Sustainable Farming – The Farmer Has to Stay in Business

There has been a growing interest in local and sustainable agriculture in recent years. Most of the emphasis on sustainable agriculture has been on sustainable farming methods. But there is another very important part of sustainable agriculture. The farmer has to stay in business or it is not sustainable!

Last month the Pennsylvania dairy farm, Rainbow Acres Farm, announced that it was shutting down. Dan Allgyer and his Rainbow Acres Farm had been delivering raw milk, milk products, eggs, chickens, and other farm products to thousands of customers in the Grassfed On the Hill buying club here in Maryland for the last 6 years.

The following history of Rainbow Acres and the Grassfed on the Hill buying club is from the Grassfed On the Hill website: "The group started to gain momentum in the Spring of 2006, word was spreading about the good products from Rainbow Acres and Liz Reitzig and I had teamed up to run the group. She was passionate about her milk and was born and raised in Maryland and knew many fresh milk enthusiasts. She had previously been part of a cow share program in Maryland but the State shut that program down in 2006. Once Liz joined me, the group grew exponentially. The system we had in place could handle infinite growth provided the community would support more drop locations—which it happily did. By 2007, 200 households participated in the group; by 2009 it grew to 1000 households."

"Also in 2009, we attracted the FDA’s attention. Dan received his first visit by the FDA, state troopers and armed federal marshals in Feb 2010. They didn’t have a warrant so Dan told them to leave. They returned in April 2010 with a warrant. They searched the farm and asked him questions which he refused to answer. The next day he received a warning letter from the FDA to stop transporting raw milk across state lines. We continued to operate as usual. The group continued to grow, providing nutrient dense, fresh milk to those who seek it and those who were willing to join a private buying group to access the food they choose." (Now unavailable)

The Food and Drug Administration convinced a federal judge to impose a permanent injunction on Dan Allgyer prohibiting him from selling raw milk to customers across state lines in Maryland. Judge Lawrence Stengel said that if Allgyer is found to violate the law again, he will have to pay the FDA’s costs for investigating and prosecuting him. Rainbow Acres and the Grassfed on the Hill buying club decided to close down.

Rainbow Acres was a "sustainable" farm. It was using sustainable pasture based farming methods. It had a very successful marketing and sales model. But it went out of business in only six years. It ceased to be a sustainable farm. It failed because it was doing something that was illegal. It was illegally delivering raw milk across state lines into Maryland.

The role of the consumer in the failure of a sustainable farm
A lot of focus has been put on the role of the government in shutting down Rainbow Acres and preventing people from receiving raw milk who were depending on it for health and nutritional needs. But the consumer also played a role in the failure of a sustainable farm. They asked the farmer to do something illegal for the convenience of the consumer. It was not illegal for Maryland residents to travel to Pennsylvania where raw milk can legally be sold, purchase raw milk and transport it back to Maryland. It was not illegal for small groups of families to take turns going to Pennsylvania to purchase raw milk and bring it back. Raw milk can be purchased in large quantities at a time and frozen, reducing the number of trips to Pennsylvania. But it is illegal for the farmer to deliver the raw milk across state lines to the families in Maryland. We too wish that raw milk could legally be purchased here in Maryland… someday it will.

It was the part that was illegal that was not sustainable and caused the farm to close. When a farmer does something that is illegal, it hurts not only himself but also other farmers as well. In the court case the judge set a precedent ruling that could in the future hinder other Pennsylvania farmers from selling raw milk to Maryland customers who then transport it back to Maryland. The Complete Patient website reports "He suggested in a footnote that individuals who traveled to Allgyer’s farm to pick up their milk and bring it back to Maryland would be in violation of federal law. He said that "the purchase of raw milk by one who traveled between states to obtain it, or traveled between states before consuming it or sharing it with friends or family member, implicates ‘commerce between any State…"

In recent years there have been a number of farms that have illegally transported pasture raised chickens across state lines into Maryland that were processed in other states under federal exemption. The federal exemption for on-farm processed poultry requires the poultry to be sold in the state where it is processed. The consumer can take it across state lines, but not the farmer. The federal exemption for on-farm poultry processing is a privilege that pasture based farms in America are fortunate to have. I hope that a few, who are not content to abide by the law, don’t mess up everything for the rest of us and cause the federal exemption to be revoked.

Not all sales are profitable sales

Another thing that the consumer needs to be aware of in attempting to support sustainable agriculture is that not all sales are profitable sales even if the dollar figure looks high. People will ask farmers to do things for them, thinking that they are supporting the farmer, but it is not a profitable sale. For example, it is not profitable for the farmer to drive a half hour to deliver $50 worth of products. Nor is not profitable to raise 10 chickens of a special breed for just one customer; chickens that take twice as long to grow, and have to be butchered separately. A special pen has to be built and a lot of extra labor goes into caring for those few chickens. It takes about as long to feed 10 chickens as it does 300.

Each year there are a number of new farmers markets that are opened to promote local agriculture. We are often asked to join a new farmers market. In my opinion, sales at most farmers markets are not profitable sales unless it is a large farmers market that attracts a lot of people. Farmers go to farmers markets because they are asked to sell there, they need to sell more products and people are not willing to come to their farm. I was surprised when I found out that the average sales at a farmers market was only $500 a week. It takes two people an hour or two to get the products ready and loaded to go to the market. Another half hour or hour to get to the market. Two people spend three or four hours at the farmers market, and then there is the travel home and unloading.  It can easily take 14-16 man hours to sell $500 worth of products. That may sound like easy money until you count in all the labor and expenses that went into growing the products, the equipment, land costs, utilities, packaging, and the 25% or so of unsold produce that was carried home and had to be thrown away. The poor farmer might only be making $5.00 an hour. That is why most farms today have off-farm incomes. One of the spouses works at an off-farm job, or they have retirement income or other investment income. If you go to a farmers market, support the farmers by buying their products. They really do need you to buy from them.

A sustainable farm has to get big enough to support a full time income for each of those working on the farm. Trying to make a living off of 200 hens or a half acre vegetable patch is like a doctor trying to make a living by only seeing two or three patients a day. We have seen a number of small pasture based farms start up and then close down because it was not profitable at the small scale that they were trying operate at. The homesteading mentality of having a few chickens, some cattle, a few pigs, goats, and a vegetable plot is not a profitable farming model to support a full time income. If a farm is too diverse it is hard for the farm to be successful. It would be like a medical doctor without any employees who saw several patients a day. He was also a certified public accountant and did a little accounting work for people. He ran a small roadside farm stand once a week where he personally sold produce that he bought from area farmers. He would mow a few lawns for people in town. Lastly, he had 50 laying hens to produce eggs to sell at his farm stand. This scenario sounds ridiculous but it is what many small "sustainable" farms are trying to do. They are trying to do too many things and cannot be successful at any of them like they should.

We need small family farms, like Rainbow Acres, to stay in business. We talk about "sustainable" agriculture, which implies that conventional agriculture is not sustainable. Do we really believe conventional agriculture is not sustainable? If you believe that conventional agriculture is not sustainable, are you preparing for the day that it is not able to supply enough food? The news has not been reporting much about how unsustainable conventional agriculture really is. As I am seeing some of what is happening in big agriculture and the unsustainable things that are going on, I am concerned that one day some of the big players will be gone and there will be a shortage of food. A number of sectors of conventional agriculture are losing money right now. For example, the poultry industry is losing hundreds of millions of dollars each quarter. Feed prices are high, energy costs are high, there is an oversupply of chicken, and they can’t raise prices because other countries are not willing to pay the price. Here at our small farm, we have received at least 10 emails and phone calls from other countries looking for container loads of chicken parts. One lady that called was desperately looking for a shipping container of chicken wings. She asked Cathy if there was anyone that she could recommend. Cathy suggested Perdue. The lady told her that she had already contacted them and they were too expensive.  Several years ago, one of the largest poultry companies, Pilgrim’s Pride, filed for bankruptcy. A Brazilian company bought them out. Recently they have been losing over $100,000,000 per quarter. The beef industry is on a similar unsustainable course. 

We need more small sustainable farms that produce high quality nutrient dense food. A truly sustainable farm is one that uses sustainable agricultural practices, is using legal farming and marketing methods, is financially profitable enough to stay in business long term and is able to pass on a profitable farming operation to the next generation. That is sustainable agriculture.

Links to articles about Rainbow Acres Farm: