Over the last century, American farming has experienced a consolidation towards large agricultural corporations. In 1935, there were approximately 6.8 million farms in the US. By 2000, that number had plummeted to 2.2 million. Today, we’re down to 2.1 million. Meanwhile, the highest income bracket for farms now accounts for66.4% of US agricultural products sold, up from47.5% in 2002.
In this age of corporate agriculture, family farms that have survived have done so by capitalising on the local food movement: selling to organic and specialty supermarkets, selling wholesale to restaurants, selling shares of a farm’s harvest directly through community-supported agriculture (CSAs), and selling at farmer’s markets.
We talked to one local farmer who has managed to adapt and thrive in this challenging environment: Kevin Smith of upstate New York’s Sycamore Farms. Sycamore, like many in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, has turned nearly exclusively to one source for revenue: the New York City Greenmarkets.
The New York City Greenmarket was founded in 1976 by New York City architect Barry Benepeto support local farms that were too small to sell to wholesalers. What began as a one-day-a-week farmer’s market in Union Square supporting seven farmers has exploded. Today, the Greenmarket runs 52 farmer’s markets in different locations in the city, supporting 240 farmers in seven states.
“We cut out the middle man between producers and consumers by providing regional farmers direct access to their customers,” Michael Hurtwitz, the director of the Greenmarkets for GrowNYC, told Business Insider.
Sycamore was one of the first farms at the market, joining up in 1981. Henry Smith, the founder of Sycamore Farms and Kevin’s father, recognised the potential of the Greenmarket early.
“Everyone was bragging about how much money there was in the greenmarkets and so we went down to see if there was any money left,” Henry told The Times Herald Record last year.
It turned out there was, not just for Sycamore but for other farms as well. According to Hurwitz, the overwhelming majority of farms that sell at the Greenmarket derive their main source of income from the markets. 85% of the Greenmarket farmers told Hurwitz they would be out of business if it weren’t for the markets.
Today, the Union Square market, Greenmarket’s flagship market and the only one that Sycamore attends, runs four days a week, year round. On an average September Friday, 360,000 people pass through the market. More pass through on Saturdays. While other Greenmarket locations are equally lucrative, no other market has that kind of foot traffic.
The Hard Numbers Of Small Farms Today
Sycamore hosts a stand at the Greenmarket three days a week, from June until November. In a typical week, the stand sells approximately 5,100 ears of corn and 5,000 pounds of tomatoes, as well as other produce, baked goods, and preserve, according to Smith. On a single day, Sycamore will sell to about 1,000 customers.
During a good year, Sycamore’s Greenmarket sales come out to about $US15,000 to $US25,000 per week during the selling season, which comes out to approximately $US300,000 to $US500,000 income.
That sounds like a lot until you start factoring in costs. Property taxes alone figure to be above $US20,000. Operating costs for materials, equipment, and maintenance can be $US100,000 to $US250,000. Once you add in hourly wages (between $US10 to $US15/hour) for seven farm employees, liability insurance, farm insurance, employment insurance, and disability insurance, it becomes clear: margins can get very tight depending on the year.
While sales are generally constant year to year, running a farm today is as unpredictable as it ever was. Different weather conditions can wreak havoc on a season in different ways. A rainy season can make crops thrive, but it can also slow traffic at the Greenmarket or even shut the market altogether. Too little rain and some crops will have difficulty growing, but there are more days to sell at the market.
As the national climate for small farms has stiffened, the Greenmarket has expanded its reach. In just the last seven years, the market has increased from 174 farmers to 240 and 44 markets to 52. According to Hurwitz, overall revenue at the markets has increased during that time and a number of farmers have told him that last year was their highest-grossing year ever.
Part of the boom is due to what Hurwitz calls “an explosion in demand for local.”
Smith has observed the same trend: “Customers today are more interested, engaged, and knowledgeable. 99% are repeat visitors and I never have to hard-sell the produce.”
Even a decade ago, Smith spent countless time at the market trying to explain to customers why his local produce cost more than supermarket produce, often to no avail. Customers were baffled or frustrated and tried to haggle the price down. Today’s urbanites are obsessed with anything locally-sourced, organic, and especially farm-to-table, which Sycamore and other local farms are perfectly positioned to capitalise on. The flood of interest in farm-to-table has its downsides though.
“Because the demand is there, there’s way more competition at the Greenmarket and outside of it,” says Smith.
CSAs, co-ops, food boxes, gourmet grocery stores, Whole Foods, and non-Greenmarket farmer’s markets (some that have “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy for where sellers get their produce) have sprung up are all over Brooklyn and Manhattan. Factor in the proliferation of farmers at the Greenmarkets themselves and its clear that local food has become a crowded market.
Nonetheless, no trend lasts forever. The Greenmarket similarly boomed in the early 1990s, when Henry Smith once boasted of selling 14,000 ears of corn in a single day. By the late ’90s, however, overblown fears about the unhealthiness of carbs killed the corn market in Manhattan.
With that in mind, Smith has kept margins tight by reinvesting Sycamore’s profits back into the business — “the Amazon plan,” he calls it. The Greenmarket has been good to Sycamore, but Smith is smart enough to recognise that relying solely on one revenue source is a bad business model.
Building A New Business Model
Until five years ago, the farm’s income was 100% derived from the Greenmarket. Today, that percentage has been scaled back to 90%.
Towards that effort, Sycamore opened a 4,000-square-foot farm stand on site last year. At the farmstand, Sycamore sells its freshest produce, as well other locally-sourced produce from farms in the area that they trust. In addition, they now sell cooked and processed items made in their own kitchen and bakery, such as jams, jellies, pickles, tomato sauces, fruit pies, breads, and very popular tomato pies.
Smith is also looking to expand Sycamore’s presence at the market to year-round, selling the farm’s processed items during the winter months to stay in front of New Yorkers’ faces and promote the farmstand.
Currently, Smith has been organising events to get people to the farm: chef’s dinners using Sycamore produce, potlucks, and educational events for both young children and adults. He promotes the farmstand on social media and always talks up the farmstand at the Greenmarket. While he’s only in the beginnings of his grassroots efforts, Smith envisions a day when the stand gets enough foot traffic that Sycamore can stop trekking to Manhattan altogether. It will require a redoubled presence at the Greenmarket to get the message out to the people that care.
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