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Family Farms Sell Directly to Restaurants, Consumers Through Farmers' Markets


Around the United States, small family farms are struggling to stay afloat financially. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that some have teamed up with big companies, while others have returned to traditional farming methods, as consumers and restaurants demand high-quality produce.

For family farmer Philip McGrath, a move to organic farming, free from synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals, has opened new markets.

His small farm in coastal Ventura County in California caters to high-end restaurants and consumers who are more concerned with quality than with price.

He says big agricultural companies work in this area, but some farmers like him sell directly to consumers. "And now it's mainly big ag [agriculture] that's here, working with family farmers growing things on a contractual basis, and a few of us doing what I'm doing, which is called direct marketing. And direct marketing is growing just stuff for local clientele."

Todd Aarons is executive chef at a local gourmet restaurant. He buys produce from Philip McGrath. "By us dealing with local farmers, we're really getting the finest produce that's picked -- not necessarily for it's production so much, but more for its flavor, because that's what really sells at farmer's markets and to the chefs at the restaurants, where they're really looking for flavor."

At the Santa Monica Farmers Market outside Los Angeles, chefs and other consumers buy directly from farmers.

Amelia Salzman has written a book of recipes with ingredients found at this urban farmer's market. "You know, it's a wonderful mix of chefs, the best chefs in the city, and actually from outlying areas of southern California, all flock to this market. That's one element. Then there are home cooks. There are office workers who come on their lunch break. It's a great mix of southern California life."

George Schnur, a retired engineer, sells exotic fruit from his farm near San Diego. "And I try to educate people about the different fruits. And I have a lot of steady customers that have been my customers, probably for over 20 years."

Farming is labor intensive, and local farmers face the problem of a tight labor market, with immigration restrictions slowing the flow of workers from Latin America.

Farmers also face rising waters costs, increasing urbanization and government regulation.

Edgar Terry is a fourth-generation family farmer who grows vegetables and strawberries for big produce companies. He also sells directly to consumers at a roadside stand. He says it is not easy to keep a farm alive. "I think some days I should have listened to my mother and went to work somewhere else on a nine-to-five job and drew a paycheck because there are a lot of complexities and a lot of variables every day of the week, and all the regulations in the state of California, and immigration laws and all the compliance issues that we're having to deal with. It's getting maddening."

These farmers say there are easier ways to make a living, but they are carrying on a family tradition and they farm because they love it.

They say new outlets for their produce may keep their family farms alive as viable businesses.