Written by Kait Beach, current student in the Food Law and Policy Clinic.
Tilth. I had trouble even wrapping my tongue around the word at first, but the meaning was clear enough to see. We travelled to Durham, North Carolina with the Food Law and Policy Clinic, then to the Duke Campus Farm. Handling two clods of dirt freshly dug from the ground, one felt of a heavy clay-like mud and one of a crumbling, root-filled, rich-looking cake. For someone like myself who has only ever visited farms as a neighbor or tourist, there was a steep learning curve with plenty to ask about—whether it was tilth, cover crops, starting a CSA program, or rigging an irrigation system.
Beyond a lesson in the basics of farming, it was a lesson in how beginning farmers must feel. Working with the Clinic on Farm Bill issues and focusing on market access (basically, how a farmer can find and reliably get buyers), I was quickly finding out just how much information there is to master. The learning curve for a new or expanding farmer is monumental. Our short North Carolina travels certainly showed that and revealed some of the many unexpected hurdles for farms aiming to turn a profit. There are the inputs—like seeds, water, and fertilizer—and the equipment, but there is so much more to a successful production operation. Each farmer or farm operation not only has to learn a trade, they must also learn how to run a small business.
Our visits around the Durham area hit on many aspects of the small business savvy that a farmer must navigate. We discussed product aggregation and distribution with ECO (Eastern Carolina Organics). This producer-owned venture lets buyers reach multiple organic farmers and have products distributed from one place. We got to see and hear about the reality of commercial walk-in coolers, delivery equipment, loading dock space, and the sales needs of the collective’s farmer-owners. We also talked with Julius, an advocate and farmer himself who works with other farmers to meet their needs and get their products to buyers.
With other stops, we met farm experts to learn about getting farm loans and accessing education and business-building resources, crucial to setting up shop in the first place. Then a local agricultural lawyer walked us through some of the many legal needs involved in operating a farm. Before a single sale can happen, all of the ducks (or cabbages, as the case may be) have to be in a row.
Seeing real-life operations and talking about economic reality was an eye-opener. In addition to the Duke Campus Farm, we also visited a working goat dairy and herd about making value-added products, getting certification and meeting regulatory requirements. But we also learned that even with well-established product lines and loyal customers, economic reality meant the farm operation was much safer with a separate business to support it.
In translating those discussions to our work for the Clinic, access has indeed been a key concern, but access in even a more basic sense. Where does information come from? How is access to the information controlled? What are the demands of, say, accessing a government grant program—finding out about and actually applying for it? Perhaps most importantly, how can interested parties access each others’ expertise? Our visits made me look much more deeply not only at how to expand market access resources, but how to expand the accessibility of those resources.
All in all, it was a whirlwind introduction to many (though certainly not nearly all!) of the steps to selling grown or raised products. It’s easy to take for granted the goods that stock our supermarket shelves and farmers’ markets, but it is quite another thing to get goods there for customers to buy in the first place.