A growing movement
Advice to new farmers from the founder and president of High Mowing Organic Seeds
Q. You are one of the leaders of the farming community around Hardwick, Vt., often cited as a model of sustainable agriculture. What lessons will you bring to the Farmer-to-Farmer conference?
A. One is collaboration. Many farmers collaborate by borrowing a piece of equipment here and there. But what sets our region apart is the depth of the way we collaborate. We buy equipment together, share employees, do major co-branding and co-marketing arrangements. We’ve been sustaining this for more than five years.
Q. Is that model replicable?
A. Yes, but not in cookie-cutter fashion. By their very nature local food systems and local economies are going to be different. What is replicable is the process: how we’ve addressed these issues, how we’ve identified the gaps. This is a very place-based thing we’re talking about. While the rest of the world is building Facebook communities, we’ve been building something that’s rooted to a place, and that is core to what we’re talking about.
Q. Do you think farmers have to be better marketers?
A. If they want to succeed they do. There was a time when you could grow crops and sell them as commodities into a market where someone else set the price. And you could actually survive economically. Today farmers need to be price setters, not price takers.
Q. It’s surprising that a New England farm community is considered a leader in the food revolution.
A. Not really. Agriculture in New England has always been harder than other places, which means there’s a history of being innovative and creative. You never innovate when it’s a cushy environment. There needs to be competition, stressers, hardship. The small size of New England’s farms is also a plus: We can take advantages of niches that bigger farms can’t. People say, “I can’t believe that this is happening in Hardwick.’’ But that’s exactly where it should be happening.
Q. Your company sells organic seeds. Is it difficult to sell the benefits of organic seeds to gardeners and farmers?
A. Well, the quality of the final produce is 60 percent genetics and 40 percent environment. So if the goal is a carrot that tastes so good that it makes your eyes roll back in your head — 60 percent of that has to do with genetics. So that’s in our favor.
Q. Consumers have very little visibility into what seeds are used.
A. That’s true. Some growers will label the name of the variety. That helps to promote the idea that there are, for example, literally 500 different kinds of green romaine lettuce out there. I sell a dozen varieties. But our customer is really the farmer and the gardener. How the seeds perform, and how they taste — that’s what brings the farmers back.
Interview was condensed and edited.
D.C. Denison can be reached at email@example.com.