Why small family farms fail

Small Farms Continue to Fail because the are Unafraid

” Defeat may serve as well as victory to shake the soul and let the glory out." - Edwin Markham

After 6 years of toil on our family farm, I have come to a conclusion that is difficult for me to admit. I’ve concluded that it is almost completely certain that if our farm survives my wife and I will never see a tangible or financial benefit. Shifting my goals to a much longer finish line, I am coming to terms with the idea that my children can only complete my life’s work if they choose to carry our farm through the next phase. While I still am young and strong with many miles still left in my tank, my failures to adopt some basic proven marketing strategies will be our farms eventual undoing. I’ve had the opportunity of watching from a catbird seat other beginning farmers take on farming endeavors, work very hard, sacrifice greatly and still close their farms down. For a group of people that have self described grit, the process of self-discovery can be a challenge. Required for us to even stay relevant and in the farming game, sacrifice drives us to cover up areas of our businesses that in the long run prove detrimental. As a group we absorb the ever rising costs not by raising our prices but by diverting the funding of home repairs, college funds, and retirement accounts to the immediate needs of our farms. No it is not that small farmers make inferior products, most times our quality is higher. We don’t fail because the demand for what we do is low. The gates of our farm won’t close because we cannot keep pace with the workload, as we are known to burn the candle at both ends. Farms fail for one major reason over and over and it is this; we are very bad at marketing to the masses they way the masses like to be marketed to.

My talented wife recently hung a sign that she painted on our bedroom wall. On it is written a simple saying that we as a family have embraced and implemented in our lives and our business. Simply written on reclaimed wood are the words “love creates”. We have clung to this small saying during arguments at The Barry Farm executive board meetings, when dealing with charitable events and our open gate policy welcoming many new people into our home. I’ve seen this principle in action as we operate more with our hearts when creative force is required. The most meaningful experiences we have had with our community have been when we acted with love over time to bring change to people who wanted to eat, live, and feel better. Most family farmers operate publicly in this manner with motivations of freedom, love, creativity, collaboration, and beauty being repeated themes. Our social media accounts are followed in droves because our vision and optimism are values that people wish their lives contained more of. Pastoral images of verdant fields, new life on the farm in the form of blossoms or baby animals and even the more utilitarian old tractor and worn out leather work gloves lift the spirit of people and pass on the joy that daily farm life gives. We thrive in these settings because we truly see our work through the lenses of joyous glasses. Joining in the rote and routine and extracting beauty from manual labor is our elegant protest against life’s wasted ambitions. However, the hard truth is beauty and opportunity are all around us for people to grab all on their own but they seldom do. Nature is ripe with beautiful views available for anyone to see if only they would go for a walk after dinner instead of watching sitcoms but few choose this. Catching up with your daughter who is excited about softball while having a catch will strengthen your bond with her, but my generation would rather play video games instead. Sitting on the porch sharing a glass of your wife’s favorite wine and truly becoming her best friend will make for a happy intimate marriage, but instead she scrolls through pinterest on her iPad and you flip through cable news channels. It is an up hill challenge for a family who farms to motive you with the good things in life because all the really good gooey things in life you already have unlimited access to. The best way to motivate you to support our farm through regular purchases is the tried and true age-old technique of FEAR.

Take just a moment and take stock of just how many things are sold to you, through advertising, to alleviate a problem you never knew you had. Here is a short, but certainly not an exhaustive, list of things commonly seen on TV that encourage you to be afraid but have a marketplace solution: Alarm Systems, pharmaceuticals, beauty products, weight loss programs, the entire insurance industry, banking, chain restaurants, colleges and higher education. The list truly is endless and not all fears are the same. Some fears threaten your personal security, don’t you need a security system for your home just in case someone breaks in and threatens your family? Some fears remind you of more personal things like, unless you are thin and beautiful people may not want to be with you. The fix here is easy and the cosmetic, beauty and fashion industry will gladly help you feel better. The one we take the most action on is the ultimate fear, the fear of death, suffering and dying. Every channel that shows Sunday afternoon football plays almost endless commercials saying “ask your doctor about a prescription for…” fill in the name of the drug. Don’t you want to be like the silver haired grandfather enjoying his grandchildren on the swing set like in the commercials? As if the pill they are advertising for a disease you didn’t even know you have yet will get you any closer to that goal.

I know that what I just said may seem verbose and a little abstract for my area of expertise so let me speak plainly about food marketing. It would be a much more effective sales tactic for me to spread food fear and offer you a solution to it, than what I currently do. It would sound something like this. Stop feeding your children chicken that has known cancer causing agents in it’s meat which has been imported from China. Doesn’t your family deserve the best? Right here in Texas (cue the images of green fields and well put together white family working on the farm scene) a trusted family farmer is raising all natural chicken outside, the way it should be, helping your family eat healthy for many generations to come. Sounds like you have heard that pitch already haven’t you? The language is almost comical but over and over it is effective. Create a fear and a solution at the same time that benefits your company. It is particularly easy in agriculture because for the most part people have no idea at all how food gets to our tables at home. You probably cannot even guess what country a grocery store item is made in let alone speak knowledgeably about the best practices, flavor or techniques that get it to your table. The truth is, that is exactly where those that seek to profit from you want you to be. So ignorant that anything they say must be trusted without question so that their companies can monetize the solutions. It is so easy to make you afraid of food because we have no relationship with any part of the process but are so completely dependent on it. What a terrifying place to find ourselves in. This is a relatively new problem and one our grandparents did not share with our current generation. They knew how to grow a garden, and did. They knew how to can, and did that too. They knew someone that raised pigs not far away and kept meat in their freezer. They knew how to bake bread and still do. When we yielded our willingness to participate in the food system to companies, we did so in the name of arrogance. We said quietly “my time is better spent doing something more important” and opted to make a monetary exchange for food instead. We exchanged as a society a tiny increase in income for complete dependence and agreed to be afraid. Think I’m exaggerating? Go to a grocery store the evening before a large weather event like a hurricane threat, heavy rain or blizzard. The shelves are stripped bare. Why? Because we told our grandparents we didn’t need to learn to bake, can, preserve, grow, pick or even cook for that matter and instead thought we could serve the greater good with engineering degrees and retail jobs.

That is a whole lot of real talk from a farmer who is coloring way outside of the lines on this topic. If you still know any small family farmers, they too will be following the fate of our grandparents’ lifestyle. Our way of life and our work rely on a small portion of a very big population preserving the values that were lost not that long ago. Besides this little post here you won’t hear us talk about being afraid. We won’t scare you into choosing us as the solution. Family farms just like ours will continue to roll the dice on motivations other than fear, and in doing so will continue to close. This week the WHO came out with a paper suggesting red meat was bad for you. Did you see many small vegetable farmers trying to capitalize on that? Nope. We would love for you to be motivated by joy, hope, love, patience, kindness and goodness but my suspicion is you are waiting to be afraid. In the meantime this farmer will take walks with his family, help deliver newborn lambs, play catch with my softball-loving daughter, and flirt with his wife on the front porch when the kids go to bed. You too can regain your confidence, stop listening to fear, and in the process change this entire thing we call our community.