A Growing Trend: Small, Local and Organic
Monday, November 6, 2006
This is where Michael Pappas farms: not in the great wide fields of Iowa or in California's industrial salad bowl, but in Lanham. He is eight miles from the Washington Monument, three or four turns from the Beltway, at the end of a long road in a residential neighborhood. He's growing crops on 2 1/2 acres with 2 1/2 employees.
How's life? "Lately, it's really pretty good," Pappas says, in the middle of his fall harvest at a place he calls Eco Farms. He points out some lemon verbena, which he sells to chef Michel Richard for his D.C. restaurant, Citronelle, considered one of the country's best. Nearby he has a little patch of wild arugula for chef Johnny Monis at Komi. He's also got mesclun salad, basil, peppers, radishes, carrots, beets and pineapple sage, not to mention plenty of customers at a co-op, other restaurants, local grocery stores and a gourmet caterer.
Pappas has, on this hilly field, created what few people thought was possible in the age of industrial farming: a small organic operation that is both environmentally and economically sustainable. Like dozens of other farmers across the region, he has leveraged the grass-roots-turned-mainstream popularity of farmers markets to expand the market for locally grown produce to restaurants, caterers, grocery stores and even college dining halls. Pappas, who is single and has no children, typically can't afford to eat at Citronelle, but he says he's making a nice living.
It's not just nostalgia for a quaint notion of local farming -- or fear of E. coli in spinach -- that drives Pappas's success, though those are important components. He's also benefiting from the heightened sophistication of Whole Foods customers and their ilk, people who want to feed both their bodies and their social consciences, and who ask themselves, "What good is eating organic if it's been trucked 3,000 gas-guzzling miles across the country?"
"The whole trend for the past 100 years was to get bigger or get out, but in the 1970s and '80s people started to get smaller," said Lynn Byczynski, editor of the Growing for Market newsletter, whose 5,000 subscribers are mostly small farmers. "Now it's about attention to detail, about getting retail pricing and having relationships with customers. People are making a livelihood out of this."
The trend toward smaller farming can be seen locally in farm Census data. While the number of farms in Maryland has fallen from 39,000 in 1950 to about 12,200 in 2002, the number of niche farms of 10 to 49 acres grew from 3,979 in 1992 to 4,412 in 2002. In Virginia, such farms grew from 10,361 in 1992 to 14,082 in 2002.
"This has really been happening all over the country," Byczynski said. "People are managing to make a go of it."
The increased demand for local produce was enough to help Brett Grohsgal, a former chef, succeed in a third career as a farmer. At first, it certainly didn't seem like he would be a much of a hit. In 1997, when he started Even' Star Organic Farm on about 100 acres in Lexington Park, in Southern Maryland, he generated $8,000 in revenue, for a salary of about 23 cents an hour.
"That was pretty tough," Grohsgal said. But last year, his revenue was in the low six figures, and he is expecting 20 to 40 percent growth this year. He has relationships with several D.C. restaurants, and his biggest wholesale customer is a catering service for American University, Gallaudet University and St. Mary's College. "Life is good, man," he said. "Life is really good. It's a seller's market if you are at the high end of the product stream. Sales are not a problem."
Even larger local farmers are benefiting from the push toward local produce. John Lewis, who farms about 1,500 acres in Virginia's Northern Neck, said his crops fetch good prices with his main customer, Giant Food.
"They try not to beat down the farmer on price, and that makes them different from the general produce market," Lewis said. "They are trying to get good produce at a reasonable amount where the farmer can survive and not cut the farmer's throat."
Whole Foods recently announced a heightened focus on buying local produce, including a $10 million budget to promote local agriculture, following pressure from author Michael Pollan, who has called into question the wisdom of industrial organics. Of course, nothing is ever truly easy in farming territory, particularly when it comes to the increasing development of houses, each bigger than the last one. Grohsgal understands his land is worth more to developers than it is to him as a farm. He turns home builders away anyway. "I know it's worth a fortune," he said, "but if we always sell to developers, our nation will just stop growing food."