Transcript for Our Farms, Our Future Podcast episode 022 - Bridging the Rural-Urban Divide featuring Becca Jablonski and Charlie Jackson

Becca Jablonski: How do we actually take more of these important components that are part of what makes a resilient, rural place and measure them? Collect the kind of data we need to actually measure them. We know that  there’s an interaction that takes place at the market. These are generally speaking rural farmers and ranchers that are actually coming into an urban place. There’s an interaction that takes place. There’s different knowledge that’s exchanged at that market. And how does that actually impact what goes back into a rural community? what supports rural economic development?

Mallory Daily: This is Our Farms, Our Future, a podcast by SARE - the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. This time on the show: bridging the rural-urban divide through diverse market channels within local food systems. You just heard Becca Jablonski, Assistant Professor and Food Systems Extension Economist at Colorado State University. She’ll be speaking with Charlie Jackson, Executive Director of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, or ASAP, in North Carolina.

Charlie Jackson: It’s not just about the dollars I can measure that are being transferred through that market exchange. It’s the social/cultural defining and creation that’s occurring there that spreads out to all other aspects of the food system. 

Mallory Daily: It’s obvious that making a living as a farmer or rancher would depend on identifying reliable markets to sell your product. But, as Charlie says, it’s not just about the cash flow. The social and intellectual capital exchanged in farmer-to-consumer interactions contributes to a more resilient and innovative supply chain, which, in turn, strengthens the local communities that grow and process our food.

Becca Jablonski: So, there’s actually a lot of resources available right now I think to support rural infrastructure, and a lot of underutilized resources. I mean USDA rural development has so many great programs that we don’t take advantage of and partially because the application process is difficult. But I think that part of it is that some of these opportunities lie around having abetter understanding of what changing consumer demand is. We know that even the lowest income consumers are making purchasing decisions for lots of reasons in addition to price. So, of course price is a component but they’re making it for other reasons. And so how do we connect farmers and ranchers and supply chain participants that are in rural places with some of these ideas. Right? So that they can actually stay ahead of the curve of what these opportunities are. And then we actually figure out what are those investments needed to actually make that supply chain work. 

And so we can see lots of examples of that and food hubs are one example, especially once USDA put a microscope on the lack of small-scale meat processing facilities a few years back when the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative really put a lot of emphasis on that. We’ve seen,I think, a lot of growth in the places where I work, in the number of USDA inspected meat processing facilities. I think that’s one articulation of those opportunities. 

But we’ve been thinking in Colorado about how do we figure out that middle player who can connect those opportunities in the mostly urban consumer space to really benefit the rural communities and farmers and ranchers. So again I can see specific opportunities where that’s occurred and we have documented some of that, done economic impact statements on farm-to-school initiatives or of food hubs, as I was mentioning earlier. But there’s so many other opportunities out there. And just one other thing I’ll mention about this, in Colorado we just did this blueprint of Colorado agriculture. It was in conjunction with Colorado State University, a colleague Dawn Thilmany, another colleague Greg Graff and I led this. And the Governor’s food systems advisory council (CoVSAC)  and some other key partners and through this blueprint we held town hall listening sessions. So we tried to do about a 15 minute discussion at the beginning framing some opportunities we saw in terms of data and then we actually asked communities to talk about what they saw as opportunities. And one of the moments that really stands out to me from this, you know, in Eastern part of Colorado, it’s a lot of drylands agriculture. We’re actually the largest millet producer in the US. And of course millet has historically been bird seed. But with growing interest in gluten-free foods, there’s a real market opportunity there that I don’t think producers are aware enough of, and i’m not sure that we have the processing capacity in place to actually serve that market. 

So in this town hall meeting we held in Alamosa, CO. We actually had a millet grower there who is part of this new millet group that was forming with producers. And we also brought down someone who was involved with a Natural Grocers - which used to be Vitamin College - so a regional retail chain. And they said we would love to feature Colorado millet. And we really didn’t know the extent to which we could grow millet in this state. And so I think that’s a really good example of that there are opportunities there. There’s investment that’s needed. We know there are funders who can make that investment through rural development and other places. We just need to do a better job in connecting those dots and making sure those investments are really serving producers. 

Charlie Jackson: Yeah, that has been a challenge in our community is as there’s been more interest in connecting with the farmers and where food comes from is what infrastructure is needed. One of the challenges I’ve seen is that sometimes the ideas get out ahead of the realities. And we’ve had a couple of instances where funders and other investors have built infrastructure that really wasn’t sustainable and that’s left a lot of farmers vulnerable. I wonder how you account for that when you’re looking at making those connections? I’m all about those connections, too, and feel like they happen organically all the time. I’ll just say, I’m astounded by the innovation and the entrepreneurship of farmers and people that are very values driven but very grounded in a reality of making a living in what they are doing. And that may be kind of the central tension in what I do in my work in helping develop local food systems is how do you balance that desire to make this change happen, the values that we’re trying to achieve—balance those against the tensions of the reality of making a living in the market economy that we live in. 

Becca Jablonski: I think that’s a really good point and one of the things I spend a lot of my time thinking about is risk management and so much of the investments that we think about as economic development people, for example, are in terms of bricks and mortar, but there are so many opportunities to better utilize underutilized assets. So thinking about, instead of building a food hub, how do we better work with an existing distributor to add on a local arm. Or how do we actually work with the small-scale meat processing facility that’s custom-exempt and work with them so they can be UDSA  inspected? Or add on new value-added equipment sous-vide, right? So that we’re creating new value-added opportunities for our producers. work with those few remaining independent dairy processors to actually co-brand or co-pack a line. I think there are a lot of those opportunities, it just takes people who are thinking a little more innovatively about how to do it. And one of the challenges is that traditionally economic development folks or people who are thinking about infrastructure are not necessarily connected to agriculture. So I think there’s an opportunity there to educate people in what some of those opportunities are through the food system. Because there are certainly opportunities. And as you were mentioning earlier, if we think about food service and sort of the whole supply chain, this is one of the largest employers in our country. I think there are are some opportunities there. I would love to see us really start thinking about what are the assets that we have in our communities that we can better leverage to support people up and down the supply chain. 

Charlie Jackson: Yeah. I think that’s right. And it’s also been interesting to think about the economics of all of this and how we make this something that's self-sustaining in the economic reality, but we’re also pushing the economic reality, we’re changing that at the same time that we’re accommodating ourselves to that. And I think that’s a really neat place to be. I’m also interested in how you quantify and measure the intangible - the things that aren’t quite so measurable: The community benefits, the quality of life, the wellbeing that comes from localizing food systems. I wonder what you’ve done in that area? I know you’ve done some work around those social values and how you pull those into the different equations when you’re trying to assess the impact of these kind of ventures. 

Becca Jablonski: Absolutely. Well I will go first and share some of what we’ve done. But then I really want to hear what you’ve done in this area, too. So I work with a group called RUPRI - which is the Rural Policy Research Institute. And RUPRI has really helped to lead an area that they call rural wealth creation. And so it’s thinking about, and they’re  specifically focused on rural communities, but this same kind of framework can be applied really anywhere. And the idea is that these purely financial measures, thinking about economic growth and job creation are not the only pieces that are going to lead to thinking about more resilient rural communities and economies. This isn’t a fringe idea. The UN has written about this, the World Bank. We have Kenneth Arrow, a Nobel Prize Laureate has written about this. That we need to do a better job in the United States, we can start at home, about—How do we actually take more of these important components that are part of what makes a resilient, rural place and measure them? Collect the kind of data we need and actually measure them. So most of tis rural wealth creation framework is around these different capitals and these capitals can be human capital or social capital. And then some of them are a little bit more nebulous and people define them differently. But we took this concept for a project that was funded by the UDSA National Institute of Food and Agriculture through a grant with Todd Schmitt of the P.I. who is out of Cornell. And we’ve been looking at what the rural wealth impacts are of green markets. And this is just a case study. Green Markets is the largest network of farmers markets in the country. In fact, perhaps even the world they are in all five burrows in NYC. There’s over 50 of these markets. They work with over 200 vendors in a six state region. And I apologize to Green Markets if I’m butchering any of their numbers, but anyway. It’s a pretty impressive group. And so what we tried to really study is, We know that there’s an interaction that takes place at the market. These are generally speaking rural farmers and ranchers or fisheries that are actually coming into an urban place. There’s an interaction that takes place. There’s different knowledge that’s exchanged at that market. And how does that actually impact what goes back into a rural community? What supports rural economic development? And so some of the things we’ve measured are looking at ideas for new products. And we’ve found that one-third of consumers actually report talking to these vendors about new product ideas. And you might think, oh, well, a third of consumers, that’s not that many. But if you look at the Union Square farmers market on a Saturday in October, there’s about 400,000 people who walk through there a day. So there’s a lot of idea sharing that happens. And then we actually talk to the producers about how many of you are actually doing something with these ideas? Or you’re communicating these ideas to other farmer and ranchers and processors in your area? And we did find that most of them are. And so you can see that this is the exchange of intellectual capital that’s happening. We just finished the first period of actual net out migration in rural places. This sort of brain drain that’s happening. This might be an opportunity to get new ideas and therefore new jobs, new businesses started in some of these rural places. So we’re working to actually capture that and then integrate it actually into our economic models so that we’re accounting for this. And the last piece I’ll just say about this is: I think as a research community there has been a lot of work in terms of ecosystem services and thinking about some of those concepts how we integrate more of the natural capital but there’s but far less work done on some of the other really important capital: built capital infrastructure, we know broad band is really important, but how important is it? How much actually does change property values, for example, if you have access to broad band versus if you don’t? And so thinking more about how do we capture these pieces that we know are important, and now that we actually have evidence that there is an accumulation of some of these capital assets as a result of these local food markets. So, how about in your space Charlie? 

Charlie Jackson: When we started working developing local food systems in our region, you know, we didn’t really know what we were doing. We were trying to figure out different ways that farmers could think about what they grew and who they could sell it too. And one of the things that I think we’ve been good at is being good observers. We’ve been fortunate to be able to do research, and so drill down a little bit. And one of the things I’ve come around to in the last few years, is just the social and cultural is what it’s all about. And all the others flow from that. And one of the research projects that we did in this last couple of years was looking at , in the farmers market, looking at some of these interactions that occur between farmers and the people that shop at the market. And there’s been a lot interesting research coming out lately about how farmers market shoppers are purchasing more fruits and vegetables . They’re more aware of healthy eating. And so there’s a different kind of awareness, there’s a different kind of conversation that’s occurring there. And we wanted to see how those conversations were influencing growing practices of farmers. And what we found is that these conversations are occurring at market, the active localizing of food is influencing the way farmers grow food, and the farmers as they bring food to market and are in conversion with the people that shop there are influencing the kinds of foods that the customers want to eat. And that they’re then taking those experiences out to other places that they shop, and then they go out and they seek out that farmer because they recognize their name at a restaurant or a grocery store. So it’s changing these patterns in communities. It’s changing the conversation about what food is. I think it’s hard to not see how disconnected we’ve come from food and where is comes from and what it means to our health and to our economy and the landscape here in this country. And across the world. You can see it in the increase in diet-related disease and the lower quality of life and the amount of money we’re spending on diet-related disease through our health care system. That the importance of this social-cultural definition of what food means and what is means to us individually and in our communities is occurring in those spaces and I think that’s become a way that I think of the important of creating market opportunities for farmers. It’s not just about the dollars I can measure that are being transferred through that market exchange. It’s that social/cultural defining and creation that’s occurring there that spreads out to all other aspects of the food system. I think that’s really exciting to see and it’s exciting to see more research happening there as well so that we can begin to understand that a little bit better and we can you know break out of our input/output modeling and think about how this more broadly affects our community. The other part I’ll say about this comes back to my marveling the innovation and entrepreneurship of farmers and other who are doing food system work is that if you give them the space and you give them the support, I could never imagine the things they’re doing, the things they’re bringing to market, the way they’re extending seasons, the partnerships and collaborations that are made are not coming from a somebody observing a system and saying this is the change that needs to be occurring. It’s that this creation of these opportunities is kind of unleashing this innovation. I think that’s really exciting, and that's what developing local food systems is all about - is just kind of unleashing this creativity and potential in our communities. 

Becca Jablonski: That makes me think of a few things. One is that I certainly agree. We do this public attitudes survey for Coloradans, it's a representative sample of Coloradans. It’s happened every five years since 1996. And we just did the most recent iteration of it. And if you look at the changing demographics, right? The people who grew up on a farm, or have a direct connection to the farm. It’s declining with each survey. There is this connection that becomes more remote. And as part of that green market work, we asked consumers what they’re talking about to producers. And this is how we found out about ideas for new products. But we also asked them if they’re talking about hats happening on the farm or ag and food policy or what’s happening in rural communities. What’s interesting to me, almost none of them are talking about what’s happening in rural communities. And that actually thinking about this renewed interest in food and where your food comes from provides an opportunity to bridge that urban-rural gap, in a way that the term rural just doesn’t resonate in the same way. But even if they’re talking about farm issues, they then may be talking about things like what's happening o the school board and if those issues are similar or different. There are probably some areas of similarity and some areas of difference but of course that’s what our farmers and ranchers are worried about. That they on’t have enough people in their schools. And we can think about local food as transmitting a number of, or an opportunity to bridge this growing divide within our country. 

And in terms of what you were saying about innovation, I completely agree with that. And the work we’ve been doing at CSU with a colleague Dawn Thilmany, who I mentioned earlier, and Allie Bauman who have been looking at what variable costs are and different kind of financial ratios for farmers and ranchers that are selling through these local food markets. And we see that they are spending a much larger share of their total variable costs on labor. And that actually continues to increase as they get larger in scale. And we think that part of it is that when you’re an innovator and you’re on those additional supply chain functions, doing more of your marketing or processing or distribution, and you need to stay at the top of your game and those are difficult skills and because of that people have to get paid a decent amount their wage rates are starting to go up. And we actually see that there are no significant differences for farmers and ranchers selling through these local food markets through urban and rural places. And we think it’s because those innovators are such highly-skilled people who get those higher incomes and higher wage rates. 

Charlie Jackson: Well thats great if that can happen. We touched on this issue of people working in the food system being some of the lowest paid and the least likely to have benefits. It’s part of that conversation that I think can occur when you have a closer connection to the people that are producing the food and the people that are eating it. They can broaden that understanding of the impacts of all these decisions that we’re making. 

Becca Jablonski: One of the things I was hoping that we could talk about, especially because you’ve worked more in a community for a long period of time that I have, is really thinking about what do we know about how farm and ranch performance varies based on these different kinds of markets. Because I think often what happens is we talk about local food markets and people think local food markets are synonymous with farmers markets. But we know that that’s not that case at all. Or with national data, we can divide it into direct-to-consumer markets, so CSAs, or road-side stands, or freezer beef, farmers markets. Or we can think about these intermediated channels: farm-to-school, or sales to restaurants or retailers. But we don’t often think about the variability of performance. And I think in our area, and I’m sure in yours, that one of the things that we’ve been trying to support our producers in thinking about is market channel selection. And really thinking about what the best market is for their operation so they’ll be around in five or ten years. So maybe you can talk a little bit about what you’ve seen in terms of best practices around market channel performance and selection?

Charlie Jackson: Diversification is really important. What we’ve done over the years try to look at the different market channels for farmers and develop those as best we can. I think the fit for the farmers really depends on who they are - some are going to be better sales people than others, they’re going to like that part of the job better than others and so they’re going to be better in a retail environment like a farmer’s market retail for them. Others would rather deal with fewer people, that’s where their skill set is, and frequently it’s in the same farm family that one has a certain skill set and another works better in a different one. What we’ve seen with farmers over the years is that diversification, that it’s really important for farmers to think about these different market outlets and they’ll vary them, but frequently they get varied in their emphasis year-to-year outside of their control, and that’s the reason they’re being diversified is because the restaurant chef changes and they lose an important customer but they’ve still got their CSA and their farmers market. And they’re selling a little bit to the local wholesaler. They balance those out when they have to develop a new relationship with a chef and build that product back up. And so it’s a constant challenge in that sense. The way they’re weathering it is being very conscious of that diversification. And looking at how they can how these market outlets that are going to be the best fits for the product that they’re able to produce and the quantities they’re able to produce and the time of year they’re able to produce them. The other part of this is the importance of the markets on each other, and so a farmer can develop their CSA business by selling at a farmer’s market and certainly where I’m from in Asheville where the food scene has just gone crazy in the last couple of decades. And I mean crazy good in that there is a tremendous amount of selection of restaurants and options and opportunities for some of the best food in the world. It’s gone hand-in-hand in the local food development in our region and farmers producing these really incredible things at our restaurants. The farmers can look at these different options and opportunities and recognize that by being at the farmers market they’re developing a relationship with chefs who they then go to at the end of the day and have some product they weren’t able to sell at the market that they have somebody they can trust to do that. So sometimes it's hard to isolate out one of the markets and say this market is this profitable for you. They recognize that this market maybe is less profitable than the other one but that this market isn’t going to be possible at all unless they’re in this other, you know. It’s kind of a loss leader type of approach to that. Most farmers that are savvy and good at it and are really working at making a living at it know that, they recognize that and are amazing at it. 

Becca Jablonski: And so just as a followup question to that. I was mentioning that we’ve being doing some work at CSU using national data. We mostly use the US Department of Agriculture’s ARMS survey - so it’s the Agricultural Resource Management Survey - so it’s the best source of farm financial information that we have in the US. It samples about 30,000 farms annually. Now most of those producers are not selling through local food outlets, but about 1,000 of them are. It’s pretty good information. And what we can see is that if we measure profitability in terms of return on assets that intermediated markets in general perform better than direct markets. However, there’s a least a quartile or half the sample over about 75,000 in gross cash farm income that are profitable by that measure. So I’m wondering, you know, we’ve seen some data that talks about at least the slowing of some of these direct to consumer markets and sales and that really the growth is intermediated. Is that what you are seeing and what do you see as sort of the future of direct-to-consumer direct market channels for farmers and ranchers? 

Charlie Jackson: I’m not seeing that in my area. In the last census of agriculture in 2012, between the 2007 and 2012 census of agriculture we had a nearly 60 percent increase in direct sales in my region. That compares to I think an eight percent increase nationally during that time period, which was not very good, and that’s where some people are looking at the data and saying, wow, did that switch to intermediary markets?  I don’t know the answer to that, but that’s not what’s happening in my community. Those other markets are growing. Our direct to retail, which is also measured in the census, proportionate to population, is much higher than the state and the rest of the country. All of our numbers grew during that time period. Where I’m at we had a tobacco buyout in 2004. We had a tremendous loss of tobacco farms that were measured in that 2007 census. That was a big shift that was occurring during that timeframe. But even in the 30-year period going back to 1997 or so, we’ve seen a consistent upward trajectory of direct sales and we do a local food guide every year and have done it now for fifteen years, and all the categories of direct sales we’ve seen a really consistent increase. 

Becca Jablonski: It’s an interesting thing. I’ve spent a lot of time with colleagues digging into the data. And it’s getting better all of the time, which is really exciting. But I think we are still seeing some of these mixed stories and are trying to tease some of it out. And at least in my experience, a big piece of that is because of the diversity of performance across local food channels. Every farmer’s market is not created equal. I think one of the take home messages we try to provide in our building farmers classes is to really spend that time upfront really thinking about exactly what you were saying what are the channels that work best based on the products you are producing and what your comparative advantage is. 

Mallory Daily: That’s it for this week. You were listening to Becca Jablonski of Colorado State University.  And Charlie Jackson of the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, or ASAP, in North Carolina. You can check out links to their work in our show notes. This show was produced in The Pod at KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, MO. Tim Pilcher is our producer, and I’m your host Mallory Daily. You can subscribe to our show on your favorite podcast platform, like iTunes or Stitcher. We’re releasing two new shows each month. Our Farms, Our Future is presented by SARE - the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. SARE invests in groundbreaking research and education projects in sustainable agriculture. Grants are available to producers, scientists, educators, graduate students and others in the agricultural community. Learn more at , that’s S-A-R-E dot org. SARE is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this recording are those of the participants and do not necessarily reflect the view of the USDA or SARE