1. "Call us Farm Stand Inc."
Ah, the old farm stand, that seasonal roadside wellspring of sweet, ready-to-be-shucked corn, crisp and juicy apples or jugs of real maple syrup. But that humble stand has now become big business -- in more ways than one. Spurred by the "eat local" movement, consumers are flocking to stands connected to family farms (and those farms account for fully 96% of the 2.2 million farms in the United States). No less an authority than the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls the trend of selling directly to consumers "an important new opportunity for small and beginning farmers and ranchers to become financially secure."
But it's not just the farm-stand movement as a whole that's gaining ground. Individual stands are also thinking big, with many morphing into year-round, full-scale enterprises -- like supermarkets in touristy packaging. Such "stands," which can have annual sales in the millions of dollars, offer everything from souvenirs to prepared meals. At the Avila Valley Barn in San Luis Obispo, Calif., for example, raspberries and blackberries share space with packaged gourmet goods, bakeware, barbecue accessories, cookbooks and even educational toys. The stand says on its website that it's trying to re-create a bygone era of country living: "It makes one feel that they have stepped back in time -- to the simpler, sweeter days of yesteryear."
For some eat-local purists and old-school farmers, there's nothing simple about this. They argue that the bigger-is-better thinking can go against the connect-with-the-soil spirit of the classic stand. "It's very off-putting to see a farm stand without very much 'farm' to it," says Sara Trunzo, the food and farm projects coordinator for Unity College in Maine. But stand operators counter that consumers are voting with their dollars -- if they didn't like what was happening, they wouldn't be buying. Plus, in an age of of $90 theme park tickets, stand operators say they offer family fun at a relatively low cost. At the Avila Valley Barn, the hay rides are actually free. "We just want people to experience agriculture," says proprietor Debbie Avila.
2. "It's fresh from a farm -- just not this one."
New England farmers don't devote acreage to citrus. South Florida farmers aren't in the apple business. But these days, shoppers shouldn't be surprised to see out-of-area produce at their area farm stands. For that matter, they shouldn't be surprised to learn that local specialties come from other local farms: The fact remains that many stands are a clearinghouse for all sorts (and all sources) of produce and other farm fare.
Critics charge that this approach can border on the deceptive, since consumers come to a farm stand expecting to buy from that very farm. They also say it takes away some of the local flavor -- literally -- that's associated with farm stands. "I cringe when I see a whole stand's worth of goods from somewhere else," says Frank McClelland, a renowned New England chef who's also the proprietor of the Apple Street Farm in Essex, Mass. But even McClelland says there can be a certain rationale to offering select items from other farms: It provides both convenience and quality to the customer. For example, knowing that his farm can't produce enough honey to meet demand, he sources additional honey from a nearby farm whose product he trusts. But for some other farm stands, there's a purely economical logic; that is, they can't make enough money just selling their own product.
3. "And what we grow may not be organic, either."
While there's plenty of current debate as to whether organic produce is actually healthier to consume, the fact remains that it's still in demand. And that demand may be augmenting the popularity of farm stands, since these local purveyors of produce and other goods are often tied to small-scale farms that adhere to organic practices. It's all part of the movement embracing a way of eating that's more socially and environmentally conscious and that's theoretically healthier by virtue of being largely pesticide-free.
But here's the truth: "Local" and "organic" are far from synonymous. In fact, small-scale farmers may find it especially challenging to seek out organic certification, say experts, because it adds considerable expense to operations that are often fairly lean in the first place. And it's not just the costs of the actual production -- organic farming can be very labor intensive -- it's also the cost for the certification itself. Frank McClelland of Apple Street Farm in Essex, Mass., says he'd have to spend $3,000 on the paperwork in the first year alone. For now, he's not bothering with it, despite the fact that he's already farming organically, he says.
The takeaway for consumers: If they place a high premium on organic, they shouldn't hesitate to ask about certification -- or, at the very least, to inquire about the farm's growing practices. And even if a farm stand doesn't sell organic produce, consumers may be able to take comfort in the fact they're reducing their carbon footprint by not shopping for items that have been shipped across the country.
4. "So much for that crisp apple."
It's easy for foodie-minded shoppers to see supermarket produce as second best compared with the straight-from-the-farm variety. But supermarkets have one distinct advantage over roadside stands -- namely, refrigeration. By keeping certain items at the ideal temperatures and conditions -- apples are best at 32 degrees Fahrenheit and 90% humidity, while lettuces and some other greens are best kept slightly moist, according to the Cornell University Cooperative Extension -- markets are able to ensure a degree of freshness and crispiness. At roadside stands, "storage" often extends to no more than keeping those apples on display in a basket -- with no temperature or humidity control. The result, say experts, is that the apple starts to lose quality within days of being picked.
5. "You're not necessarily getting our best produce."
A roadside stand can be an important source of income to a farm, but it's rarely the only one. These days, farms build relationships with all sorts of "customers" -- produce wholesalers, restaurants, even other farms. They also bring their goods to large, urban farmers' markets or sell them through community-supported agriculture programs, popularly known as CSAs (essentially, a way of offering "shares" of that year's crops). For consumers, this can be good news: A farm that can make money in different ways is a farm that's going to be around in the long run, say experts. But it also means that the roadside shoppers might not always be getting the farm's choicest offerings. "Some restaurants are willing to pay to have first pick," says Will Gilson, a Boston-area chef who also runs a seven-acre vegetable and herb farm. Other reasons that farmers love to sell to restaurants: "It's consistent money and it's large-quantity orders," Gilson adds.
6. "This place is a zoo."
For a select number of mega stands, it's not just about fruits or vegetables -- or even souvenirs. It's about the stand as seasonal theme park, especially during the fall harvest. Think hayrides, corn mazes and, yes, petting zoos -- all leading up through Halloween and occasionally beyond. At the Bates Nut Farm in Valley Center, Calif., for example, almost every fall weekend day is set aside for a different event, from a Farm Education Day to a costume contest. The farm, which says it no longer grows any nuts on site (it's more cost-effective to source them from large California growers), also hosts dog shows and rents out its facilities for weddings. Naturally, critics decry this "agritainment" trend for the same reason they decry that stands are selling more than just produce -- ultimately, it puts the focus on something other than agriculture. But operators of large stands say it's all in good fun and does help to promote farming in a broader sense.
7. "Wanna pick your own? It'll cost you."
Some farms go beyond the stand and invite the public into their fields to pick their own produce. But this cherished tradition has gotten a new twist: A few of these farms are now charging picking fees -- as much as $10-plus per person. The farms say it's a necessary cost to cover what pickers eat in the fields. But pickers say it's turned a trip to the farm into an unexpectedly expensive outing. The Consumerist.com, a consumer advocacy site, shared the story of one picker's recent experience: The cost at one orchard worked out to be more than $20 per person, including a $13.50 picking fee (not mentioned on the orchard's website) and a $7 charge for a small bag of pick-them-yourself apples. The Consumerist.com's assessment: "Sometimes the businesses out to mislead you and rip you off aren't monolithic global corporations. They're a farm in the next town over."
8. "We fight for our right to child labor."
Farm stands may represent agriculture in its most folksy form. That doesn't stop the family farms behind them from playing political hardball, however. In recent years, family farmers have fought political battles over any number of issues, from lobbying in favor of giving undocumented farm workers legal status to lobbying against further strengthening of child labor laws (many farmers employ their children). Critics have questioned whether small farmers have the public's best interests at heart. For example, when the farmers pushed back on regulations regarding food safety, saying they couldn't afford to put the same controls in place as larger farms, Quality Digest, a trade publication that covers regulatory issues, challenged that notion: "Although one can sympathize with the small farmer trying to do business without the interference of Big Brother, [the] argument may not carry much weight The problem with the food safety issue is that defective quality can quite literally mean death." But farm-industry advocates and lobbyists counter that family farms are often at risk of being over-regulated, given the challenging economics of small-scale agriculture. The legislative situation "just gets out of control," says Don Parrish, director of congressional relations at the American Farm Bureau, a lobbying group.
9. "Just try finding us."
The most prominent roadside stands try to use a choice location to their advantage. Many farm stands and you-pick operations, however, are deep into farm country -- and are hard to locate, even with a GPS. On PickYourOwn.org, which lists farms throughout the country, customer comments tell stories of wayward rural journeys. Farmers feel the frustration, too: One California grower volunteered: "When you are ready to come, email me and I will send you a map. Do not trust Internet mapping services or GPS." In that vein, PickYourOwn.org suggests that visitors always contact the farm in advance -- not just for directions, but also because "weather, heavy picking and business conditions can always affect [a farm stand's] hours and crops!"
10. "We might not make it."
At its peak, in the mid 1930s, America was home to nearly 7 million farms. The decline since then speaks to the fact that farmers are selling out -- in more ways than one -- because of the spread of Big Agriculture (big farms looking to gobble up small farms) and the suburbanization of rural land. When South Florida farm stand owner Robert Moehling was asked in 2006 about what types of things farmers in his area were growing, he said matter-of-factly: "Houses." And while the real-estate bust of recent years has softened demand, many farmers say they still consider selling the farm -- it's almost always a surer way to make money than working the land.
Of course, for all the farmers who want to cash out, there are always a few ready to enter the arena and open their own farm stand in the process. Take Dylan Tomine, a conservation advocate and author who purchased a you-pick blueberry farm a year ago on Washington's Bainbridge Island (a suburb of Seattle) and now runs it with his family. While he concedes that selling the farm "is the backup plan for most farmers," he says he sees children and their parents picking in his fields and feels a sense of satisfaction that's hard to equal. "We're not just selling blueberries. We're selling participation in your food," he concludes.