It Takes A Village

By Carrie Chandler, Spring 2016

Intrinsically tied to the land, seasons, whims of nature, and volatility of the market, farmers are keenly aware of how the local community impacts their livelihoods and wellbeing. “The community in which we are surrounded is what we rely on the most,” says Brooke Brown of Brown Dirt Farm in Whitwell, TN. She goes on to say that “as a farmer, you see the symbiotic relationship first hand.” If the community is strong and prosperous, so too will be the business of farmers.

A study published by the non-profit American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA) found that, “on average, 48 percent of each purchase at local independent businesses was recirculated locally, compared to less than 14 percent of purchases at chain stores.” AMIBA calls the result the multiplier effect – multiplying the local economy one purchase at a time. For example, when a shopper spends $20 on groceries at the  farmers market, rather than at a chain grocery store, $9.60 remains in circulation locally, as opposed to merely $2.80. Over time, that $9.60 is compounded to create even more local jobs as well as a more stable economy.

Oftentimes, it is more feasible for farmers to purchase the goods and services they need from local, family-owned companies. Other than just being their closest option, many of these companies are able to charge farmers a close-to-wholesale price for necessary supplies, allowing the farmer to avoid paying a premium on items they might be able to find elsewhere.  Susan Millican, owner of Barnyard Feed and Seed in Flintstone, GA, notes that “the small farmer is the only part of our economy to have to pay retail to bring a product to the public market. It is our goal to help the farmer by [charging] a small retail markup on seeds and feed.”

Farmers also turn to local businesses for services they are unable to manage on their own. Consider the work required to transform a grass-fed cow into a conveniently packaged product that can be sold at market.  Out of sight and mind for most consumers, this processing provides a livelihood for local people. H &P Meats, located in South Pittsburg, TN, has been providing this service for many local farmers since 2000. Not only do they harvest and butcher animals, ranging from cows and pigs to goats and buffalos, they additionally package and label each cut with the farm’s information required to sell the product. For most farmers, this task would be impossible without the infrastructure, equipment, knowledge and skillfulness of professional processors. Pete Westmoreland, owner of H&P, recognizes this reality. “We feel as if we have a wonderful relationship with all of our customers” he says. “We try to make each one feel, no matter if they bring in one beef a year or 200, as if they are important, and they are to us.  They are our livelihood, and we play a role in their livelihood also.”

Farmers also depend on the interwoven relationship with the farmers markets which they attend. “We rely on the markets…to advertise and bring people to the market to purchase our products,” says Stephanie Dikert of Colyco Farms in Chickamauga, GA. Having a reliable market manager to handle promotion means that the farmer has more time to spend more on the farm. On the flip side, farmers provide a service to the farmers market by showing up each week. “Each vendor’s livelihood is important to the market as a whole,” says Teresa Garland, manager of the Signal Mountain Farmers Market. According to Garland, the benefit of a consistent place for folks to shop direct from farmers each week “fosters social gathering and community building.”  Customers appreciate having a variety of options from which to choose as well as the connections they make with the vendors, so when farmers dependably attend each week, the customers will be more likely to patronize the market as well. That leads to a more successful market, happier customers, and better business for farmers. In this case, a win for everyone.

And markets illustrate just one of the ways in which farmers collaborate with one another.  

When crops fall short but the order still has to be fulfilled, when there is an overabundance of potatoes in the garden but no tomatoes, or even when sickness has made gathering the harvest and tending market booths impossible, farmers will rely on each other.

“As a lone farmer it would be difficult to build up the customer support that I need to operate,” says Joshua Nelsen of The Healthy Kitchen farm in Dunlap, TN. “When multiple farms cooperate together the synergy created allows more people to be aware of what we are doing and compensates for any lack of produce my individual farm occasionally goes through.”

With feed stores, processors, farmers markets and even fellow farmers all playing a role in the journey of food from farm to table, the classic image of a solitary farmer in the field, weeding, or in the pasture, repairing a fence line, no longer seems all that lonely. However, it is the regular support of the consumer that enables this scene and the network behind it to function. When you purchase food locally, your support directly impacts the lives of neighboring farmers, real people who, like you, have bills to pay and mouths to feed. Furthermore, when you choose to spend your food budget with a local farmer, you’re also investing in the myriad of supporting roles connected to the farmer. These relationships, built upon cooperation and reciprocity, often unseen by the consumer, enable local farmers to succeed. “These partnerships are crucial to the future of small farming,” notes Joshua Nelsen. “The resulting sense of community truly is a beautiful thing.” 

Brooke Brown, Brown Dirt Farm
Whitwell, TN

Brooke has developed a non-traditional partnership with local businesses in the community, incorporated in the very dirt of her farm. “It all starts with our compost,” she notes. “We rely on local breweries and neighboring farms for supplies that make that compost. The compost is then spread directly onto our fields. Without these businesses allowing us to recycle their materials, we would not have the ability to make our compost in bulk or to make enough to supply our nine-acre farm.” 

Letty Smith, Circle S Farm
Rising Fawn, GA

 “It’s important to work with businesses and organizations that can make your job easier.  If someone gives you good advice on what, how, or why something will work, then it helps you be successful.” 

Stephanie Dikert, CoLyCo Farm
Chickamauga, GA

“For our product, we only use people who use sustainable and organic practices. So the seed company has to provide us with organic seed. The greenhouse we chose uses organic and sustainable methods to start our plants.”

Chris Smith, Sow True seed company
Asheville, NC

Although Chattanooga does not have a seed-producing company locally many local farmers turn to Sow True out of Asheville, North Carolina as the closest regional option. Along with providing seed, Sow True also works alongside farmers to grow seed for resale. “By contracting with a large pool of farmers we are creating a resilient network of seed growers supporting the smaller farms,” Smith says. “This increases their own sustainability, but also offers an additional income stream to the farmers.”