Small American Farms Struggling to Survive
March 26, 2014

American consumers have begun to take a closer look at the food they eat, and are hungry for more knowledge about food.  They want to know where their food comes from, what’s in it, and what nutritional benefit it offers.  It's a trend away from mass-produced, processed foods, in favor of food that is organic, sustainably-produced, green, and locally grown.  The result has been a growth in small family farms that produce this kind of food.

Wayne Cullen breeds show goats on his 24-hectare Cherry Glen farm in Boyds, Maryland, outside Washington D.C.

For years he’s had a steady supply of goat milk from his herd.  So much, he didn’t know what to do with it all.  Then someone suggested he use the milk to make goat cheese.

“Somebody mentioned to us that we could make bulk chevre pretty easily.  And there was a strong market for it.  And they said we could make about $1,000 a goat a year.  And so that is what we decided to do," said Cullen.

Thinking he could take advantage of strong demand for locally-produced food products, Cullen invested half a million dollars to build a cheese making plant.  Eight years later he produces 68 kilograms of goat cheese a day in seven different varieties.

Although award-winning Cherry Glen goat cheese is sold in more than 50 stores and restaurants around the Washington D.C. area, Cullen has yet to turn a profit.

“There is a lot of competition.  It is hard to educate the store, cheese buyers in the stores [people who buy cheese for the store]  It is hard to educate the public," he said.

Agricultural experts say Cullen is not alone.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 6.8 million farms in the U.S. in 1935. Today farmers are producing more than ever on about two million large mechanized farms.

Sarah Hackney, with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, says food distribution markets are no longer set up to serve small family farmers.

“Like a large production company, you know, it's easier for them to get distribution access." she said. "They can lock-in a sweatheart deal with a grocery chain at a really low price.  And so one of the challenges is that, if you are a smaller grower, You don't have those advantages coming in."

Undeterred, Cullen is constantly looking for ways to cut costs and raise profits, and survive.

When he built the cheese-making plant, his electric bill went from $500 a month to $3,500. So he installed this array of solar panels which now produces all the electricity for the farm.

“For electricity with fossil fuels it is expensive.  It is depleting the resources.  It is digging up and destroying the land," said Cullen.

He also has some ideas to sell more cheese.  And grow into new markets.

“I think to do that [sell more] we need to develop some additional varieties.  And we have to have some strong marketing people," he said.

An advocate for small family farming, his goal is to become profitable within the next few years.  So one day, if they choose, his children and grandchildren can enjoy the pleasures of farming he has come to love.