Friday, October 17, 2014

From Homestead to Market: Food Grown to Be Eaten

Pickled Serrano Peppers

Eventually it crosses the mind of most folks into off-grid living: “Is it possible to supplement my income or even earn a living from my homestead or small farm?” Lots of people do it. Some are moderately successful, some enormously successful, and some fail at it miserably. Personally, I have fallen into all three categories at one time or another. Allow me to share some of my failures, successes and observations…..

It was 15 years ago I moved from the city to 10 acres in Bridgeport, TX. We had good virgin soil – a nice sandy loam with a clay base, a good mixture of cleared pasture and oak forest, and plenty of privacy as we were surrounded by a 3000 acre wildlife conservation ranch. Our first mistake was that we bought a tractor. And not just any old tractor, but a pretty, shiny, brand-spanking new John Deere with trailer, mower and tiller attachments. We already had 2 car payments and the tractor set us back an additional $300 a month for 5 years, but that’s another story…..

I ordered my first chickens while I was still commuting into the city for work – a straight-run batch of 25 Barred Rocks. Soon we were getting eggs and I was looking at needing to butcher some roosters. All that went well enough and I had tilled up a quarter acre of ground and had an incredible garden the first year (virgin soil will virtually guarantee that!), so I began formulating my plan….. “Why, this is so easy there’s no reason I can’t make a living of it!” And so the garden grew and the chicken population grew.

I had discovered a homesteading group on Yahoo and on it was a sage, older Appalachian man who cautioned against such enterprises in general, and especially with so little experience. One day he wrote a wonderful essay called “Food Grown To Be Eaten.” In summation, his admonishment was that food grown on a homestead for personal use is not the same as food that is grown to be sold, that it takes on a completely different character when we grow for market. Over the years, I have found this to be mostly true, with only one exception.

The first brick wall a market farmer hits is that consumers are very uneducated about farming and food in general. They want you to grow food that LOOKS exactly like what they are already used to buying, but they want it grown in a healthier manner and to taste better. They expect you to provide the full cornucopia they are used to buying from the grocery twelve months a year, no matter the season. They want eggs during the holidays when the hens slow down laying, they want spinach and lettuce in August, and tomatoes in February. They have no concept of seasonality.

Nor of variety. American consumers spend the majority of their produce dollars on the same few items – apples, bananas, broccoli, potatoes, carrots, celery, etc. The majority of them do not purchase turnips, beets, chard, kale, collards, shell peas, blackberries, winter squash or string beans. But the reality of farm/homestead life is that you will most likely end up planting and eating a LOT of these things because they are easy to grow and fill a niche in the seasonality of your climate.

Now, HERE is the exception to the rule of “Food Grown To Be Eaten” when attempting to be successful at market farming. You MUST be actively eating the food you grow, and not just that, but you must LOVE to prepare, cook and eat your own food! If you are offering 10 varieties of winter squash no one has ever seen before, sausage-shaped tomatoes, strange looking peppers or eggplant, or (gods forbid!) any okra that doesn’t look like Clemson Spineless, or a green bean with strings on it, you will NOT be able to sell those items unless you are eating them yourself and can educate your customers about them. This is true even of common varieties of produce. The absolute worst thing you can say to a potential customer when they ask about the properties of this or that veggie is “I don’t know. I haven’t tried it yet.” Or “I just grow ‘em, I don’t eat ‘em!” (In which case your customer is going to think you are an idiot and will move on to the next stall, AS WELL THEY SHOULD!) This is the distinction between food that is grown to be eaten, and food that is grown to be sold. If you don’t absolutely LOVE the food you are growing and can passionately educate people about it, they will just go to Costco and buy bagged spinach and California broccoli.

To Organic or Not To Organic – A few years back, I had a good long conversation with a USDA certified organic grower. We happened to be in the same place at the same time and had a couple hours to waste. Oh, but what a setup he had! Only about 5 acres, but with high-tunnel greenhouses (plastic in the winter, shadecloth in the summer), a small tractor to make beds in those houses, and to top it off, HIRED HELP! So I started asking questions…..

“Have you tried the wonderful Green Velvet varieties of okra?” No, people won’t buy that, he replied. It has to be Clemson. “Polish Linguica or Sausage tomatoes?” No, people want tomatoes that are shaped like tomatoes.

“But the okra gets longer and stays more tender than Clemson and fits into a canning jar perfectly for pickled okra, and the flavor of those tomatoes is out of this world.” Oh yeah (says he) I make a fortune on my canned goods, but I have to charge a lot for them too. By the time I rent the church’s kitchen for the day because of state-certification and pay a couple people to do the canning, I’ve already got $3-$4 in every jar. We keep everything real standardized and use a packaged salsa mix in our salsa so it always tastes exactly the same too. (Yum, standardized salsa in a jar – glad someone thought of that!)

And so on the conversation went. No matter what I asked about flavor and variety, the answer was always the same “People won’t buy that.” I’m pretty sure whatever he grows, he rarely eats it either. Does he make money on it? I’ve looked him up several times over the years and he seems to make a very modest living at it. But I contrast him to the people I know who are passionate about their food (organic or not) and their businesses are successful and thriving.

As for the “USDA Certified Organic” status, it’s not for beginners. Most of us did not grow up eating organic food. In fact, the world population would not be what it is today if we’d only had organic food to eat. Like it or not, most of us are alive today because of Big Ag. However, as a gardener, I do believe there comes a point in our lives where we realize growing food naturally simply tastes better. And you’d have to be blind not to notice how beautiful a garden becomes when grown organically, and how much more food you can produce in a smaller space than with conventional farming.

And for the record, if you decide to up your game from homesteading and feeding yourself to some type of certification, “USDA Organic” is not the only way to go. There is “Certified Naturally Grown” and “Demeter Certified” and a new one I can’t think of the name of right now….. But all that is still putting the cart before the horse.

State-Certified Kitchens and Cottage Laws – Thankfully, over the last few years, the demand has become so great for locally-grown, healthy food, the lawmakers have had to cave a little on regulations. They don’t like it one little bit and most of the time, they leave the law very vague so that it can be interpreted in their favor whenever possible. Individual states determine what is allowed to be sold and how and where, but make no mistake, the USDA and FDA still set the guidelines.

Most states now allow some leeway for home-produced goods, as long as the products are considered non-hazardous from a food safety perspective. (To find what is allowed in your state, google “(your state) Cottage Laws”.) Raw milk can now be sold in some states as long as it is sold directly from the farm (google “Real Milk Finder” and “LocalHarvest” to see what’s being sold in your area). Eggs can be sold directly from the farm but most states insist on sanitizing them, and if they are transported to a market, it must be in a refrigerated unit, not an ice chest. Even canned and baked goods have a ridiculous amount of restrictions when they are allowed – only pickles, high-acid salsas, jams and jellies (NO pressure-canned veggies or meats); no cheese or meat in baked goods (including cheesecakes and cream cheese frostings); fruit pie fillings must be store-bought, not fresh (one of those very vague laws, just in case….). And oh, the labels! And the fees! Oklahoma charges $175 to set up under state cottage laws, then $125 a year thereafter. So obviously, you’ve gotta be serious about this just to get started, which doesn’t really fall under the “sell the surplus” condition I’ve been talking about. If you are going to sell stuff from your kitchen, it’s GOT to be food that was grown to be sold.

Blackberry Pie and Fillings -- NOT allowed under most Cottage Laws

The Big Exception – So, when I first started “marketing” I did it the old-fashioned way. Every Saturday, I loaded up an 18’ tractor trailer with baskets of produce and set up in town. There were no other vendors at the time and we didn’t have a farmer’s market, so I set up at the feed store. And I was successful! Within a couple weeks, I had repeat customers and they were so happy to have locally grown, fresh food. (It was organic, but I couldn’t call it that – the USDA owns that word.) Then, and I remember it clearly, I had my biggest haul yet – sweet corn, a few melons, some tomatoes – all the things people love. It was July 4th weekend. Almost no one showed up because they were busy doing other things! That’s when I decided it was time for a new plan….
Our county appraisal district’s website was public at the time, so I scoured the site for high-dollar properties. Then I drove to those properties and made notes of the street addresses from the mailboxes. Sometimes I’d strike it rich and find a small housing development tucked away out in the country and I’d make note of the most affluent-looking homes. I sent them all a postcard for produce for sale each week. In no time, I had more customers than I could take care of, so I decided to revamp the plan once again. (CSA’s were not hugely popular or successful yet some 15 years ago….)

By this time, I realized that I could have my choice of customers and that, as a homesteader FIRST, I could only take care of so many in the first place while still having time to feed and put food back for ourselves. I set the number at 5 families and refused to take on any more. And that was the plan I stuck with. It worked most of the time, but I’d made one mistake – recruiting from the high-dollar market meant I had to be super-careful about regulations and I couldn’t offer most of those customers canned goods, meat or home-baked goods of any kind, since we didn’t have Cottage Laws then. But I did it sometimes with the more sensible ones anyway, especially with bread and butchered chickens. And I made a decent living at it – I was clearing about $200 a week from those few customers and that still left me plenty of time to take care of our own needs. It was enough.

Also, never underestimate the power of barter, though you don’t want to do it with just anyone – you want to make sure that you are trading the best of what you have for the best of what they have – not just cleaning out the freezer of what either of you haven’t eaten yet. We had a wonderful neighbor who lived for hunting and fishing and he traveled all over the world for such things, and brought the meat back whenever possible. We often enjoyed fish from Alaska and the Gulf, and such delicacies as moose and elk from his many trips. His family loved my heritage chickens and rabbits and we both had gardens, but didn’t always raise the same things, so that was another avenue for trade.

Another great market is ethnic groups. In Texas, the Hispanics were some of my best customers – especially for sales of live animals since they prefer to butcher their own. And generally speaking, they do NOT care about food safety laws and other regulatory crap. A friend who sells lamb and sheep caters to the Muslim market and even allows them to butcher on his farm. Here in the Arklahoma area, we have a lot of Asians, though many of them are market farmers themselves. So keep the ethnic market in mind when deciding what to sell or barter.

Now that I have moved to another state and we are setting up a new homestead, we are looking forward to our own version of “selling the surplus.” We have so many wonderful things to offer and more to come – pork, lard, goat milk, chevon, cheese, eggs, wine, baked goods, canned goods – along with good produce. And we have no intention of getting mired down in the BS of regulations and fees. We will sell and trade only with a few good friends and only what we are already growing, raising and preparing for ourselves. We are raising food that is meant to be eaten, not sold. Just try and prove that we are doing otherwise….. (big grin).

Salsa -- Allowed under Cottage Law in Arkansas, but not Oklahoma


liz preston said...

Actually we can't even sell salsa under the cottage law in Arkansas!!

Diane said...

Sorry Liz, I'm just now seeing this. I didn't realize that. I looked at a number of sites about cottage laws and thought it was legal in AR. Pretty irksome, isn't it?!

Lisa Sisco said...

I just now downloaded the guidelines from the website for cottage law...I am going to be reading it closely.