Small Farmers Struggle To Compete Even As Demand For Organics Grows

May 28, 2015

Two hundred fifteen certified organic producers in Montana are cashing in on the growing demand for organic products. Organic farm sales in the United States grew 82 percent in the past five years, according to the Organic Trade Association.

But the growing demand doesn’t guarantee small organic farms will be, or stay, profitable.

More big farms are starting to produce organic crops. That makes organics cheaper, but it also makes it harder for small farmers to compete.

Ted Seaman farms about 26 acres of row crops in Paradise, Montana. He says there’s a reason his organic food is more expensive than that grown on big organic farms.

"Its harder to build a good car than a cheap-ass rattle trap. And what we put into…there is a reason it costs more.”

As Seaman waters recently seeded vegetables, his daughter Angelica snacks on mint leaves and walks through one of Paradise Gardens' ten greenhouses.

"That’s Eggplant, tomatoes, those are the early batch. Those are the hybrids of my dads. These are my heirlooms that are a little uneven right now. These were recently transplanted so they're not super buff yet. These are the later season stuff, this is a lot more tomatoes, eggplant, herbs, flowers…." Angelica explains.

Angelica and her dad say it isn’t always just the certified organic label that gives food its value.

"When you drift off into the big mechanized industrial farming that's where we part ways. Anything that has to be shipped…They have - quote unquote - organic farms, all over the place and that stuff has to be shipped. And food loses its vitality in long distance shipping," Seaman says.

Seaman admits that shipping food is necessary for people, like himself, who enjoy eating tomatoes in December.

But that big, efficient food transport system also means that big farms, and big organic farms have the ability to send produce into a market and sell it cheaper than the locally grown product.

And that’s where small, local farmers like Seaman take a hit.

Ted Seaman and his daughter, Angelica, live and work on their small farm in Paradise, Montana.
Credit Corin Cates-Carney

He says when a large farm in Oregon ships huge amounts of  sweet potatoes, which he grows,  into the Missoula area, they’re usually cheaper than his. That means Seaman’s sales fall.

CEO of Organic Trade Association Laura Batcha says small a organic farm's survival is based on consumers realizing why some food costs more than others.

"The truth is that if there is not an adequate value add at the farm gate, there won’t be organic farmers. It’s harder to do, and it is labor intensive."

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, of all the farms in the U.S., organic and non-organic, two percent of the biggest family farms make 35 percent of the total market production.

Small farmers often band together in a food-cooperative to cut costs.

Seaman’s son Jason Moore founded Montana Co-Op in 2012, in Polson. Moore says food hubs where consumers can buy local produce are important in bringing value to local products.

"What’s happened is that the big food companies are figuring out ways to produce cheaper, and not necessary healthier. And because of that, it put a lot of small farmers out of business. It’s difficult to compete with mass operations, and we know what we have to do to take back our food economy."

Organic Trade Association’s Laura Batcha says public education will go a long way to communicate and increase the appreciation of crop value.

Batcha says if the public understands food value it will help farmer of all sizes thrive in the market.

Out in Paradise Gardens, Seaman credits consumers' slowly changing mindset on the importance of food, to organics outlasting their fad.

And for Seaman it’s not just about food. For him and his family, food is the outcome to a certain way of living.  He says his farm will never be for sale, his plan is to die farming, out in his field, facedown in the dirt.

"This is my social security. One day I’m going to get old and die. This is for people for as long as they want to run it, for people to live and to make a little bit of a living. It’s a way of life. That’s what we do, we grow things. Is part of our life. This disconnect comes when people go to the big chains and don’t know where their food comes from."

What Seaman sees as a disconnect, many families looking to eat healthy on a budget see as an opportunity to afford higher quality food. Montana’s small organic farmers are trying to adapt to the demands of a market that, last year, topped $39 billion nationwide.