The Daily Yonder's coverage of rural economic issues, including workforce development and the future of work in rural America, is supported in part by Microsoft.
It is 5:45 on a humid Saturday morning in Brantley County in southeast Georgia. population 18,000. Roger Westover of Greenway Gardens is getting up to load produce that he, his wife, April, and their friend Tom, spent the previous day harvesting and washing. They are heading to the Waygreen Local Fare Market in the next county, something they have done the first Saturday of the month for the last three years.
Westover is a “bi-vocational” grower. He works second shift at a full time job off the farm. If you ask him why he is willing to get up so early on a Saturday and spend hours every other day working in his large gardens, he’ll tell you it isn’t for the money. “Our goal is to provide people with the highest quality food, people who otherwise couldn’t afford it.”
Through a community supported agriculture (CSA) program and the WayGreen Market, Westover is able to cut out the middlemen and sell his produce directly to his customers.
Greenway Gardens is small operation, growing on less than an acre. Westover plans to someday return to farming full time. Having grown up in a farming family and then working in the ag sector after the military, Westover felt the pull to return to farming. But industrial ag, with thousands of acres cultivated with expensive equipment, no longer fits his mindset or his life. He is now passionate about how he grows his produce and how he gets it to people in his community. Selling directly to his customers and working on a small scale is the only way he could return to farming. The small scale allows him to , avoid debt and build relationships in the community.
With farm sector debt continuing to rise, Westover is not alone in his approach.
That same morning, 60 miles away at the confluence of Knox Creek and the Carneghan River, Rafe Rivers of Canewater Farm is loading up produce for the Forsyth Market in Savannah. He, his wife, Ansley, and their crew of eight grow produce and build soil on 20 acres and sell at markets and directly to chefs along the southeastern coast.
Getting to Canewater, like so many locations in rural America, is best done by following the farmer’s directions. GPS gets confused out here.
Rivers started Canewater after studying at the University of Georgia and UC Santa Cruz. Then he worked for such notable employers as Seeds of Change and Bill Nyman. Utlimately, Rivers settled here , a stone’s throw from Georgia’s coastal shrimping communities in a county of 14,000 midway between Savannah and Jacksonville.
Canewater sells about a quarter of its produce most weeks at two markets. The remaining produce goes to chefs, mostly up and down the Georgia and South Carolina coast. This breakdown allows the farm to stay afloat even when inclement weather makes the market less lucrative. Rivers had anticipated a CSA program but as chefs approached them about purchasing, the markets became their most direct line to customers.
Canewater is big enough to sell to distributors, but that isn’t what Rivers wants. He likes firsthand contact with consumers. “When you leave market with an empty truck and people are raving about the food, it’s a good day,” Rivers said. The produce is better, too. “The food lasts longer when it isn’t in the distributor’s cooler before it gets to the customer,” he said.
Just south of Alma, Georgia, tucked in among industrial scale blueberry farms, Jordan and Kelly McGuire are harvesting from their garden to prepare for the CSA members who pick up here on Saturdays. There is a large compost pile not far away, a hoophouse of heirloom tomatoes, flowers everywhere and onions the size of softballs.
Both educators, the McGuires started Element Gardens four years ago to grow food for themselves.
“I loved growing and experimenting so much that I kept reaching far beyond the scale of a family garden, which can be costly,” said Jordan McGuire. “It led me to visions of a community more engaged and connected with their food.”
The dominant theme when speaking with Jordan is community. They place a high value on the relationships they have built around food and their farm.
“Every Saturday for almost ⅔ of the year, we get to meet up with our members on the farm and chat while they shop for veggies that were in the ground a few hours before. That community is inspiring to us.”
According to the USDA, direct from farm sales totaled $8.7 billion in 2015. Of that, $3 billion is sold directly to consumers, through programs like CSA’s and farm markets, and another $3.4 billion is sold, like much of Canewater’s produce, directly to local intermediary businesses. These direct sales benefit 167,000 American farmers.
There’s also local impact. For example, the Waygreen Local Fare Market, in Waycross, where Westover sells, is estimated to have circulated over $13,000 through the rural community during the three-hour market in June. That money would likely have otherwise been spent at the grocery store and box store, which put a much smaller percentage of each dollar spent back into local pockets.
The increased market activity matters in rural areas. It can be the difference between making a profit and going out of business. According to the USDA, half of farmers and ranchers who sell at farm markets derive at least 50% of their sales from those venues.
Direct sales in rural areas have their own obstacles. The urban markets have a much larger base of potential customers from which to draw. Waycross has a population under 15,000. While there are almost 600 reliable shoppers, the market struggles some months to bring in new customers. As the main source for high quality, local fare such as completely pastured meats, cooking oils that have been written up in the New York Times, and heirloom vegetables, the volunteer staff is proud of what the locals have to offer. But they say part of the population is apathetic about the market.
Nonetheless, local production is up. The number of CSAs has expanded from one in 2012 to three today. The farmers market started in 2014 and has grown to more than 30 regular vendors each month. And on the Saturdays when the market isn’t open, a truck market provides local produce.