Saturday, September 24, 2011

Local Food Economy: A Call for Innovation

The number of farmers markets in this country has almost doubled in the last five years. From a customer's point of view, this increased access to locally produced food is fantastic. And from the producer side, the increased demand for their products feels like a good thing. However, the “tools" that these farmers depend on to grow, process, and sell their food are in dire need of a makeover.

While small scale farmers are definitely not in their business for the money, make no mistake about it, if they don't have enough money to operate and pay themselves, the small scale farm won't survive. Here are some areas in which I’ve observed that a lack of proper tools seems to be causing problems: While the farmers find the vintage tools they use charming, they are frustrated by the lack of new tools available that fit the scale of their operations. And while farmers enjoy meeting their customers at the farmers market, the farmers market as a tool-for-sales is a drain on their time. There’s a great opportunity here for entrepreneurs, especially those interested in local economic development, to create the tools that small farmers need. Here in Upstate New York, we’ve already seen some entrepreneurial efforts in local distribution and sales beyond farmers markets. Both Good Food Collective in Rochester and Garden Gate Food in Ithaca have started businesses that connect local producers with customers providing locally grown produce, dairy, meats, bread, and even soap. These entrepreneurs don’t have brick and mortar stores but have instead retro-fitted refrigerated trucks that function as mobile “pop-up shops.” 
As for farm tools and processing tools, I’ve seen many great inventions on the farms I’ve visited. But moving these inventions (technologies that work) to innovations (technologies that scale) is the challenge that I’m hoping entrepreneurs will rise to. And rather than offshore production, I hope we take advantage of local, manufacture-on-demand technology and local talent. photo: on the left, Farmer Erin with a home made tool for marking seed beds and on the right, a spring-tooth-harrow, made by Leroy Plows, that she pulled out from the woods surrounding Mud Creek Farms.

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