When William Shelton was still in college, he would plant a few rows of corn on his father’s land in Jackson County to sell to the local supermarkets. On summer mornings he would harvest a few hundred-dozen ears of the sweet corn before dawn. He would drive the corn to the local Ingles market himself. He would receive a check for the corn on the spot, and by that afternoon he would get a call asking if he had any more fresh corn to sell.
A few years later, after Shelton had returned to his family land to farm full time, he found he could still sell nearly everything he grew to a local Ingles store. “I could walk into an individual store and deal directly with that store’s produce manager,” Shelton remembers. “On top of that, I was distributing my products myself to public schools in three counties. I can’t imagine doing all of that at the size I’m at now.”
Two years after he took over the family farm, Shelton built two greenhouses to devote to Bibb lettuce, which brings a premium price but requires special care in raising and handling. Within two years, Shelton built two more greenhouse bays, and then another four. But with production ramped up that much, Shelton found that the small, decentralized markets he’d been relying on to take his specialty product were no longer enough. What’s more, he had too much produce to distribute it himself. “I outgrew myself,” he says. “It took a few years to catch up to the size that I had established.”
Shelton’s predicament—too much production to sell solely to local markets, but not enough to compete with national commodity producers—is a common one faced by many midsize farms. While smaller farms can find niche markets selling directly to consumers or making their own deliveries to a few local outlets, it’s just not feasible for a farm the size of Shelton’s to sell via tailgate markets, community-supported agriculture or deliveries to independent local stores. But neither can Shelton Farms compete on an industrial scale.
A widening of the gap in U.S. agriculture over the last few decades has brought increasing consolidation of huge megafarms alongside expanding opportunities for small farms adapted to direct markets. Between 1997 and 2002, the percentages of farms with gross sales of less than $2,500 and more than $500,000 both showed increases nationwide, while the percentage of farms with sales between those two figures decreased dramatically. Such farms—and their plight in the face of incompatible infrastructure and marketing support—are the subject of a national initiative that calls them the “Agriculture of the Middle.”
These enterprises account for more than 80 percent of the nation’s farmland. In Western North Carolina, where farms have historically occupied small tracts of mountain land, even the region’s largest farms fall into that category. And when any of them are lost, so is a significant portion of the region’s capacity for food production and a substantial amount of its farmland. Yet their infrastructure and marketing needs present a unique challenge to local networks.
With eight greenhouses in full hydroponic production, Shelton Farms produces roughly 10,000 to 12,000 heads of Bibb lettuce per week. “My dilemma,” says Shelton, “is that to make any money I have to deal in some kind of volume. But in order to move that product in local markets, I would have to work to death to distribute it all.” Creative distribution tactics like backhauling (in which an empty truck that’s made its delivery to a local store can take some of Shelton’s produce back to the store’s warehouse) and a key contract with Mountain Food Products (a local produce distributor) have made it possible for Shelton to strike some kind of balance.
And despite the challenges, Shelton finds WNC’s local-food movement encouraging. “I appreciate the excitement and the awareness that people have about local farms,” he says. “But a lot of people still don’t really know what it takes to grow food and make a living at it. The people that come out here looking to buy a few tomatoes can’t support my farm alone.” For a business like Shelton Farms, it takes support from a much larger system to be successful. Figuring out how to secure that support in a way that’s both economically and environmentally sustainable is the challenge facing Shelton and the other farms in the Agriculture of the Middle.
[Ginger Kowal recently began working toward a master’s degree in biology at the University of Calgary.]