Co-op needed to support Utah small farmers

We know that while urban Utah is enjoying a terrific economy, the bounty doesn’t extend to most of rural Utah. Unemployment is high in many rural areas, and many young people are forced to head for the cities to earn a living. Many rural areas are losing population.

The Herbert administration has fully acknowledged the problem and is taking action, including promoting the creation of 25,000 new jobs in rural Utah.

So here’s a bright idea that could bring additional cash and economic activity to rural Utah.

I have a small ranch in northwestern Box Elder County and have been dabbling in selling local, pastured, free-range eggs, beef and pork direct-to-consumers. I have found that an enormous market exists in urban areas. Lots of people want local, natural, healthy meat and eggs without antibiotics or hormones, grown on pastures without pesticides or herbicides. Customers are willing to pay more than they pay in a grocery store if they know their farmer, where the products come from, and how the food was raised.

Many farmers, ranchers and rural residents with a little acreage could produce and sell products direct to consumers at good prices if they had some help to overcome the barriers involved. A few farmers have figured out how to make money in this relatively new market, but many more could do so with a little help.

What is needed is a local food co-op to recruit small farmers all over the state to raise products to meet the demand in urban areas. The farmers need help with marketing, processing and delivery.

A local food co-op could achieve the following goals:

  • Provide income and jobs in rural Utah. Help with the 25,000 rural jobs initiative.
  • Make Utah and rural areas more self-sufficient.
  • Help forge ties between urban and rural Utah. Urbanites would better understand where their food comes from and what is required to produce it. They would come to appreciate their rural partners.
  • Provide healthy, grassfed meat and eggs in urban areas where an enormous demand exists. No antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, herbicides, etc.
  • Provide humane treatment of animals with mobile slaughter so animals don’t have to be trucked to slaughterhouses.
  • Using multi-species rotational grazing that focuses on healthy soil and grass, Utah’s carbon footprint could be reduced via carbon sequestration in soil.
  • Slow climate change with pasture management and by reducing the miles food travels from producer to consumer.
  • Introduce small farmers to advanced on-line technology services for marketing, scheduling and delivery.

While most small farmers can successfully raise the food, there are three critical barriers that prevent them from being financially successful:

  • They don’t know how to market and find customers.
  • Processing is a gigantic barrier. Few mobile abattoirs exist, and most inspected butcher shops have to be scheduled so far in advance as to be prohibitive. Hauling animals to slaughterhouses is a problem for many small farmers. Poultry processing plants are too expensive for most small farmers.
  • Delivery of product to customers is a big challenge.

All of these barriers could be eliminated by creating a co-op for small farmers to jointly market, process and deliver products. Economies of scale would enable a robust on-line marketing and ordering system, additional processing facilities, including on-line scheduling, mobile slaughter and processing, and efficient delivery. Finding reasonably-priced organic feed is also a challenge that could be alleviated via a co-op.

It is not cost-effective to try to overcome these barriers alone. But, together, a group of farmers could be successful. The market is big enough for many farmers to succeed in at least supplementing incomes.

A few small operations have figured these things out pretty well. They could join or not join. The target group for this would be people in rural areas with some land and know-how, but who can’t overcome the marketing, processing and delivery barriers. The opportunity exists to engage hundreds of new farmers. The market is very large. Training and following natural food standards and principles could be part of the co-op.

A number of public and private groups are already engaged in promoting healthy local food and rural economic development. A co-op could grow out of these efforts.