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.

Eric M. Jones

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.

Michele Owens

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.


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...


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.



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.


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?


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.


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!



10 miles? And put the milk in glass jars? When I was a kid in the same upstate New York, the milk came from a dairy farm that was maybe a quarter mile away. In good weather, it was a walk across the pasture & creek; in winter or mud season, a little further to go around by the road. And no glass jar: people had stainless steel milk cans that held a gallon or two.

And for #8, these days a lot of us don't need to live in cities to make a living. Thanks to high-speed internet, I can live on the edge of the Sierra Nevada, and hire out my services to clients from San Jose to Europe.


@Big D,

I admire anyone who can run a farm at all. Around here (Western Mass) all the farmland is worth more after it's sold as a Walmart parking lot, sadly. But as Mr. Dubner pointed out, his family and others were able to manage it before factors such as the population rise and McDonald's etc.

America's appetite for Big Macs, KFC chicken-and-cheese sandwich (or whatever that horrid thing is) etc is the only reason small farms can't supply all our needs now. Big Ag cannot be called a small family business any more than BP could.

Milk from Big Ag is not a nutritous substance to begin with. The only reason people "need" it is because they refuse to get their calcium from green leafy vegetables and because it's fortified wtih vitamin D which could be gained from fish or supplements combined with more sunlight.

Big Ag adds BHE, antibiotics and mistreatment of downed cattle (videotaped by the Humane Society) which raises the risk of CJD / mad cow disease. Not to mention environmental damage.



Michelle Owens (#2) made some of the same points I was going to make. Huzzah, Michelle!

I think it's great that locavores are moving the market. It will be even better if the majority of Americans turn to food that is produced sustainably. Remove the subsidies that make a franchise hamburger so cheap and local food could even be more affordable.

For now, I'm happy growing what I can and buying most of the rest locally. http://ozarkhomesteader.wordpress.com

P.S. Why on earth did you buy food coloring for ice cream?!?


For a few years when I was growing up my family received its milk supply from a single milk cow. We would skim the cream off, but it was still incredibly creamy. When we switched back to store bought milk, I remember the first glass I tried. At the time it tasted indistinguishable from water.

It was good stuff, but you are correct we were in no way lowing our carbon footprint. Our "farm" was as small as you could get. It is true that compared to a large farm we used hardly any fossil fuel, but then again, we didn't produce much milk either.


The human body is not meant to consume the milk from an any animal that is not human. This would be why we pasteurize it. Many things about cow milk are not ideal for our health.



Eh. I happen to live near the finger lakes, the wine and cheese region of ny. I consume a lot of local products, but its mostly because of preference, price, and marketing. I have no problem with a thousand-mile salad.

Locavorism here is at most an unintended consequence of the national trend toward more sophisticated palates, geography, and state intervention.(to name only a few factors)

Basically, following the collapse of small scale farming and our industrial base, small operations began taking advantage of the region's great agricultural advantage: a good climate.for wine grapes. Upstate ny is a respectable population center, and a heavily traveled corridor. Cheap and local wines allows us less affluent upstaters to feel cultured. Convenience led.way to preference, preference piqued curiosity in outsiders. Wineries became tourist attractions and fed off a reliable base of bored ocals



Idealistic! And, what a dangerous idea for farmers to want state support!

Unfortunately, the State will overregulate with (arguably) nefarious reasons.

Check out the proposed "Food Safety Modernization Act":


And, what's with the police raids on raw/organic marketplaces?:




Big Ag is factory farming, and it has other problems besides use of fossil fuels. Filthy crowded living conditions of food animals leading to sick animals and salmonella and e. coli contamination of meat and eggs. Overuse of antibiotics in feed to try to prevent such contamination, leading to development of bacterial resistance to antibiotics which threatens to prevent our ability to cure infections in people. Ground water pollution from runoff of waste pits on hog farms. Corn genetically engineered not to withstand plant pests, but to withstand the use of deadly pesticides that kill pests, but leave the residue in our food.
Yes, the economies of scale enable Big Ag to cheaply feed more people, at the cost of monumental cruelty to animals, contamination of our water and food supply, and exposing whole populations to a future pandemic against which none of our antibiotics will work.


And then someone will want a tomato... Growing tomatoes locally here in Denmark is 4 times as expensive energy wise as growing them in Spain and trucking them here, transport included.

Then there's the whole "organic" scam. Nobody can taste any differences in controlled experiments. There are no chemical differences between organic and conventionally grown (biodynamically grown veggies are a lot better, but not organically grown). But it takes 40% more land and a lot more fuel to keep the weeds down - mechanical weeding is not free. Please explain how this makes the world a better place when we have a scarcity of arable land and are working to save on fossil fuels...


I have to pretty much agree with BigD; like organics, locavore food is a vanity product, not a viable model for feeding the world. There are a lot of wealthy consumers out there, and it's great that there are people making a living catering to them, but let's not kid ourselves that this is better for the environment than large scale industrial agriculture.


Emmi and Michele make excellent points. For those of you (Grumpy, J) who do not think smaller scale is better AND less wasteful of resources need to watch Fresh Inc, The Movie. Do not let others feed you ideas that you parrot without checking this out for yourselves. And FYI-there ARE chemical and nutrition differences in organic, local food vs big scale. If you are not finding references you need to limit search to last 5-7 years when there has been an explosion of research. Grass fed animals have the healthy ratios of the heart healthy unsat fats that salmon does. I am a clinical nutritionist, not some quack by the way, with a highly scientific background :)


Re #19: "...there ARE chemical and nutrition differences in organic, local food vs big scale."

I wouldn't know about that, but there is often a major taste difference. Is there any comparison between a commercial apple or peach, usually a variety bred for shipping qualities rather than flavor, that's then picked semi-ripe and shipped in cold store, and an heirloom variety picked ripe from the tree that day? Or between the horrible "super-sweet" white corn that's all you can find in most stores these days, and a fresh ear of Golden Bantam?