Small farmers turn to creative projects to survive

Published on NewsOK Modified: June 22, 2013 at 11:33 am •  Published: June 22, 2013

DEL REY, Calif. (AP) — Farmer David Mas Masumoto knows his small peach orchard can't compete with the giant agribusinesses that dominate the nation's produce aisles.

So as he walks through his central California grove at harvest time, showing his two workers which trees to pick, his wife and daughter, Marcy and Nikiko, work a different side of the operation, preparing a recipe from the family's newly published cookbook.

They saute fresh peach slices in butter and brandy, then whip heavy cream and pour wholegrain batter into a waffle iron, creating one of the dozens of dishes from "The Perfect Peach."

"The cookbook," says Nikiko Masumoto, 27, who co-authored the book with her parents, "is a natural extension of what we've been trying to do for years on the farm: to use creative ways to share our story and galvanize people about our fruit."

Like the Masumotos, small-scale growers throughout the U.S. are looking for creative ways to set themselves apart as they find that survival requires more than just selling crops. Experts say these practices are shifting notions of how small farms operate. Since the little guys can't beat corporate giants on price or production, they're cashing in on something the big shots can't provide: an intimate, personal experience.

Across the nation, family businesses are capitalizing on small farm culture by selling products such as jam, olive oil and lemonade. They're also writing books, hosting dinners and renting rooms. The ventures allow the public to share the experience and flavor of small farm life.

"The opportunities for farmers are significant today, because many of us as eaters want to make the connection to the food system, the land and the farmer," says Craig McNamara, founder and president of the Center for Land-Based Learning in Winters, Calif., which trains and mentors new farmers.

In industry terms, it's called value-added agriculture, and statistics show the practice is growing. According to the most recent data available, farm operators generated $10 billion in 2007 from farm-related activities other than crop or livestock wholesale, an increase of nearly 80 percent from 2002.

Value-added agriculture projects are "a way to have a product to sell year-round, even during winter months," says Shermain Hardesty, leader of the small farm program at the University of California, Davis.

"It reinforces farmers' connection to consumers," says Hardesty, who teaches a popular class on the specialty food business. "And by getting involved in marketing their identities, they can expand their profitability."

The examples abound. Just south of Hood River, Ore., Draper Girls' Country Farm lets people pick their own fruit or rent a room, in addition to selling jams and jellies and cinnamon-sugar dried apples. The 40-acre farm also makes fresh non-pasteurized apple cider in its own mill.