By Luke Clum
Look down the shelves of any grocery store, and it’s “organic,” “green” and “sustainable” as far as the eye can see. These days, just about every company is looking to get in on the green movement, as well as the higher prices consumers will pay for an environmentally-conscious product (whether or not it actually is environmentally conscious and not just a marketing ploy is a story for another day).
But, while certainly a crucial component, green farming doesn’t stop at being earth-friendly. Truly green businesses often have a social mission as well. When it comes to farming, that means looking beyond just the types of chemicals applied to crops to the people on every end of the supply chain — from the farmer to the shipper to the customer. In fact, many agribusinesses who practice what is termed a “farm direct” business model operate with the belief that keeping people’s best interests in mind will lead directly to environmental sustainability.
So just what is farm direct, and how can it function as a model for sustainable business?
Definition: Farm Direct
The meat of the concept is laid bare in its title. In farm direct agribusinesses, products are shipped via the straightest line possible from the farm to the customer. For the farm direct company, Flower Muse, the fundamental difference between the company and many of its competitors is that the flowers are not cut until an order from a customer arrives online, at which point they are packaged and sent directly to the customer from the farm via FedEx. In most flower companies, flowers are cut en masse regardless of customer orders, which can lead to a product that is less fresh.
In going farm direct, businesses dramatically reduce the number of hands through which products pass, and farm direct models can also reduce the amount of chemicals that need to be applied to produce to keep them looking fresh.
Effects on farmers and buyers
On the whole, farm direct agribusinesses tend to be much better for farmers who care about sustainability. That’s because farm direct agribusinesses tend to come with a general philosophy that nurturing farmers means nurturing the product, which in turn means nurturing the customer. Farm direct buyers want to know where their products have come from, and they want their farmers to have a good relationship with their crops or livestock.
As with Stonyfield Yogurt, buyers like when their farmers are on a first name basis with their cows. In the short distance from farm to customer, going direct for buyers means being closer to the product, while for farmers it means getting to care and put effort into what they do rather than simply following the top-down mandates from a far away corporate headquarters.
As can be seen in the case of Sainsbury’s, this difference radiates into unexpected areas of an agribusiness’ production line. Several years ago, Sainsbury’s launched an initiative to reduce their carbon footprint. But rather than simply telling farmers to get going, and imposing punishments for not meeting guidelines, the company provided trainings, created opportunities for their farmers to share their discoveries, and offered regular assessments so farmers could track their progress. Farmers — who the company acknowledged as the true experts — engaged at a deep level, proposed innovative solutions, and helped the company exceed its goals.
Considering the environment
Aside from the limit to redundant shipping and the decreased reliance on chemical preservatives, many farm direct companies rely on a culture of experimentation that has led to the continued development of practices that are the best in sustainability. Such developments range from increased freshness and vase life to reduced water consumption to the elimination of hormone use in cattle.
In short, farmers who feel looked after and respected will contribute more to a company’s environmental innovations. When their healthcare is guaranteed, their working conditions favorable, their children looked after in daycares, they’ll actually be invested in the business and work to make change. The farm direct way is great for the environment not just because of its eschewing of chemical dependency, but also because it creates the social framework that will encourage continued environmental innovation down the line. In a rapidly changing world, where the environmental demands of today are guaranteed not to match those of tomorrow, it turns out there are few things as crucial as the people on every end of the supply chain.
Luke Clum is a designer and writer who lives in Seattle, WA. He is an avid outdoorsman who loves hiking and alpine climbing.