By Katie Fisher, government relations intern, National Farmers Union

Yesterday, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research held a hearing examining the opportunities and challenges in direct marketing. It provided first-hand accounts from farmers and ranchers involved in direct marketing ventures, such as local farmers markets, direct to restaurant or grocery store sales, value added sales and community supported agriculture. Six individuals spoke of their successes, as well as challenges, that they have been faced with so far in their endeavor. The group of witnesses ranged from multi-generation farmers, to veterans with no agricultural background, to new and beginning farmers and ranchers. The diversity of their stories and businesses show the vastness of direct marketing ventures available to those involved with agriculture.

Today, 98 percent of the country’s population is completely removed from agriculture. That means that the six individuals on the witness stand early this morning represent a small sample of a small percentage of the population. In the opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Davis said, “With the average individual being at least three generations removed from production agriculture, strengthening ties between producers and consumers is a particularly worthy goal as we attempt to enact policies that maintain and enhance food security.” The six panelists spoke of the pros and cons and called for specific actions to be made by the Subcommittee in increasing support of direct marketing in agriculture in the next farm bill.

One of the most common underlying themes that the six panel members shared was the call to increase education of the consumer. Michael McCloskey, CEO of Select Milk Producers and founder of Fair Oaks Farms, boasts of his farming operation, which hosted 500,000 visitors last year alone. Mr. McCloskey stated, “We believed that by allowing the public to have access to our farms and by communicating our values to them directly from our mouths that we could, at the very least, provide some counter to the misperceptions and mistruths that are rampant and so easily embraced by today’s consumer.” The panelist before him, Andrew Heck, garden educator at Generation Healthy Kids (genHkids) Coalition, spoke of his job and the efforts made to create a generation of healthy kids through education, empowerment, improved nourishment, and increased physical activity. More than a half-dozen early childhood education, physical activity, nutrition-based and community programs have been created and implemented through genHkids and is responsible for over a dozen school gardens, claiming, “that when children plant the seeds, water the plants, and then hand-pick their own fruits and vegetables, they are much more likely to actually eat fresh and nutritious vegetables.”

Josh Eilers, owner of Ranger Cattle in Austin, TX and a veteran, spoke of the challenges he is faced with daily being a small, direct marketing ranch among the larger, more successful names in his industry. The challenge that he highlighted was the partnership made with the Sustainable Food Center and a single beef producer that won’t allow the entrance of another beef producer at the farmers markets within city limits. He stated in his testimony, “This exclusionary practice has been my single greatest challenge in direct marketing – I raise beef in Austin city limits, and yet I am prohibited from selling in Austin farmers markets because they have already allowed in a beef vendor from West Texas. This practice forces me out of Austin, increases my operation costs, undermines capitalism, and takes choice out of the consumer’s hands – Austin buyers would absolutely prefer to buy local but they aren’t given the choice.” Another challenge Mr. Eilers deals with is the lack of USDA inspected processing facilities in Texas. In order for him to harvest his animals for direct sales, he has to use a USDA inspected processing facility and the nearest option is over 100 miles, with little to no control over scheduling and when he will receive his product back.

Another member of the panel, New England farmer (and New England Farmers Union member) Cris Coffin, echoed the challenges that Josh Eilers had. She, too, has to travel to a USDA-inspected processor that is over 100 miles away for her small-scale poultry business, and the costs of investing in her own facility are too high. Ms. Coffin addresses the need for more funding for the Beginning and Rancher Development Farmer Program in the next farm bill due to the country’s critical need for a new generation of farmers. As written in her testimony, she says, “The value of direct marketing to consumer education cannot be overemphasized, especially in a region where most farms are surrounded by non-farming neighbors. In a society where consumers are largely disconnected from agriculture, every direct sale is an opportunity to educate a customer about farming practices and challenges, helping to improve consumer understanding and build support for farming and farmers.”

The other speakers reiterated the challenges aforementioned, as well as presented more unique issues specific to their area. The panel’s most unique business belonged to John McMicken of Green City Growers (GCG) Cooperative in Cleveland, OH. GCG constructed a 3.25-acre hydroponic, food production greenhouse in the heart of urban Cleveland, Ohio. This $16 million hydroponic greenhouse facility, started in 2012, was designed to grow three million heads of multiple lettuce varieties, and three hundred thousand pounds of herbs per year. The challenges GCG faces are displacement of traditional buying habits, long-standing buyer-supplier relationships, market position and pricing, and high energy costs. Mr. McMicken recognizes that his area of agriculture is not the traditional area that is dealt with in farm bills; however, he calls on the Subcommittee to make his challenges heard because it is a topic he believes many other cities can benefit from, as well as an area that can expect much growth.

Subcommittee Chairman Rodney Davis said at the conclusion of the hearing, “Through direct marketing, America’s farmers and ranchers are able to have an open and honest dialogue with consumers about where their food comes from. Several members of the committee, myself included, have learned that building a relationship of trust with consumers is key to achieving transparency. Today, we heard first-hand how these farmers and ranchers are building those relationships. Consumers want factual and easy to understand information about their food; through direct dialogues, farmers are better able to fulfill that desire and build consumer trust and confidence in today’s food systems.”

Direct marketing is a vital tool in agriculture for future generations, benefitting both new and multi-generation farmers alike. To some, like the sixth panelist Kole Tonnemaker from Tonnemaker Hill Farm, direct marketing is what saved his family farm after over a century of being in business. To others, such as Josh Eilers, Cris Coffin, John McMicken, and Michael McCloskey, direct marketing helped these new farmers and ranchers start their business in an already established, large-company-dominant market. Despite the successes of each panelist, there are many challenges that they are faced with that need to be brought to light through the Subcommittee members. Michael McCloskey said it best, “We still promote that a farmer is a farmer is a farmer…We believe that modern farming provides us, the citizens of the United States with an abundance of choice, a luxury of affordability and a security of safety that no other country has. We as an industry need to speak this same message to consumers and to support each other’s practices and products…We believe that all agencies, from our cooperatives to the USDA, should work together with the single intention of ensuring the consumer that all farmers and farming practices are safe and that there should be no divisiveness that would confuse the consumer in an already cluttered world of information.”

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