A Modern-Day Iteration of the Producer’s Program

The Berry Center is developing an equitable local food economy that supports farmers and provides them with essential protections in the marketplace. We understand that much work remains to be done to put an economy in place that supports a healthy and diversified agriculture.  A local food economy demand analysis conducted in Louisville in 2012 by Seed Capital Kentucky indicates that consumer demand for fresh local sustainably raised food is five times greater than the existing supply.1 The study demonstrated that some of our long-held worries about local food such as price point were not the primary factor in purchasing decisions. When given the choice, consumers reported that they were more concerned about purchasing local and sustainably raised food than they were with the price. While the demand study is encouraging to many, those of us who live in rural places in the Louisville foodshed have not seen the same level of enthusiasm around local production. Why haven’t farmers taken this up? We know that our neighbors are not interested in growing for a market they do not trust and do not understand.

To this end, The Berry Center partnered with the Kentucky Center for Agriculture and Rural Development (KCARD), and Louisville Metro Government to conduct the region’s first supply-side study. This study asked farmers of all scales, particularly those we would identify as “farmers in the middle,” the essential question, “what would it take for you to be willing to produce for a local market?” This quantitative and qualitative supply-side study of the Louisville foodshed is nearly complete.

Preliminary results from farmer discussion groups held at the end of the year affirm our local observations:2

Farmers believe that the demand for local food and willingness to pay extra for local food is overstated;
Price, long-term contracts or commitments, and convenience are the driving forces that will persuade farmers to produce for local markets;
Farmers feel stuck in a “cutthroat” position pitting themselves against other farmers and “competing to see who can get that bottom dollar” to survive;
A successful solution to the local food demand/supply issue must come from farmers as a group, working together, not outside entities or even individual farmers; and
Cooperation is cited as a way to bring about change and increase revenue for all.
We are fortunate to have in our history a democratic and economically viable cooperative model that supported a thriving rural economy that we may draw upon. The Burley Tobacco Producer’s Program, co-authored and shepherded by John M. Berry, Sr. for over fifty years, provided farmers with an economic base that they could plan their year around and a way to afford to buy land and to care for it well. The cooperative managed production and sales through binding and enforceable contracts. It was democratic in nature. The cooperative’s membership voted for the continuation of the program every three years based on one vote per farmer, regardless of farm size. Strategic adjustments to parity were made when necessitated by changes in production costs, and supply and demand were carefully controlled.

The Berry Center is developing a modern-day iteration of the Producer’s Program and cooperative, this time, targeted at local production for local markets. In the essay “The Problem of Tobacco” Wendell Berry outlines the qualities of agricultural products that would offer farmers alternatives to tobacco production. He writes, “They [farmers] need a crop, or several crops, that can produce a comparable income from comparable acreages, that can be grown with family and neighborhood labor, and for which there is a dependable market…We need to make it possible for farmers to choose not to grow tobacco and yet continue farming, and we need a better, safer, fresher supply of food, which is to say a local supply. And these two needs are, in fact, the same.”3 To this end, The Berry Center is partnering with large-scale buyers who can offer farmers long-term contracts or commitments and provide an economic incentive and steady price as they transition from conventional to organic production. Farmers who participated in our discussion groups were very interested in this sort of farmer-led cooperative model.

We believe the most compelling and culturally correct place to begin this work is Non-GMO and Organic Grain production to supply pastured egg producers, organic dairies, and other organic livestock producers, as well as distillers and craft brewers. This cooperative model will be initiated with farmers in Henry County and will scale outward to establish diverse markets. Wendell Berry writes, “… if agriculture is to remain productive, it must preserve the land, and the fertility and ecological health of the land; the land, that is, must be used well. A further requirement, therefore, is that if the land is to be used well, the people who use it must know it well, must have time to use it well, and must be able to afford to use it well.”4 The modern-day iteration of the Producer’s Program will provide necessary economic stability that makes it possible for farmers to farm well and will protect them from overproduction. Farmers have a history of scaling up production beyond market demands. The Producer’s Program and cooperative framework will take farmers (our family, friends, neighbors, and community members) out of the current boom and bust agricultural economy and will allow the cooperative to manage the growing supply and demand of organic products carefully. We look forward to sharing more updates with you as we receive the final report of our supply-side study and continue to flesh out the inner-workings of a modern-day iteration of The Producer’s Program.

  1. Karp Resources. (2012). The Louisville Local Food Demand Analysis. Retrieved from https://jefferson.ca.uky.edu/sites/jefferson.ca.uky.edu/files/122861902-Demand-Study.pdf
  2. Botts, Aleta. (2015). The Berry Center Farmer Discussion Groups.
  3. Berry, Wendell. (1992). Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community: Eight Essays. New York: Pantheon Books.
  4. Berry, Wendell. (1990). What Are People For?: Essays. San Francisco: North Point Press.