By AFM Contributing Writer; Aimee Whittington, Ph.D.
With respect to the Amherst Farmers’ Market, one positive development to come out of the last 2 years is the increased diversity of the market’s customer base. Not only did the pandemic bring out a much younger demographic, as seen by the large number of college students shopping from 10 a.m. until breakdown, it also sparked a resurgence in overall community interest in direct to consumer food sales.
Additionally, the market saw an increased usage of one of the nation’s most innovative programs designed to address food insecurity and healthy food access - the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP). HIP is a program administered by the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance and funded through a combination of federal funds, state funds and private contributions.
For market customers who are enrolled in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP - formerly known as food stamps), HIP ‘rewards’ recipients with extra benefits when they use SNAP to purchase fruits, vegetables, and certain plants at farmers markets, farm stands, CSAs. HIP is the first program of its kind established in the U.S. Depending on household size, Massachusetts’ HIP funds match SNAP benefits dollar-for-dollar:
By using HIP, SNAP recipients can earn back up to:
● $40 monthly (for 1 – 2 people)
● $60 monthly (for 3 -5 people)
● $80 monthly (for 6+ people)
Massachusetts has historically done groundbreaking work, with regards to local and direct marketed agriculture and food insecurity. In 2006, The Food Project’s Lynn Central Square Farmers’ Market became one of the first in the country to accept SNAP benefits electronically/They also piloted a small SNAP matching program. Two years later, this small program served as a model for the Boston Bounty Bucks program, a dollar-for-dollar matching program for use at Boston-area farmers’ markets. This program demonstrated the demand generated by SNAP-matching for consumers and expanded the opportunity for Massachusetts farmers to sell their harvests locally.
These two programs served as the precursor and inspiration for the Healthy Incentives Program, which launched statewide in 2017. In that first year, HIP helped over 36,000 families gain access to farm-fresh produce. By 2019, that number had grown to 19,000 households per month utilizing the benefit.
For individual recipients, HIP is only a positive. It increases access to fresh, local produce and helps stretch SNAP dollars without extra paperwork. It rewards recipients for buying local produce at designated locations. Lastly, it allows SNAP recipients to grow their own fruits and vegetables, if they choose, by purchasing food-producing plants and seeds. It’s also a boon to local producers. For the state economy, HIP has provided Massachusetts farmers with more than $15 million in revenue. It has served to broaden the customer base for many small, local farms struggling to increase revenue and continues to do so. Most importantly, HIP has allowed access to products which were historically too expensive for customers on a restricted budget. Everyone should be able to feel the juice of a peach on their chin or smell the ‘summer’ of a tomato as they slice it. HIP is allowing people to do just that.
By AFM Contributing Writer; Aimee Whittington Ph.D.
In addition to the COVID necessitated changes of the last two years, the agricultural industry has been navigating extreme changes caused by multiple factors over the last decade. Demographic, social, technical, and economic developments have led to the modern industrialized model of food agriculture. Large scale farms and food processing firms dominate production and both they and supermarket chains dominate distribution. The food supply chain has been growing increasingly globalized for decades. As society and economic systems evolved, so did the needs of the consumer and their buying behaviours. Urbanization is one of the main factors that distance the places of production from those of consumption. Accordingly, a growing number of connections (transport, storage, packaging, processing) must be carried out by a plurality of actors.
This results in producers having to achieve economies of scale and cut production costs. The most effective way to accomplish this, within the industrialized model of provisioning, is for farms to specialize on only a few products and/or specific phases of the production. The results of these adjustments resulted in the elimination of direct delivery to final consumers and of processing products on-farm. The industrialized model of agriculture is highly efficient, especially as compared to previous models of organising production and distribution. This explains why this model has spread and is dominant at world level. Unfortunately, the agricultural community is now learning how damaging it can be.
Among the concerns and criticisms raised are potential danger to food safety, decreased nutritional access, environmental pollution and under many points of view, prevention of market access to smallholders and small and medium enterprises. Over the last decade, with the most rapid evolution taking place over the last 2 years, changes have been made which are swinging the pendulum back towards the local farmer. Short food supply chains have been making a comeback. A short food supply chain (SFSC) is characterized by short physical distance and/or involvement of few, if any, intermediaries between producers and consumers. Examples include farmers’ markets and CSAs,
Most specifically, they address functions the industrialized model seems unable or unwilling to provide. The positive changes seen when short food supply chains are put into place and/or strengthened from enhancing SFSCs already in existence affect producers and consumers. In addition to the financial benefits provided to the producers and the far more secure supply chain for the consumer, SFSCs provide a host of other benefits. They strengthen social relations, preserve the environment, improve nutritional aspects of many foods, and enhance local development.
Additionally, shortened food chains are extremely useful in sustainable development practices. Expected effects of SFSC growth include continued increases in responsible production and consumption, with regard to land and local resource management, and the meeting of sustainable development goals related to social issues. The two most directly affected being poverty and hunger reduction and enhanced gender equality. SFCS also contribute to the sustainable development goals of addressing climate change and its impacts, as well as that of making communities (especially urban areas) more inclusive, safe, and resilient.
As we’ve seen firsthand over the last 2 years, the positive impacts of short food supply chains are difficult to overstate. Sustained economic growth of SFSCs, as evidenced by increased income generation, job opportunities and the building of inclusive production capacities demonstrate they are an effective strategy for producers to consider moving forward. Given the current uncertainty, increased community connections, easy access to safe and healthy food and stable supply chains are just as important now as they were at this time in 2020. The ability to remain resilient in front of global market disruption and providing net positives at every step of the process might be a singularity. Being able to watch it unfold at the Amherst Farmers’ Market has been an astounding experience.
By AFM Contributing Writer; Aimee Whittington Ph.D.
The state of Massachusetts has 500,000 acres of farmland holding 7200 farms. The state’s agricultural industry produces an annual market value of nearly half a billion dollars and provides direct employment to 26,000 people. The average farm in Massachusetts annually produces $66,000 worth of agricultural products on just under 70 acres.
Simply because of geography, small farm culture - especially family farming - is prevalent in New England agriculture and Massachusetts is no exception. Small farms with agricultural sales below $100,000 a year account for 85% of farms in the state. And 80% of those are owned by a single family or individually. And rounding out the demographics, the average age of a Massachusetts single operator is 59 and 38% of all principal operators are women.
One of the biggest facets of small farm culture is the farmers’ market. Direct market sales is a key feature of Massachusetts agriculture. Market venues provide growers and producers opportunities to engage in direct marketing. Or the face to face sale of their products to the end consumer, with no intermediary retailers. And make no mistake, those small-scale, individual interactions add up to big business.
Nationwide, in the 20 year period from 1994 to 2014, the number of farmers’ markets in the USDA directory increased 370%, from 1,755 to 8,268. From 2015 until now, the number of markets rose slightly. Growth had begun to even out, with the last 2 years seeing a spike due to the pandemic. Massachusetts ranks 5th in the nation for direct farmers’ market sales with over $100 million generated annually. Direct market sales account for 21% of the state’s total agricultural product revenue, which is the highest proportion in the country. Additionally, Massachusetts is 3rd in the country for direct sales per farm ($55,384) and 8th in the nation for direct sales per capita. The Amherst Farmers’ Market was established in 1971 and has brought (preCOVID) several thousand shoppers into the town center every Saturday for many of those years.
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, there was concern as many farmers’ markets across the country were cancelled. Luckily most reopened sooner rather than later, with many having to adapt to rapidly changing state and/or local guidelines. Market runners had to find creative ways to source supplies, such as bathroom facilities and hand washing stations, and enforce policies which mandated masks, social distancing and other precautions. Because instead of slowing down, business at markets (especially those held outdoors) was growing rapidly.
Concerns about shopping for food safely, in combination with disrupted grocery store supply chains, caused consumer interest in locally sourced food to skyrocket. Market vendors and managers had to adapt quickly. There was a steep learning curve for some, as technology was put into place for options like pre-ordering, pre-packaging and curbside pickup. More affluent shoppers either became interested in or reinvested in buying local food. Lower-income buyers were able to use enhanced federal benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. As well as having access to a program in Massachusetts which provides limited matching funds for purchases of fresh produce, the Healthy Incentive Program. The pandemic brought young people out to our market in previously unseen numbers. Every facet of the market has undergone substantial change.
For producers, managers and consumers filling these new and expanded roles has been no mean feat and the future is not yet certain. However, these last 2 years have shown us our marketplace responds vigorously to crises, while continuing to create growth and opportunities.
By AFM Contributing Writer: Cheryl Conklin
Maintaining a Profitable Hobby Farm
Hobby farms can be a fun, lucrative venture for those willing to put in the effort. Learn more about how you can earn an income from your hobby farm.
Attending Farmers' Markets
Farmer's markets have seen a rise in popularity in recent years, and Amherst is home to many of them. Having a dedicated place at a farmers' market means you'll be exposed to many potential customers and you can make face-to-face connections as you pitch your product. Do your best to have a consistent presence at these farmers' markets. Many customers may plan their meals around visits to your stall, and you'll earn their trust by showing up regularly with the products they want. And, ask for feedback on your products and solicit suggestions for future offerings.
Invite Guests to Your Farm
Your land itself can also be a valuable profit source. You can effectively create two distinct income streams: product and property. By creating a brand for your property, you can sell the experience of visiting in addition to the actual products.
Many people may be interested in learning how to grow their own produce or butcher their own meat, and hosting on-site workshops on these topics can entice them to visit your farm. If you have the space, also think about hosting events, such as weddings, or renting out your farm for others to host events. Make sure you consult a Massachusetts business law attorney who can help you understand the risks and liabilities involved with inviting the public to your working farm.
Using Social Media Marketing
Social media is a powerful tool for connecting with potential customers. Customers will be able to discover your business and you can develop a devoted following through regular and meaningful interaction with customers on social media. You can start by following other hobby farm accounts to see what types of content they're posting. This will give ideas for content for your own account and you'll be able to judge what content is most popular and engaging. However, be sure to practice proper social media etiquette, which includes asking for permission or giving credit when sharing someone else's content.
As video platforms such as TikTok continue to dominate social media, make sure you get comfortable being on camera. If it helps, you can create a script for your videos and set up a content creation schedule to make the process less overwhelming.
You can also hire a social media manager to help you market your business. You can find these professionals on freelance platforms, and you should account for turnaround time and client reviews. And if you just asked “How much do social media managers make?” then it’s important to budget for between $14 and $35 per hour.
Lead with Locally Sourced
In a crowded field of products, one of your main selling points will be your homegrown appeal. Consumers are increasingly interested in locally-sourced foods and there is a growing movement to embrace the farm-to-table concept. Advertising yourself as a locally owned organic business can also prove to be profitable around the holidays as many people intentionally look to check off their holiday shopping lists with products from local small businesses.
Profiting Off Your Hobby Farm
Not only can your hobby farm provide sustenance for your family, but it can also generate a sustainable income. Monetizing your hobby farm can be done in many ways and through many outlets; selling from a local farm stand or building your own. Selling to local merchants that are willing to add value with your product. Visiting and joining local farmers' markets in your area like many sellers do in Amherst at the Amherst Farmers' Market!
By AFM Contributing Writer: Aimee Whittington Ph.D.
One of the industries most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic over the last 2 years has been agriculture. Smallholders produce over 1/3 of the world’s food and, globally, the food supply rests quite literally on their shoulders. In fact, so many farms are run by only one person or one family, most countries asked farmers to provide written instructions on farm operations, in case they contracted COVID. In the United States, 80% of the 2.02 million farms are classified as ‘small’, with a gross income of less than $100,000. Most of that income is derived from selling to stores, schools and restaurants in the producer’s general area. When schools and restaurants shuttered in 2020, many farmers were stuck with extra inventory and nowhere to sell it.
While large chain grocery stores were selling out and resources like food banks were overwhelmed, those local farmers had to choose a next step. After the initial impact died down, small farmers overwhelmingly turned to their communities. And many found success by shifting their business models. Most of those small farms pivoted in one of two ways.
First, some transitioned to, or became exclusively, a ‘closed loop food system’. That’s when a single farm controls the entire food chain. Everything is grown/raised and harvested/butchered on the farm. Then it’s packaged at and sold by the farm. The closed loop system insulates against most of the supply chain issues caused by the pandemic.
Second, while the pandemic certainly reduced some types of demand, it created others at a local level. These local buyers gave many small farms a chance to switch operating models. It worked especially well for farms with CSAs. The disruptions in the supply chain combined with so many people wanting a ‘safer’ source of food and ‘safer’ place to shop, resulted in CSA memberships increasing substantially across the country. Additionally, farms running CSA's were able to look at products which had historically sold well and produce more of those products for local customers.
Lastly, the community value of a market (especially in the open air), can’t be overstated. Especially for those who are high risk or couldn’t, until recently, ensure the safety of small children, farmers’ markets provide an invaluable point of connection. They provide a touchstone of normalcy in a world still too full of uncertainty. Bringing together local producers, local folks and fostering community engagement has, quite possibly, never been more important. We need the small farms. We need the markets. We need each other.
One of the things that makes the Amherst Farmers’ Market special, is the focus on keeping the small farmer at its center. For all of us, navigating the market through the summer of 2020 was both an exhausting and an immensely rewarding experience. The summer of 2021 was slightly easier because we had some idea of what we needed to do. Over the next several newsletters, we’re going to take a more detailed look at the changing landscape of the small farm, with emphasis on Massachusetts. As we get ready for the 2022 season, whatever it may bring.
Happy New Year's!
Bringing you organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised, locally-sourced blog posts on a semi-weekly basis from the Amherst Farmers' Market.