There’s no denying that our current food system in the United States is in trouble. With the worsening climate crisis affecting crop yields, the pandemic limiting the labor force, and the war in Ukraine driving staggering inflation, we need alternatives to a largely homogenized system and fast. Now more than ever, we need a localized system that supports the rapidly shrinking population of small to mid-sized family farms, makes food more accessible, and provides full transparency to people who increasingly demand justice, equity, and accountability for the quality and source of their food. Over the past few decades we’ve turned to alternative methods like farmer’s markets, community-supported agriculture programs, and most recently, food hubs. But there’s an emerging method that may just be the key to forming strong, localized food systems.

Enter the small-farm-supporting grocery store, otherwise known as a Farm Stop. A Farm Stop is a mission-driven entity that supports small-scale farmers by sourcing agricultural products from nearby producers, and by operating on consignment. Most people, when they hear the word “consignment” think of clothing or antique stores, but it can also be applied to sourcing local agricultural products, supporting small-scale farmers, and strengthening local food systems. A good example is the Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This year-round grocery store works with over 200 local farmers and producers. Argus gives the producers they work with 70 percent of the retail price, and takes a 30 percent commission to maintain its operations. This ensures that farmers get the real value for their products.

With stores like Argus Farm Stop, farmers and producers set their own prices, own their products until they are sold, and make more money than an average retail sale. This not only gives small-scale farmers a fair wage year-round, but it also allows them to manage their own inventories, and save time and labor from participating in farmer’s markets that are only open for part of the year. Thus far, in only eight years of operation, Argus Farm Stop has put over $10 million back into the hands of the farmers and producers they work with.

In addition to strengthening the local food economy, stores like Argus Farm Stop foster closer relationships with the producers they work with, and educate others about the benefits of eating locally and seasonally. Because these stores operate on consignment, they often rely on additional diversified revenue streams, which allows for greater flexibility, adaptability, and stability to meet the needs of their communities and provide further support for small-scale farmers, food producers, and businesses in their area. For example, most Farm Stops have a café and a commercial kitchen to sell value-added products made from items taken from the store, or directly from other small-scale producers. These cafés often serve as third places; spaces that foster community and communication, support cultural and social creativity and expression, and enhance the quality of life of a community.

Other revenue streams can flow from incubator kitchens or production spaces which offer entrepreneurial support to small-scale producers and businesses that lack their own production spaces. In addition, Farm Stops can be flexible in their business structure, allowing them to incorporate as non-profits or co-operatives where they can access funding opportunities via grants and awards. For example, Local Roots in Wooster, Ohio, and Random Harvest in Craryville, New York, are both co-operatives that offer cafés, incubator kitchens, and rentable community spaces. In this way, Farm Stops help to strengthen local food economies, educate consumers about the benefits of local food, and build community.

The Farm Stop concept is new and not yet well researched. To better understand the social, cultural, and financial impacts of Farm Stops on the communities they serve, I conducted a study analyzing 284 survey responses from four different Farm Stops around the country. The results showed that Farm Stops provide a number of benefits not just to the farmers they work with, but also to their communities. The results are as follows:

  1. Enhanced Access to Local Foods

Farm Stops support small to mid-scale local producers by providing them with a year-round, direct-to-consumer sales outlet they don’t have to directly manage. They do so by operating on consignment. Producers own their own goods, and give a small percentage of their sales to the Farm Stop to maintain operations. This arrangement ensures that local consumers can access local foods and products, and that local producers get a fair price for their goods.

  1. The Multiplier Effect: Keeping Money Local

By prioritizing local producers and services, Farm Stops keep local money circulating within a local radius. They hire local workers, use local services, and collaborate with local businesses, which enhances the economic resilience of a community.

  1. Community Resilience

They enhance the financial and cultural resilience of communities to crisis events such as global pandemics and national recessions because of the flexibility of the consignment business model, their development of diversified revenue streams, and their prioritization of small to mid-scale producers.

  1. Sense of Place

Farm Stops create welcoming, supportive, and inclusive spaces for community members to engage with a local food system beyond just purchasing groceries. They provide cafés, events, classes, and entrepreneurial services that create environments people can enjoy and thrive in.

  1. Sense of Meaningful Action

Farm Stops serve community needs and bolster local producers. This can shift the priorities of community members toward developing their local food system, because individuals can see the wider benefits of purchasing goods at a Farm Stop, while improving health and wellbeing for themselves and the whole community.

For more details, please read my full study here.

How to Start a Farm Stop

When it comes to creating a more sustainable food system, we need a diversity of options that prioritize and support local and regional food systems. To that end, I have also put together a guidebook on How to Start a Farm Stop in any community.

This document is meant to guide and encourage the creation and development of Farm Stops, similar to that of Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan. For those interested in developing a Farm Stop in their communities, this document not only describes essential elements, but also covers how you want your store to look, feel, and operate.

For those interested in understanding the Farm Stop model further, here is a list of existing Farm Stops around the country:

 

Teaser photo credit: Local Roots Market and Cafe Facebook page.