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30 years: a brief history of Growing for Market

publication date: Jan 1, 2021

By GFM Founder Lynn Byczynski

 

Try to imagine farming without the internet — or recall that time, if you’ve been farming more than 25 years. If you wanted to buy a greenhouse, where would you go for information about suppliers, pricing, and construction? If your garlic crop suddenly turned yellow and rotted in the ground, how long would it take you to figure out the cause? If you were just getting started and didn’t have a clue about how to stay on top of weeds, where would you find ideas?

In the late 1980s to mid 1990s, the era in which Growing for Market was born, there simply didn’t exist a quick way for small farmers across the U.S. to share ideas, experiences, and knowledge.

Remarkably, despite the lack of communication platforms, market farming as we know it today arose almost simultaneously in every part of the United States. It was as though this great idea was just waiting to burst forth, creating not just new farmers, but also farmers markets, CSAs, trade groups, sustainable agriculture organizations, and the farm-to-table movement. That’s why so many organizations, GFM included, are celebrating 30th anniversaries.

The flowering of market farming had its antecedents in the back-to-the land movement of the 1970s; many of the first organic farming organizations have already celebrated their 40th anniversaries. California Certified Organic Farmers was founded in 1973; Oregon Tilth came together shortly after Wendell Berry inspired growers at a conference in 1974; The Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) held its first summer conference in 1975.

For those who lived far from the coasts, though, learning about organic farming was a hit-or-miss affair. We got our practical training in vegetable growing from Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower (1989). Booker T. Whatley’s Handbook on How To Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres (1987) introduced us to the innovative idea of “subscription” farming. A Small Farm in Maine (1988) by Terry Silber and A Garlic Testament: Seasons on a Small New Mexico Farm (1992) by Stanley Crawford suggested ideas for alternative crops.

In 1990, my husband Dan Nagengast and I had a small vegetable and flower farm on a century-old homestead in eastern Kansas. We both had left our jobs, mine as a newspaper reporter, his as a nonprofit director, so that we could stay home with our firstborn child and try to make it as farmers. Our family life was idyllic, but we felt acutely the difficulty of improving our farming skills without mentors, colleagues, or a vegetable growing tradition in our area. It took us a long time to research every new piece of equipment, process, and business decision. We knew big things were happening elsewhere in the country but we didn’t know how to learn the details.

And so we took it upon ourselves to start a national periodical for market gardeners. We published our first issue of Growing for Market in January 1992 — with NO subscribers. Renee Shepherd of Shepherd’s Garden Seeds let us use her commercial buyers mailing list to send a free sample of that issue to a few thousand people. Rob Johnston at Johnny’s Selected Seeds also lent us names. By the end of the first year, we had 800 subscribers; there was no way to gauge what percentage of our market we had reached because there was no data about how many people were market farming in the U.S. Were there 10,000 farms growing and selling produce locally? 100,000? No one knew. But 800 subscribers at $24 a year was enough to pay the printer and the post office, with a bit left over for my labor as editor, publisher, and writer. Growing for Market was off and running.

Looking back at the monthly issues from that first year has been surprising; so much has changed, and yet much remains the same. The very first issue had an article on hoophouses, advising readers that they were “one of the least expensive ways to cope with the variable weather at the beginning and end of each growing season.” Many years passed before farmers realized the full potential of growing in soil protected by an inexpensive, unheated poly tunnel.

Dan and I got our first hoophouses in 1999, prompted by Eliot Coleman’s book Four-Season Harvest that year. In 2003 I published The Hoophouse Handbook, a small book about buying, building, and using these low-cost, high-benefit tools for vegetables and flowers. Hoophouse excitement grew over decades, culminating in 2010 in the high tunnel grant program by USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. (I couldn’t track down the number of high tunnels that have been built with NRCS funding, but it has been a lot and funding is still available.)

The sequence of market farming developments over the past 30 years has followed the same pattern: farmers innovated; the press disseminated; nonprofits advocated; and government eventually regulated or funded. As the publisher of Growing for Market, I had the heady feeling that we were not just documenting a huge social change but also helping propel it forward. I am sure that feeling was shared by sustainable ag activists across the country.

 

Farmers markets

Although they have long been a feature of life in big cities (think of New York’s Greenmarkets, founded in 1976), the vast majority of today’s outdoor farmers markets started as small, farmer-run operations beginning in the 1990s. When GFM began in 1992, no one was keeping track of the number of farmers markets; USDA published its first national directory of farmers markets in 1994; at that time, there were 1,755. The 2002 Farm Bill established the Farmers Market Promotion Program to help markets develop, and they increased at a fast clip. In 2019, USDA counted 8,140 farmers markets nationwide.

Of course, it’s important to note that much of what happened in market farming during the end of the 20th century was actually a return to the farming of a century earlier. Farmers markets in Detroit, Cleveland, Lancaster and other cities had operated continuously since their founding in the 1800s. Peter Henderson’s book Gardening for Profit, first edition 1867, was reprinted in 1992 by Ward Sinclair and George DeVault, market farmers who knew good advice when they read it. GFM covered that story in the March 1992 issue and Peter Henderson had a new moment of fame. If you haven’t read him yet, you should.

 

Organic certification

The organic farming movement of the 1970s and 80s was also a return to many of the agricultural practices of the pre-WWII era. Farmers rejected chemical agriculture and chose to grow on a small scale. But how could they set their products apart from conventional products in the eyes of consumers?

Across the country, small groups of organic growers united, set standards for organic production, and created certification committees to determine which farms met those standards. By 1980, 17 organizations had set up their own organic certification programs, and three states — California, Oregon, and Maine — had organic labeling laws. All through the 80s, the organic pioneers educated and promoted organic certification and by the end of the decade, Sen. Patrick Leahy was ready to push for an organic law in Congress.

The Organic Foods Production Act was included in the 1990 Farm Bill, which set off another decade of writing the standards growers would be required to meet to be able to use the organic label. GFM kept readers informed about the process (and, yes, it was something like making sausage, as has often been said about making laws). It was not until April of 2001 that the law took effect.

 

Community Supported Agriculture

The past 30 years of market farming have not been entirely a revival — we have come up with some pretty darn good ideas of our own. Community Supported Agriculture, in my opinion, was the most important development, even to farms that didn’t adopt the CSA model. CSA changed the relationship between farmers and customers from one of simple financial transaction to one of mutual support and admiration. I can’t stress enough how far-reaching that change turned out to be.

When Dan and I started selling produce in 1987, there was little cachet to being a farmer, even an organic farmer. A lot of people went to farmers markets because they thought the prices would be cheaper than the grocery store. Some thought it was okay to haggle over prices, insult quality, and just be unpleasant in general. Not everyone, of course; we had wonderful customers from the beginning, but it took us a few years to train out the bad behavior from some folks.

The first CSA in America was founded at Indian Line Farm in Massachusetts in 1986 and the idea spread like wildfire. Within six years, there were at least 400 CSAs operating across the country. We were early adopters of the model as a single-farm CSA and in 1993 we joined with several other growers to found the first cooperative CSA in the country, the Rolling Prairie Farmers Alliance, which is still in operation.

The early CSAs stressed to potential customers the idea of shared risk: They asked for payment up front with no refunds if crops failed. Most gave their customers a box of whatever was ready for harvest each week, whether the customers wanted it or not. That model quickly evolved to provide customers with choices of produce and payments.

The model obviously worked, judging by the corporate produce delivery services available today that took their idea from CSA. The big difference between those and real farm-based CSAs was the relationship that developed between farmers and their customers. CSA lifted the curtain and let consumers see exactly how much work is involved in producing quality food. And then the status of farming began to improve.

 

Cut flowers

A century ago, cut flowers used in America were grown in America. Most florists had glass greenhouses behind their shops where they grew their own cut and potted flowers. Outside of cities, flowers were grown and trucked in just like vegetables. As transportation options changed, so did the floral industry -- first it went to California, where the climate was better and flowers could be sent by train to the East Coast cities.

Then it moved to Central and South America, where labor costs were so much lower that even the cost of air freight made it more profitable than domestic production.

But the U.S. flower industry is coming back, slowly but surely. When I started growing flowers in 1988, I was one of just a handful of flower growers in my state and our numbers didn’t increase for many years.

Flowers were being grown and sold locally in every state, though, and in 1988 a national organization of flower growers was formed: The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers (ASCFG). The annual conferences were a boon to all of us, as we realized that sharing information among ourselves was the key to our professional development. That’s because we really were doing something new.

We weren’t growing roses and chrysanthemums, like the flower farmers who came before us. We were growing zinnias and sunflowers, grasses and woody plants. And we were finding new customers at farmers markets, people who had never bought flowers other than for special occasions.

When I started GFM, I resolved to have a flower article in every issue because I believed that cut flowers could help sustain our small farms; and so the cut flower column continues to this day. I may have been a little ahead of my time because my book The Flower Farmer sold modestly for almost 20 years. But in 2016, sales doubled and have stayed at that level since. The ASCFG has also seen a phenomenal growth in the past few years, and it is no longer unusual to see multiple flower growers at a single market.

 

Publishing

As market farming was growing, the business of publishing was fast eroding. GFM was conceived as a newsletter, which was a common type of periodical in those days. There were special-interest, entrepreneurial publications for every conceivable occupation (There was even a Newsletter on Newsletters for publishers like me.) The format was tight: mostly text, no fancy magazine design, few photos, no color, and no advertising.

But newsletters, along with many magazines and newspapers, began to disappear as the internet changed the way we acquire information. Those publications that survived had to adapt, and quickly. GFM went online in 2009 and I expected that print would eventually vanish. But people still want to read print, and so GFM still provides both.

But far more important to the survival of GFM were the voices of its writers. Initially, I couldn’t afford to pay anyone so I spent the first few years in a frenzy of reporting and writing it all myself. A single article might require a dozen phone calls. For a July 1992 article on selling to restaurants, I interviewed seven chefs including some superstars like Deborah Madison and Rick Bayless.

In the first two years, I visited 17 farms and markets from New York to North Carolina on the East Coast, California to Oregon on the West Coast and many places in the Midwest. Every trip to visit family or attend a conference began or ended with a farm visit. That was my favorite part of my job. I loved seeing how people took this idea of what a small farm could be and made it fit their land, buildings, markets, family, and personal preferences. Every one was different, yet in many ways the same.

As soon as GFM was bringing in enough money to pay writers, I started to solicit articles from people who were doing interesting things on their farms. I have been most proud of the fact that for 30 years GFM has provided a platform for some of our profession’s best thinkers and doers: Erin Benzakein of Floret, Ben Hartman of Lean Farm fame, the late Chris Blanchard, who energized so many conferences. I risk offending by omission if I name more; let me just say again that GFM can attribute its long history to the excellence of the content our writers have provided.

One of my favorite writers over the years was a farmer in Maine with experience on market farms across the country, and as a trial technician at Johnny’s Selected Seeds. I interviewed him for an article in 2011 and was impressed with his expertise. The following year, he became a fairly regular contributor of detailed, concise, and useful articles. That farmer, or course, was Andrew Mefferd, who took over GFM in 2016. I expect that he will be able to add to this history at some distant time in the future.

 

Lynn Byczynski is the author of several books about market farming, available from growingformarket.com. She retired from farming in 2012 when she and her husband bought Seeds from Italy, the U.S. distributor for the Italian seed company Franchi Sementi. She lives in Lawrence, Kansas, and can be reached at [email protected]



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