This is a fascinating Q&A with Elizabeth (Altstaetter) Almeida, with Fat Moon at Meadowbrook Farm in Massachusetts. This East Coast organic farmer answers some questions about consumer trends she is seeing in her business.
OCJ: First, could you share some more about your background? Tell us more about your family’s farm in Ohio and how you ended up in Massachusetts.
Elizabeth: I grew up on a cow-calf farm in Bellefontaine, Ohio. I showed steers, hogs and chickens at our county fair and served as our local Beef Queen and Ohio’s Beef Ambassador for a year. In addition, I was active in 4-H and FFA locally and at the state level. My husband and I moved to Massachusetts nearly three years ago for his job and I launched a business offering classes on healthy living. Eating healthy food is such an essential component to living healthy that I decided a small farm would be the perfect context to offer classes on healthy food.
OCJ: Could you describe your current organic farm and your customer base in more detail? Why do you farm organically?
Elizabeth: We lease three-quarters of an acre to raise the full variety of organic vegetables with potential to expand on another 10 acres. Our goal is to sell fresh vegetables from April to December by growing seasonal vegetables (such as greens in the spring), using early and hardy varieties, and using a hoophouse and row covers to protect crops in the spring and fall. The land is on a historical farm on a main route, so we sell at our own weekly farm stand. Our version of the CSA model (community supported agriculture) is Farm Bucks, a system where customers get a 10% to 20% discount by prepaying for a credit they can use all summer.
We are farming organically because that is what the customer demands. In order to sell my vegetables, I need to be able to tell my customers I use mostly organic methods even though I am not certified. Customers understand that the certification process is laborious and expensive for small farmers, but they want to know that you are making a good effort to minimize chemical inputs.
My customers are all from within a 5-mile radius of the farm. We are in a semi-rural community that has seen a lot of development in the past 10 years, about 45 minutes outside of Boston. My customers’ priorities are: flavor, locally grown, and organic. Note that price is not a top priority for my customers. They also want unique foods that you can’t get in the grocery store. Some of those foods are pea shoots, garlic scapes, squash blossoms, and kohlrabi.
OCJ: As an organic farmer, how do you try to accurately convey answers about food to your customers?
Elizabeth: In my weekly messages to my customers, I keep them abreast of the realities of what we are dealing with at the farm. For example, the northeast has experienced a terrible cutworm problem this spring. I was keeping them apprised of the cutworm situation, organic methods I was using to try to control them, and explaining why we didn’t have the early radishes, beets, kale and spinach that we expected to have. I found the customers were sympathetic and instead of complaining that I didn’t have something, just bought more of what I did have and shared creative ways to use items that I had in surplus. I remain positive in my promotion of the farm and focus on the pleasure, healthy benefits, and economic viability of purchasing and eating local vegetables.
OCJ: What are your customers looking for from their food? What factors do they use to form their food purchasing decisions?
Elizabeth: The No. 1 factor is safety — this includes food free from pathogens such as E. coli, and free from chemicals that may have lesser-known side effects. This second issue is harder because of conflicting information they receive. The media generally forms their opinions of what is safe. They do not have time to research food safety, so they go with what they hear on the news. As a farmer, I know this isn’t what we like to hear, but it is the reality.
The second thing is quality — this includes flavor, freshness, and nutritional value. Kale has become enormously popular among the health-conscious consumer, but I am finding that my customers are asking for specific varieties of kale because they know fresh lancinato kale will have more vitamins and flavor than what they buy at the grocery store.
OCJ: Do most of them try to eat exclusively organic or just when possible? Why or why not?
Elizabeth: No, they do not eat exclusively organic. Most will buy local before they buy organic. But, if they are shopping at the big box grocery store they are more likely to insist on organic because they perceive it to be healthier (fewer chemicals) and safer. However, I have had conversations with customers about the grocery store dilemma and competing priorities — organic, local, cost. They do not seem to mind paying higher prices at a farm stand where they know that the food is local and fresh, but they think twice about paying higher prices for organic in the grocery store because they are not as certain of the origins, safety, added nutritional value. That food has also usually been shipped from a distance.
OCJ: Do you feel that there is a growing sense of distrust among the general population about our food supply? Why or why not?
Elizabeth: The restive feeling is of the same energy that the general population feels about big government and big banks. It is a distrust of big entities and a sense of being out of control over something as basic as our food. I see this sentiment being directed at corporations, such Monsanto, not at individual farmers. There is distrust of the system — wondering if nutritional needs are the top priority or if financial gain for large corporations is driving the industry.
OCJ: What are some of the key sources of confusion and concern about food from your customers?
Elizabeth: The food system is overwhelming. My customers feel that it is hard to get all the information they need to make decisions. Even if the information were all publicly available, who has the time to do all the research? Two examples: I recently read an article by a woman with a PhD and she talked about having a difficult time deciding which loaf of bread to buy. She wanted the healthiest loaf of bread and many packages claim to contain whole wheat, whole grains, a daily serving of fiber, etc. But when she started reading the labels, she was looking at the total picture — fat, calories, fiber, vitamins. Who has time to stand the bread aisle and read twenty labels before deciding what loaf of bread to buy? And then, to do the same with all other items on a grocery list is unreasonable.
Second, when you have strawberries from California, grapes from Chile, and peppers from Spain, how do you even begin to understand the food system that gets those items to your plate in Massachusetts? Customers are interested in growing practices, nutritional value, and environmental impacts of production and shipping. But who has the time or energy to research those factors for every food item they purchase? Because it is overwhelming, customers either look for labels like organic, which they hope means the food is more closely aligned with their values, or they seek local sources so they can a see and know what production methods are used.
OCJ: What do you think are some important things for farmers in Ohio to understand about their East Coast customers?
Elizabeth: Their East Coast customers love to eat and love delicious food. They want to know their food is safe. They want to connect with their food supply. I think this is one reason companies like Stonyfield are doing well. They tell their story on all their packaging. So while you are eating yogurt, you are reading about happy cows. It may seem trite to farmers to put this on the labeling, but it fulfills customers’ need to connect with their food source.
OCJ: What do you feel will be the most important food-related issues in the next few decades as U.S. agriculture must balance the need to cater to consumer demands while meeting the food needs for an exploding world population using fewer resources?
Elizabeth: The current controversies in food-production, such as GMOs and LTFB, have prompted customers to wonder if just because something is possible, is it ethical or the best way to expand our food supply? These are societal questions that won’t be answered by only the marketplace and science, but also by people’s opinions.
Second, small, local farms can fill a niche in the large web that is our food supply. There just isn’t enough land available in Eastern Massachusetts to produce our own grain and meat, but we can raise fruits and vegetables to diversify both the source and variety of foods. We need policies that make entry into agriculture easier for small farmers.
The third issue is making healthy food affordable. My customers are willing to pay a premium for fresh, local produce. They do not represent the financial reality of all buyers. Our system has become highly efficient at producing calories and we are now in a situation where empty calories are cheaper than nutritive calories. This is having far reaching consequences in terms of public health. Food is cheap. Nutrition is expensive. Yes, we can buy bread for $0.99 per loaf, but there is little to no nutrition with this option.
OCJ: If your customers could convey one key message to OCJ readers, what would it be?
Elizabeth: My customers know that as a country, we are spoiled — strawberries in January, oranges in September, and our favorite cuts of meat all the time, thanks to the ingenuity of the farmer and food system. Here’s what my customers want: to eat a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, and whole grains that is safe, free from harmful chemicals, and healthy. They also want food justice and want this to be available for everyone.