There’s also growing demand for “heritage cheese” produced by breeds of cows, goats and sheep not found in normal dairies.

There was an approximate doubling of small dairy plants in New York over the last two years, to around 80 statewide. Thirty-four plant permits have been issued this year.

A small plant is typically a family-owned farm that uses a small herd of animals, sometimes even a handful of cows, goats or sheep, to churn out premium dairy products.

Granted, 80 dairy plants in a state the size of New York is a pretty insignificant number. Unless you are one of those 80 farmers.

If indeed the boutique-farm boomlet is being driven by locavore preferences, this is a nice example of an evolving market with a demand pool that barely existed in the recent past. (Except for my mother.) That’s good news for everyone involved – as long as they don’t think they’re also reducing their carbon footprints, since they probably aren’t.

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  1. Eric M. Jones says:

    Locally, there are some apples that aren’t commercially significant. The local farmer has Northern Spy apples that are the size of cantaloupes, two of them will make a pie; but they don’t travel well due to their thin skins (bruise easily) and October maturation. Still a thing of wonder.

    I vote for budgeting more money for local farmers and less to Chinese toys at Walmart. Europeans have this about right….you drive down the road and see a small corral of deer. A mile farther and the restaurant has venison on the menu. The food isn’t cheap either–It’s dear….

    Ho-ho. Eric is easily amused.

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  2. Michele Owens says:

    I’m sorry, but did you actually read that Weber and Matthews paper you keep citing?

    It says that 83% of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food come from the production, not transportation phase.

    Then it fails to consider the immense differences in production methods between small-scale farming and Big Ag. Big Ag is extremely dependent on fossil fuels–to run the giant tractors, generate the artificial fertilizers, etc.

    Small-scale farming requires only minimal inputs. So you certainly ARE reducing your carbon footprint by eating from small, local, organic or quasi-organic producers–like the dairy farm near me where the cows are actually allowed to graze. Solar power at its best.

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  3. Neela says:

    I don’t know if I’d call 80 small dairies “moving markets.” While I laud and support this, we have to be realistic that as a percentage of dairy products consumed in NY State…these dairies only provide a drop in the bucket…

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  4. Emmy says:

    Growing up on that farm sounds like a lot of fun (and hard work). I grew up in a similar environment in New Hampshire. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. (When I visited England I also lived on a farm and had bottled milk delivered to our door by the milkman. Great taste, that milk)!

    Good for your Mom – I bet it drives her crazy to see the locavore trend being treated as though it’s a new idea. At our farmer’s markets, I see 80+ year-old ladies who used their own cloth bags forever and probably never bragged or thought twice about it!

    I do see a few flaws here. In the post to which you link, you define Locavore as someone who grows food and makes clothes from their own home. That is not the common defenition – buying food within your own town or county is what we call a Locavore.

    Second problem: it’s not true that buying from Nordstroms is equally eco-friendly. Stores like this use incredibly wasteful packaging, flood people with junk mail that destroys the Boreal forest.

    Buying food from far away contributes to pesticide use, deforestation and poor agriculture practices which destroy wildlife habitat and erode the soil.

    If we grow food at home or buy local, it’s obviously better for the environment. We can see firsthand the practices of our local farmers and how they integrate farm practices with the ecosystems.

    It seems as though you’re using an economic argument and then tossing in the kitchen sink approach to ecologically sound practices. That’s not how it works.

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  5. melancholyaeon says:

    Yes, I think we locavores have a big impact in bringing back traditional dairies. Certainly in California. Unfortunately the new food regulation bill that expands the highly-ineffective FDA’s power to more and more entities will kill that market just as it begins.

    So many locavores were stunned to read our hero, Michael Pollan’s article in support of this government power grab in today’s NYT. Clearly his media appearances, book tours, and other lucrative ventures have smoothed his passage for the final sell-out to agribusiness and the regulatory capture they specialize in.

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  6. Gary says:

    Is this boomlet in boutique farms similar to the boomlet in small wineries several decades ago? If so, perhaps their economic trajectory is a model for the future of these farms.

    And didn’t the farm cooperative movement (Dairy-lea was one in NY, if I recall correctly) and property tax reforms in the 1970s save a lot of small farms?

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  7. JimRino says:

    It has been said that Pennsylvania Dutch, who still farm with horses, can make a profit by the old methods. By not buying the tractor, the GMO corn, the synthetic nitrogen, etc.

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  8. BigD says:

    I’d call 80 dairies a fad, not a trend. Drop in the bucket.

    We all like the romantic view of quaint little farms dotting the countryside, where chickens scratch, cows moo and goats prance around the pasture. Heck, I grew up on one of those–and remember it fondly.

    There’s a reason that’s just a romantic memory for the most part: It’s not an economically viable model–not for a growing US (and world) population that wants a wide variety of inexpensive and nutritious food.

    That’s one of the reasons I moved to the city and went to work in an office–our little farm couldn’t support four kids, who went on to marry and have families of their own.

    More power to those farmers who can find their niche and survive. But America needs to wake up to the fact that Big Ag is not bad–it’s just big. For a reason. That’s what it takes to feed growing families who want to stay on the farm. 98% of corporate farms are corporate in name only–they are owned by FAMILIES.

    Farming is tough enough, without limiting a producer’s ability to compete economically. So all farmers should be supported.

    And, while we’re at it, we need to get over the romantic idea (regardless of what mom thought) that milk fresh from a cow is somehow better and nutritious. Without good ol’ pasteurization, it’s a public health time bomb waiting to go off!

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