What Does It Look Like to Fix Our Plate?

By Bella Francois
Executive Staff

Environmental advocate and farmer Anthony Flaccavento explains the issues surrounding sustainable agriculture today and what we can do to fix them. 

When considering the food they eat, most people do not think twice about where it came from or how it was produced. To make matters worse, there is a huge monopoly in the United States concerning farming, with a few huge businesses controlling the agriculture market. Due to these issues, it is incredibly difficult for small farmers to start a sustainable farm and get their product to the consumers. 

Anthony Flaccavento, a small organic farmer himself, saw this issue and founded Appalachian Sustainable Development (ASD), a nonprofit organization with a focus on sustainable agriculture and local economic development to combat these issues. He founded and managed the Abingdon Farmers Market and launched Appalachian Harvest, a regional food hub. Then in 2009, Flaccavento founded SCALE, Inc. (Sequestering Carbon, Accelerating Local Economies), an independent consulting business that works with nonprofits and small businesses in economic and sustainable development.

“Because I have a background as a farmer, because I have experience starting our farmers market and our food hub, I have a fair bit of hands-on experience that I can use as a consultant to guide people,” Flaccavento explained.

One of the main issues that Flaccavento deals with is engaging the consumer base in the organic farming market. 

“One of the challenges for the local farmers is to get more people buying locally, and for those who do go to farmers markets to buy more than just a few things at the market as most people go to the farmers market for a few specialty items and then go to the supermarket for the majority of their produce,” he said. 

Another issue facing farmers markets is the convenience factor, with most people finding it much more convenient to go to the grocery store, instead of the farmers market. 

“Most farmers markets are only open a few days a week, some more but very few, and so instead of being able to go to the supermarket between 6 am-11 pm 7 days a week, you have to remember the specific times they are open, which is much more inconvenient,” Flaccavento said.

However, there are solutions to these issues. For example, studies have shown that once people visit the farmers market, they are much more likely to become returning customers. Also, having a variety of products at different price points allows the customer base to expand to include working-class families. 

“Once they go [to the farmers market], most people have a positive experience and then they want to come back,” Flaccavento said. “So what we do in our market is heavy recruitment to try to get people to just try it. Another thing is by having food that is affordable for working families or lower-income families. And whether you do that by being able to accept food stamps or EBT or whether you do that by having a mix of products that appeal to people across different income spectrums.” 

But, farmers’ markets are only part of the solution. Another way to distribute fresh and sustainably farmed produce is through the use of food hubs.

 “Food hubs are organizations that collect products from many small farmers and then sell it to markets that have already agreed to buy it. For example, a local grocery store would make a deal with the food hub to buy a set amount of products and then the food hub brings the farmers together and plans the production very carefully so that they have all of the items that their customers ordered,” Flaccavento said.

He added, “Then, when it’s time to harvest the farmers actually bring it to the hub and everything gets sorted and the hub then delivers the products. So, when the products get delivered to the grocery store they might be from 20 different farmers but as far as the grocery store is concerned they only have to make one order and it all arrives at the same time. This makes buying from local farmers from restaurants, supermarkets, schools, etc. much easier.” 

It is very difficult to run a successful food hub, but people like Flaccavento have discovered how to be successful after many years of hard work and experience.   

“When we started ours 21 years ago, I think that we were the first one in the central Appalachian region, we were one of the early ones in the whole country but now there are between 300-400 of them. It is not easy to make it work because the food hubs have to keep a margin to pay for marketing, distribution, cooling, etc. but they want to give as much of the end price to the farmers as possible. It is a challenge to do that and still meet their costs. Food hubs, when they are successful, are a great thing,” he said. 

A successful food hub is very similar to a successful business, in which the supply, demand, and production capabilities must be present and well managed. 

“The bigger and more successful food hubs are closer to population centers. Also, you need big buyers and buyers that are committed to buying local. Lastly, you can accommodate very small farmers in a food hub but you need a foundation of farmers who are good at what they do so that you have a reliable supply. You need to run the operation super efficiently, you need to run it like a business,” said Flaccavento. 

While many of the issues faced in the sustainable farming industry can be solved in the consumer sector, there are also a variety of policy issues holding farmers back. Flaccavento has run for Congress multiple times to address these issues. 

Flaccavento also said that some of the biggest challenges are public policy issues, where only a few large corporations manage many aspects of the farming process. 

Also, the lack of enforcement of antitrust laws leads to land in developing areas becoming very expensive, and therefore making it more difficult for prospective farmers to buy land or for small farmers to keep their land. 

“We absolutely have to grapple with the cost of land, especially for young farmers and lower-income farmers. One of the downsides when a community starts to develop, maybe a community that has been on the down and out, is that land cost goes up. And the land costs don’t just go up in the town itself but they go up in surrounding counties as well. So in the webinar, we discussed the idea of land trusts and that some cities have what are called land banks, where the city or state actually buys land and makes it available at a more affordable cost for producers,” explained Flaccavento. 

So, with all of the issues presented, what can young people do to help support sustainable farming, and therefore make healthier choices for themselves and the environment? First, an obvious solution is to become active in the market. Buy your produce from the farmer’s market. Shop locally. Pay attention to where your food comes from. 

“If students really want healthy food and they do not want pollution in waterways, and they want to fight climate change, one of the best ways you can do that is by shopping from farmers who use healthy practices that are good for the soil, good for you, and good for the climate,” said Flaccavento. 

However, being good consumers is often not enough. In addition to shopping locally, young people can become active citizens who care about their world enough to become politically active. 

Flaccavento asked, “What if the 10 million citizens who shop at the farmers market every week became politically aware and educated themselves about some of the state and federal laws that make it difficult for a small farmer to succeed or that give much more money to big agribusinesses that are following terrible practices for the environment? What if people realized that shopping from local farmers is important but it is just as important to become advocates for better laws? Laws that will encourage organic and sustainable farming, that will encourage new farmers, that will help make land more affordable?”