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Company Gets Small Farmers' Products to Consumers, Raises Incomes

  • Faiza Elmasry

It’s not unusual for people to change careers. James Faison did, although five years ago, he didn’t imagine he would. With a law degree from Harvard, he was well into a career as a corporate lawyer in Miami, Florida. Then, in 2012, he quit his job and returned to Virginia to run his family's farms.

“My grandparents, Milton and Winnie Faison, were second generation farmers. And my grandfather passed away and left the farms to my siblings and me," he explained. "So that started to process, sort of trying to figure out what we were going to do with the farms.”

Gradually, Faison learned about the economic challenges facing small farmers.

“A lot of small farmers are struggling,” he observed. “They are working very hard, but they’re not able to drive an income from farming to sort of making it economically viable. The issue with agriculture in America is we only spend 6.8 percent of our income on food, which is the lowest of any industrial country. So, since we spend so little on food, we expect food to be inexpensive, which means in order to make a living doing it, you have to have really big volumes. Having big volumes of anything can be very expensive in terms of having enough cattle, having enough hog or having enough infrastructure to support those animals.”

A new life

So, instead of raising cattle or corn, he's raising incomes for local farmers. After meeting several farmers who raise animals without hormones, antibiotics or steroids, Faison started Milton’s Local, a company named after his grandfather. It was a very different work day than he'd had as an attorney.

“Here I’m not in the office," he said. “I’m generally out on the road either on the farm or in grocery stores, restaurants, whereas in a corporate law environment, you’re really in the office. The other thing is I did international corporate law, so a lot of my clients were from overseas. I’d say 95% of my clients I’d never met in person, whereas here it’s very personal. (It’s) very much about getting those one-on-one relationships, at least at the beginning of the business relation so you can establish trust.”

Natural and local

Milton’s Local markets and distributes all-natural meat from local farms to wholesale clients, like restaurants and grocery stores. Faison says he's helping farmers increase their income, boosting the local economy and satisfying the customers who buy these products.

“When you’re eating locally, you’re able to support that farmer who raised it, you support that store that sold them and really have these sort of beneficial feedbacks wherever you are,” Faison explains. “You’re keeping more dollars in your community. The other part I think is people are really concerned about what’s been put into animals. So I think about 73% of all antibiotics used in the U.S. are used on animals. So that’s really a big problem especially in terms of antibiotic resistance. So I think that movement will continue to grow and hopefully we’ll be able to grow with it.”

MOM’s Organic Market in Arlington, Virginia, is one of the retailers that carry Milton’s Local products. Store manager Chris Wolfe says the grocery chain is committed to selling all natural, organic products. “All the business decisions that we make are made in order to protect and restore the environment. We don’t have any products that include high fructose corn syrup, artificial colors, artificial ingredients, nitrates, nitrites; things that are frequently found in meat.”

MOM's has carried Milton’s Local products for over a year and customers like them. That’s not just because they’re natural, but because they are produced by local farmers. Wolfe says, “The farmers are growing because we demand more, because our customers are demanding more.”

That's good news for James Faison, who is currently working with about three dozen small farms in Virginia and North Carolina. His goal for Milton's Local is to expand, generate higher profits and help more small farmers.

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