Farm trend watcher has high hopes for Ohio farmers in the new food movement

By Vivian Goodman, WKSU, 2/20/15

One of the nation’s leading agricultural journalists is sounding a hopeful note for Ohio’s small family farmers.

Alan Guebert’s syndicated column, The Farm and Food File appears in 70 newspapers in the U.S. and Canada.

For more than two decades he’s covered the rise of factory farms, the growth of the organic sector, and the push and pull between industrial and sustainable agriculture.

The first foodies
Guebert grew up on an Illinois dairy farm in the 1960’s.

“While we did not know it then, we were the original foodies. These younger people you know how they want to eat? They want to eat today like we used to, because we ate from our farm to our table. We just did it right there on the farm. And we were locavores before anybody invented the word. And my point is: for generations, for centuries we’ve eaten this way. We got away from it just this past generation. All I really do is watch things. I got a good set of eyes and I just watch those trends like that. And we’re just going back to where I was 50 years ago. And I can’t wait.”

Guebert delivered an upbeat keynote address at this past weekend’s annual conference of the Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association. His audience was mostly small farmers committed to sustainable agriculture. They use organic methods and sell directly to consumers from their farms or at farmer’s markets.

Sales growth
Sales of organic produce increased more than 11 percent nationwide to $35.1 billion in 2013, the fastest growth in five years. The organic sector is still just 4% of the overall food market, but Guebert sees it continuing to grow.

“I think it’s the sky’s the limit.”

Why? Because, he says, we’re living in revolutionary times.  Fast food empires are fading, and more Americans are asking for good, safe, healthy food.

“There’s going to be more and more effort on the part of people who seek out good food who will pay more for good food. We do it now. Look at the growth of farmers’ markets. And if you’ve ever shopped at a farmers’ market, you can buy food cheaper elsewhere. If you’ve ever gone to a farm to fork table restaurant. You can buy stuff a lot cheaper than that. But you can’t buy it any better. You can’t buy it any healthier. You can’t buy it and have more satisfaction. And I think that’s what the new food movement is about.”

Last year about 80 percent of U.S. consumers bought organic at least sometimes.  And there’s been explosive growth in the number of farmers’ markets.

But Guebert says conventional farmers try to downplay it.

“I read just this past week how organic farmers markets must be worried because they only grew 8 % last year where in the past they’ve averaged 12, and 16 years ago there was 16% growth. Wouldn’t the corn and soy bean farmers love the fact that their markets grew 8% last year? Of course they would. So that’s big Ag’s message to counteract the great story that we see in farmers’ markets and in the growth of organic sales.”

“We’re just going back to goodness. Good, easy, straight-forward, uncomplicated delicious food. “

Where Big Ag comes in
But is anybody holding us back from going back? What about Big Ag, what about Big Food.

“Well, they would like to have a real impact on current food trends. And in fact they’re really trying. Big Ag would like to see those choices limited. And by that I mean they don’t want labeling. They don’t really want GMO labeling for sure because they say it will work against them. Well prove it! Prove it. Until then I think giving consumers the right to know what they’re eating is important.”

Guebert’s been watching the trends for a long time. He’s been writing his column for about 22 years now. When did he see the light bulb go off in people’s heads? When did this happen, this food revolution?

“I think we’ve worked very hard, my generation, your generation, to be sure that our children are very well educated. And we raised them to be independent. Well, what we raised were smart kids. We raised them in a manner that they were curious and questioning, and that they sought out what they thought was good options and made informed choices. That’s all they’re making. They’re making informed choices. They’re looking at food and they’re going, ‘Well I think I’ll have green beans tonight and I’ll go to the farmers’ market.”

He’s seen it in his own family. His daughter lived in D.C. and shopped at the Eastern Market on Capitol Hill.

“It was on her way home so she could always stop and pick up something for supper that was fresh. And in fact that’s how they still do it in all of Europe. You go to Europe the refrigerators are about the size of your suitcase. And why? Because they don’t store food like we do. They go to the store for food. They don’t store it.”

Changes in the way Americans shop for and think about food, and the growth of sustainable agriculture fuel Guebert’s optimism about the future of the food system, but he still worries about the power of Big Ag to influence government policy.

“If you’re going to have a subsidized system, yeah the small farmer, the sustainable farmer out here is going to have one hell of a bad time. But if they can just get people to eat their food, they’ll have a customer, they’ll have a friend, and they’ll probably have a salesman for the rest of their lives. So I think that’s what sustainable people rightly focus on, where food and people meet, where they interface, where they can taste tomorrow.”

And the way farm writer Alan Guebert sees it, tomorrow is yesterday.