Washington farmers fight for their fair share of the consumer dollar by putting taste, face–and place–back into food.
Something very interesting is going on in the state of Washington and across the country. Maybe you’ve noticed the steady increase in the number of farmers markets. Or a new diversity in the produce section at the supermarkets. Not just new exotic fruits and vegetables transported by ship from some tropical corporate farm, tasting nothing like they do when consumed in their native countries. But new varieties produced locally, maybe by your neighbor, better tasting and fresher. Or maybe you’ve tasted a raspberry dessert wine–made from Skagit Valley raspberries–with the purest raspberry taste you can imagine. Or maybe you had a great loaf of artisanal bread made from Washington wheat. But wait, you say, isn’t all of Washington’s wheat exported for Asian cookies?
Yes, something’s going on here.
In a sense wine led the way. The phenomenal success of the Washington wine industry has prompted people to admit that maybe our food could be better. Why eat California cauliflower when Washington cauliflower tastes better? Why succumb to produce with all the life and taste shipped out of it?
And just as Washington vintners refuse to produce a generic jug wine, other Washington farmers are realizing maybe the state’s growing conditions and diverse infrastructure are simply too good to devote to indeterminate commodities that just get lost in a homogeneous global distribution system.
So what’s going on? For one thing, says WSU sustainable agriculture specialist David Granatstein, farmers are trying to take back their fair share of the food dollar. In his office in Wenatchee, Granatstein pulls up a chart created by University of Maine agricultural economist Stewart Smith. Smith analyzed the share of the consumer food dollar that went to the American farmer from 1910 to 1990. In 1910, the farmer got 40 percent. By 1990, that share had dropped to less than 10 percent. Today a decent chunk of that dollar is going to the input sector, the seed and fertilizer dealers, and other farm suppliers. But the lion’s share is going to the marketers–the brokers, distributors, and supermarkets.
“Here’s the driver,” says Granatstein, pointing to the big blue area on the chart that represents the marketers’ share of the food dollar. “You can invest all you want in increasing efficiency,” he says, referring to the prevailing economic mindset of industrial agriculture, as well as the main thrust of the agricultural university of the last few decades. “It’s a pittance. There’s nothing there,” he says of the pennies left the farmer under the conventional means of production. “It’s chasing crumbs.”
“Here’s the action.” His finger rests in the middle of the big blue realm of marketing.
Staying in the game
So now that we understand where the money is, what do we do? Americans spend $145 billion a year on food. How much does the American farmer get? Well, figure less than 10 percent. A lot less, actually, for much of our food supply now comes from other countries. And getting any more of that dollar away from the marketers is not going to be easy. So why not market it themselves? Good point. That’s exactly what some of the most diligent are doing. But doing so is not exactly straightforward.
Consider this: Washington is the third-largest raspberry growing region in the world. But when Jeanne Youngquist (’67 Home Econ.) of Mount Vernon goes into a local grocery during raspberry season, the raspberries she finds for sale are not from local farms, but from Canada.
Those Canadian raspberries–or New Zealand apples and lamb, Argentine beef, or Chinese strawberries–are both symbol and symptom of the global food system that confronts the American farmer.
No one is arguing that there’s anything wrong with fresh pineapple year-round. Or being able to buy French cheese at the local grocery. Variety and availability make this a wonderful time for the gourmand. But there is an enormously complex assortment of problems associated with a system that can give you great French cheese on the one hand and, on the other, insipid produce shipped halfway around the world rather than across the county.
Despite the intricacies of the system, however, the upshot is simple. The food you eat is more likely to be grown thousands of miles away than by your neighbor. Chances are, you buy it for less than what your neighbor could grow it for. What suffers, however, is freshness, taste–and your community’s economy.
In fact, the current state of American agriculture has led economist Steven Blank of the University of California to declare “the end of agriculture in the American portfolio” in his recent book of that title. Obviously, Blank’s pronouncement has resulted in mixed reactions.
“It made me so damn mad when I heard him speak,” says Mike Youngquist (’66 Agriculture). “But he’s right in a lot of ways.”
Blank argues that the extreme efficiency of industrial agricultural production, particularly as practiced by other countries, has led to a situation where Americans ought to be putting their financial efforts into more lucrative enterprises than growing food. Of course, Blank tends to disregard such unmeasurable things as taste and community stability.
Besides, most American farmers are a long way from rolling over and playing dead. The most innovative of them, the most dogged and cantankerous, think they’ve figured out some ways to survive, no matter what some ag economist from California says.
Blank follows a fairly conventional line of thought that the only way to compete globally is to become more “efficient.” Although this trend has its roots in the mechanization of agriculture in the first third of the 20th century, it gained its battle cry with Nixon administration secretary of agriculture Earl Butz’s admonition to “get big or get out.” Farmers took him seriously, content to fight the indignities of one of the lowest profit margins of any industry with economy of scale, massive debt, and federal subsidies.
And some of those who got truly big did truly well. Really big operations, nurtured with the political influence, subsidies, and so forth that accompany our free market, just got bigger and bigger, doing better and better. Meanwhile, the little guys–the ones without the buying power and economy of scale of the big guys–started dropping like flies.
So all of this kind of thinking, plus steady industrialization, specialization–and the “G” word, globalization–joined with a curious conviction that Americans deserve to spend a smaller portion of their income on food than anybody else, led Blank to his dismal conclusion.
“No–it’s the other way,” says Washington State University rural sociologist Ray Jussaume. You don’t compete through technological efficiency. Jussaume has long studied Japanese and American agricultural markets and currently is analyzing how food systems in Washington’s Grant, Chelan, Skagit, and King counties are changing.
Jussaume concedes that most American farmers cannot compete directly. Labor and other costs are simply too high.
“So you have to compete indirectly–with quality and variety,” he says.
Quality and variety. What a great idea! World class. On your plate.
Doing it better
“It’s reclaiming taste,” Granatstein says. “And place. Where’d that food come from?”
And face. Who are the people behind it?
“From the consumer side, it’s reclaiming things that were lost as we’ve gone mass market and industrial.”
So consumers reclaim lost virtues and farmers reclaim a chunk of the food dollar. What a deal!
But hold on. We’re not there yet. Unfortunately, there is no shining path toward our ideal conclusion. However, across the state, a number of alumni farmers have discovered their individual paths, if not to prosperity, then at least toward survival.
Shukichi Inaba emigrated from Japan
in 1907 to clear sagebrush and dig the first canals near Harrah. When he lost his land under the Alien Exclusion Act, he switched from the conventional hay and potatoes to vegetables, because that was the only way he could make any money sharecropping. Today, Inaba Produce Farms grows 20 different crops from April to October on 1,200 acres, with a crew of nearly 200 at peak season. Managed by Shukichi’s grandson, Lon Inaba (’79 Ag. Eng.), the farm sells its produce throughout the western U.S. and some onions in Japan. Brother Wayne is the farm’s accountant and salesman, and Norm (’81 Econ.) handles the payroll.
Nobody’s getting rich at Inaba Produce Farms. But its very existence in a cut-throat market is testimony to Inaba’s innovation and persistence. They hang on to some of the marketing dollar by doing their own wholesaling. Wayne is the farm’s salesman. “We’d rather have 100 little guys to sell to than one big guy,” says Lon. “One big guy can control it–especially if you’re trying to get a premium.”
That premium is another part of Inaba’s strategy. “We have our name on that box, and that level of quality is always going to be a little bit better than somebody else’s. We just try to do what the consumer wants.”
Inaba has tried more direct marketing. “We tried farmers markets,” he says. “But they didn’t really fit our operation.”
So they went back to concentrating on moving the highest quality produce. They grow about 20 different crops, including asparagus, onions, sweet corn, peppers, and tomatoes. The key to their high quality is good farming techniques. Although they have about 200 acres in certified organic production, Inaba is reluctant to talk about it. Organic production really isn’t all that different from the way they’ve always farmed, he insists.
We drive past a field in its first year of transition to organic. “Compost works for our program,” says Inaba. “Cover-cropping works into our program. Crop rotation works into our program.
“We just try to do things that work,” he says.
“We don’t do anything fancy. We try not to do anything to get ourselves too much in debt. We don’t change very much. We don’t do something unless we think it’s going to fit long-term.”
Once the Inabas make a decision to move into a new crop, they know they’re going to stick with it. Vegetables might be annuals, says Inaba, but they still require a lot of capital for start-up.
Another thing that has helped the Inabas is the Food Alliance, based in Portland. The Food Alliance came about as a cooperative development of WSU, Oregon State University, and the Kellogg Foundation in 1994. David Granatstein was instrumental in forming the alliance, which uses market forces to effect change. Certification by the Food Alliance means that the farmer has met certain standards in working toward environmental and social responsibility. The certification process considers such varied factors as level of chemical use, tillage practices, and social responsibility, then rewards certified farmers with a label that indicates to consumers the alliance’s approval. Food Alliance approval of Inaba Produce reflects not only the farm’s sustainable agricultural practices, but also its treatment of workers.
Across the Cascades, Mike and Jeanne Youngquist are celebrating the fruition of a Food Alliance certification connection. Food Alliance approval has allowed them a greater market share and brand loyalty for their Cascade Snow brand cauliflower and IQF Raspberries.
Mike and Jean’s Berry Farm was selected in part for their social impact. The Youngquists developed a daycare and pre-school for farm workers’ children, and have worked hard to improve farmworker housing.
Still, they have no illusions that labeling is going to solve American agriculture’s problems. “Everybody wants the cheapest product,” says Mike. Farmers are also subject to the whims of the market and the actions of buyers. Because of a major consolidation shift in purchasing and the related confusion by one of the large grocery chains they supply, the Youngquists lost over $200,000 in sales to that customer last year in cauliflower.
They currently are looking more to the potential for specialty niches. They supply raspberries to a couple of wineries, Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz, California, and Pasek Cellars in Mount Vernon, for dessert wine. Last year, they shipped three semi-truck-loads of raspberries to Santa Cruz. Winemaker Randall Graham has requested that they expand production of a specific WSU-developed raspberry variety, Morrison, to five times the present output in the next three years.
Anne Schwartz (’78 Animal Sciences) long ago set out on a much different path, squeezing her entire production onto 22 acres. Tucked into the forest up the Skagit River, her Blue Heron Farm produces organic raspberries, blueberries, and vegetables. About nine of those acres are in nursery crops, including hardy bamboo.
Organic production has provided a small portion of American farmers with a lucrative niche. But successful organic production requires a high level of agronomic skills and is very labor intensive.
After increasing 25 percent a year for 10 years, organic represents about 3 percent of American food sales, so it’s not an economic blockbuster. Still, the growth and consumer acceptance are impressive, and organic production has provided Schwartz a reasonable livelihood.
However, organic’s very popularity is increasingly putting organic producers, like other small farmers, on the defensive. Corporate producers are moving into the growing market. That’s good for the environment, not so good for a small farmer with production capacity maybe one millionth that of General Mills. Some growers are giving up their certification, focusing more on place or other attributes to market their goods.
The middle is disappearing, says Schwartz, somewhat matter-of-factly. “Though it isn’t going to go without a fight. The smart ones will figure something out. More will figure something out that is more direct, local, and diversified.”
Breaking out of the trap
For wheat farmers in eastern Washington, foreign competition, surplus production, and the resulting perpetually depressed prices take that already paltry share of the food dollar down to a miniscule two cents or less. Ideal growing conditions, high-producing varieties developed by WSU breeders, and federal commodity subsidies have helped wheat growers stay alive in a brutal Asian market. But it’s a helluva way to make a living.
Karl Kupers (’71 Pharmacy) got tired of it. He’s tried a lot of different things since he decided he didn’t like working inside as a pharmacist and returned to Harrington in 1973 to help his dad farm the land he started sharecropping in 1946. For a while, they followed the conventional wheat/fallow rotation that nearly everyone in the dryland wheat region of Washington does. But finally, says Kupers, he got to the point where he had to break out of that trap.
First thing, he gradually shifted his 5,500 acres from a wheat/fallow rotation to direct seeding. Direct seeding means just that. You plant a crop without tilling. The resulting improvement of soil tilth over the years provides a healthier environment for more diverse crops. Kupers’s whole system is certified by the Food Alliance.
The capability of his healthy soil allows him to grow niche crops, sunflowers, safflower, edible soybeans, restoration plants. And now, he really thinks he’s on to something. One day he realized, “We’re not wheat producers, we’re flour producers.”
So rather than shipping his wheat off to Asia along with the other 130 million bushels from eastern Washington, he started milling his own flour and selling to Grand Central Bakery in Portland and, just recently, Bon Apetit Caterers.
None of this is easy. Look over Karl Kupers’s bookshelf in his office, and you find an extraordinarily eclectic mix: Complexity, Weeds of the West, The Corporate Coach. Kupers has to be an expert on everything from soil mi
crobiology to marketing. In Rockport, the demands on Anne Schwartz are no less. She not only handles production, but sales, accounting, and mechanical upkeep. And she has been widely in demand throughout North America as a speaker. The Younquists and Inaba face all these challenges and many others unique to their businesses. Produce and berry markets change daily.
And even if such creativity and innovation could be magically transferred to the marketing disadvantaged, some farmers are going to be left behind.
“The only way we’re going to survive is through value-added,” says Mike Youngquist, “and if our consumers demand it.”
“No, the only way we’re going to survive,” says Jeanne Youngquist, “is if we bring the processing and production industry that we’ve lost to other countries back. We must encourage production agriculture to be innovative and find a way to help the government and consumers to figure out why it’s so important to have a U.S.-based agricultural system.”
Unfortunately, the trend in the “other” Washington is toward more globalization. Corporate farms and their shareholders are happy wherever the conditions are most favorable.
Still, there’s hope.
“You fight imports by locking up contracts,” says WSU ag economist Tom Schotzco. “There are lots of opportunities out there.”
But those opportunities are different. You can’t farm like your dad did and expect to make it in the current economy. And farmers can’t do it all themselves. They need help in meeting those opportunities.
Washington State Agricultural College started helping state farmers match their abilities to opportunity in 1889. Since then, much has changed. But as a land-grant institution, WSU continues to support farmers as much as possible. Units such as Small Farms Program and the Center for Sustaining Agriculture, both with offices in Puyallup, provide support, market research, and advice. Research stations at Vancouver, Puyallup, Mount Vernon, Wenatchee, and Prosser continue to perform the production research and extension support they were formed to provide.
But there are limits.
Twenty thousand farmers in Washington raise the top five crops–tree fruit, wheat, dairy, beef, and potatoes–says outgoing College of Agriculture dean Jim Zuiches. The other 20,000 raise the other hundred or so crops. “We serve the big ones pretty well,” he says. “But it spreads us thin in everything else.”
There is also the reality of funding, or lack thereof.
Although Washington is second only to California in crop diversity and fifth in the nation in production, it ranked 44th (2000) in the nation in research dollars from the state, the Youngquists point out. California, by the way, is number one in both research funding and production.
And there are distractions provided by the funding that does exist. “There’s pressure to do big grants and research,” says Jussaume. “But is that what farmers need?” Much of that research tends to serve corporate interests rather than address specific problems of Washington farmers.
Given the volatile mix of global competition and economic pressures, it’s a brave new world for Washington farmers. However you interpret it, the ultimate result could indeed mean the end of agriculture in America–or it could be a bright new, very different, agrarian era. Meanwhile, this is one of those rare things you can actually do something about. And it’s pleasurable. Next time you go shopping, buy Inaba asparagus, Cascade Snow cauliflower, bread made from Shepherd’s Grain flour or Washington grassfed beef. Or stop by the Twisp Farmers Market and check out Anne Schwartz’s carrots. Eat well, and we all, farmer and consumer alike, will be a lot happier.
This is the first in a series of articles exploring Washington agriculture as part of the state’s economic, cultural, and social fabric and its place in the global market. General themes will include food and community; new varieties, new products, new markets; and wheat and apples–what do you do when everyone else is producing your commodity?