USDA numbers show the nation continues to lose farms. As of last year the total number stood at 2.17 million farms in operation, 20-thousand fewer than seven years ago. Most of the decline occurred among farms with annual agricultural sales of less than $10,000.
But not all small farms carry a diminutive bottom line. A growing number of small farms are prospering by growing a diversity of crops and more importantly identifying and filling myriad market niches.
Some call these operators "New Farmers" not so much because of what they grow, but rather the way they think. John Nichols has this profile of a movement that is forging a symbiotic relationship between producer and consumer.
All over America, a robust consumer trend is in motion... one that is reuniting farmers and their neighbors. The most visible evidence of the movement is the growth in the nation's farmers markets. Since 1994, the number has grown from 1,755 to nearly 3,000. The markets generate sales in excess of a billion dollars.
Tom and Mary Cory of Elkhart, Iowa use the Des Moines Farmers Market to introduce customers to their lamb. Despite the additional labor of raising the flock naturally without growth hormones or antibiotics, Mary claims the benefit of direct marketing can be found in their bottom line.
Mary Cory: "We're not being paid what it's worth I guess in our minds but we are seeing with the enormous amount labor that we are putting from the production side that the marketing side is paying off in increased volume of sales."
Cory claims the interaction with consumers is invaluable in determining market trends.
Another venture, known as "Field to Family," touches consumers on multiple levels. It's community supported agriculture division called, Magic Beanstalk, supplies fresh produce to hundreds of purchasing families.
Robert Karp: Basically, Field of Family is an effort to strengthen the local food system and we're looking at how many people are out there growing food for this community here. How can we have more people growing food for the community? And so, we do a lot of different projects and try to address those kinds of things.
Founded by the Practical Farmers of Iowa, Field to Family also acts as a broker for producers growing a host of products.
Farmers communicate via electronic mail, detailing their ability to fill custom orders for goods that, in many cases, were harvested within the previous 24 hours.
Last year, Field to Family served its "All-Iowa" meals to more than 5,000 people.
Gary Huber: When we surveyed our clients for the meals that we did last year, we asked them the reasons that they were interested in having local foods at these meals, the number one reason was to support local farmers.
Joe Lynch is one of the farmers participating in the program.
His three-acre operation known as "Onion Creek Farm" yields an abundance of produce, and Lynch captures more of the retail dollar by marketing a major portion of his crops through "Field To Family."
In addition to keeping food dollars circulating within the local economy, Lynch claims there are plenty of other reasons why farmers should embrace local food systems.
Joe Lynch: "Maybe the most important reason I think of is the quality of life in rural Iowa. We hear a lot of the folding up of small towns and the fact that people can't make a living there... there's no reason why you can't... There's no fundamental reason whey we can't learn to make a living on a hundred acres of the best farmland in the world. I think we're growing the wrong thing.
Larry Cleverley runs a small-scale operation near Mingo, Iowa. Born and raised on a diversified family farm, he left central Iowa for a sales career in Chicago and New York. After a 23-year hiatus, Cleverley returned to the family farm in 1996. But this time he passed on corn and soybeans to produce five acres worth of organic vegetables.
Larry Cleverley: I do about 15,000 heads of garlic. I think I'm going to approach 3 1/2 – 4 tons of salad lettuces and salad greens. I'll do probably half a ton of basil. I'll probably do close to 4 tons of potatoes. I'll do some tomatoes, some beans, some carrots, some beets, some fennel, uh, whatever I think people want to eat.
By producing goods and delivering them directly to the consumer, Cleverley gives his customers a chance to put a face with their food.
Dr. John Ikerd: "I call these people kind of the New American Farmers, I think that's where the future of farming is, is in these things."
Dr. John Ikerd is a rural economist, with more than 40 years experience examining trends in farm country.
He claims the industrial agricultural model, with its standardization and mass distribution systems, is insensitive to the wide-ranging needs of America's 250 million consumers. And that's creating "Fields of Opportunity" for producers like Cleverley.
Dr. John Ikerd: "So what these new American Farmers are doing, is they're recognizing that this mass production, mass distribution system isn't really giving the people what they really want, what they really value. And so, what these people are doing, is filling in those "niche markets". And as a consequence of giving people what they really want, they're able to charge a higher price for it."
Ikerd claims these "new" farmers generally share three common characteristics: they are ecologically sound, socially responsible, and economically viable.
For Cleverley, that means farming sustainably, and building relationships with his customers.
The results are undeniable: the five-acre operation is profitable at a time when many farms a hundred times its size are struggling to survive.
Larry Cleverley: It's no different than any other business. You know, if it's not sustainable from a financial viewpoint, what's the use. But, marketing is what I know best and I look at myself, very much, as a salesman that is learning how to farm and my marketing skills are say, here, and my farming skills are here, through these first four years, they've started to even out a little bit but I still have a lot to learn from the farming standpoint.
With just five acres in production, Cleverley's operation is the antithesis of the conventional Midwestern farm.
Though he humbly assesses his agronomic prowess, it's clear that Cleverley is comfortable with his marketing strategy.
And, while critics of so-called, "niche" marketing doubt the practice would be suitable for many growers, Ikerd fervently disagrees.
John Ikerd: "All consumer markets are niche markets. People don't all want the same stuff. Now, if you want an indication of that, we spend more money on packaging and advertising food than we pay the farmer to produce it. Why do we do that? Because we have to dress it up and advertise it to get the consumer, to all buy the same thing. And I've heard this over and over again from the university people and we'll saturate those little niches and they'll all be gone", that's an excuse, that's not a reason. Because all the individual farmer needs, is his little niche, or her little niche. This is what we want. We want more people in agriculture, not fewer people in agriculture."