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Breaking down the big engine of agri-business and dreaming up a new way

By Hailey Gaunt

16 March 2021

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Small to medium-scale farmers have to be super-human to perform within the current system (built by and for the big guys). We believe there’s a better way, which can value exceptional products and unique stories by connecting smaller producers to the right markets.

You’re a farmer in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, and it’s the year 2020. Surrounding your land on all sides are apple orchards, which were planted generations ago and remain the dominant engine of the local economy. It’s an industry you know well: your father and your father’s father were apple farmers and you were raised to do the same. But for several reasons you’ve decided to break from your heritage. You are now among the first farmers in the country to cultivate honeybush, an indigenous plant that is better adapted to the soil chemistry and tougher against drought and infestations. You’ve done your research and you have every reason to think honeybush could be as sought-after as its close cousin, rooibos – maybe even more so with the nuanced flavour profile that’s expressed when fermented.

It’s risky to try something new, but apple farming is becoming taxing for the land and costly to support; with greater climate extremes, it’s an increasingly untenable business. Scientists, tea merchants and social entrepreneurs alike have assured you of the potential of this new crop. You could pioneer the sustainable, regenerative honeybush industry.

You’ve done the work of regeneratively growing and harvesting your crop (which is excellent, by the way) and you’re ready to sell for a premium, which will go some way toward compensating you for the extra labour and risk.

But the buyers who were so keen on your crop just months ago have suddenly “shifted priorities”; they blame the global pandemic. Turns out, they’re willing to buy from you, but for a much lower price. The other traders who purchase bulk quantities say they’ll gladly take your harvest, but it will be lumped together with other non-regeneratively grown crops and processed, neutralizing all the regenerative benefits and original value. And again, they’re asking you to sell well below what you need to turn a profit.

All that risk. All that effort invested in restoring your land. Where does it leave you now?

Unfortunately, this isn’t an exceptional scenario, but the sort of predicament small and medium-scale farmers face year after year. With or without a global pandemic, this segment of growers too often find themselves on the back foot of an already vulnerable position; and now, with climate change, it’s happening with greater frequency.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Producers of traceable, organic, high-quality crops struggle to access a market that will fairly compensate them.

You don’t have to be a regenerative farmer pioneering a crop to be vulnerable to the whims of the market. Plenty of small-scale operations growing mainstream ingredients can also get stuck. We’ve seen this problem time and again across all different landscapes, with all manner of products: producers of traceable, organic, high-quality crops struggle to access a market that will fairly compensate them. And it works the other way, too: brands looking for traceable, organic, high-quality ingredients for their products struggle to find farmers to supply them.

Each is the other’s answer to their biggest dilemma, so why is it so hard for them to connect?

Bigger isn’t better, more isn’t always more

There is a void. The ideal supplier and ideal customer can’t bridge the gap for many reasons, but mainly because everything is just so big. In its current state, the value chain has evolved to serve the big-volume buyers first and foremost. These are brands that need quantity and require uniformity. To ensure their products are consistent no matter where they’re sold in the world, ingredients must conform to tight specifications, which are impossible to achieve without blending and secondary processing that cause ingredients to lose their origin story. As a result, farmers have adapted to fit the mould. To make it in this system, they’ve had to prioritise volumes and homogeneity, which are enemies of quality and sustainability. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that’s impossible to break for the small farmers and small brands that hope to turn a decent profit without making the profit-motive their reigning value.

In its current state, the value chain has evolved to serve the big-volume buyers first and foremost. These are brands that need quantity and require uniformity.

Imbalance and inequality are so written into the system that these farmers’ only option is to hustle outside of it. But success on the fringes requires expertise on so many fronts: logistics and distribution, marketing and brand-awareness. Farmers must be versed in all things necessary to getting their product to market, pulling them away from the critical day-to-day work of running their farm. This is an impossible ask, and one which few farmers can successfully pull off.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the value chain, the conscious brands who want to source excellent traceable products are often too preoccupied with product-development, marketing and brand-awareness, and distribution to dedicate time to locating and profiling ideal producers for each and every ingredient they need.

It’s an age-old story: The big machines drive the market with their accelerated rates of production and economies of scale, while smaller engines work many, many times as hard with fewer resources, only to stay idling. Small and medium-scale farmers trying to grow regenerative crops can’t compete with a market built by and for the machine.

To make it in this system, they’ve had to prioritise volumes and homogeneity, which are enemies of quality and sustainability.

The silver bullet

How do we change things? How do we make sure that the healthy, sustainable practices that underpin regenerative farming are also financially viable – even attractive – for farmers? How do we feed regenerative products into the mainstream by ensuring brands can access them with ease? How do we connect the people who grow with the people who buy? Ultimately, how do we give people the option to support a system that reflects their values?

We might not be able to transform the system writ-large, but we can create a parallel one. This system thrives on the ethics that have been squeezed from the dominant version, proving that excellent standards and profit aren’t mutually exclusive. This is a marketplace where exceptional middlemen can be trusted and excellent products and excellent values coexist. It sounds like a fantasy. But it only seems too good to be true because we are used to being ignorant about what we consume. As soon as knowledge is normalised, consumers and brands can expect more in the marketplace.

For seven years now, Grounded has been examining the big machine of our food system and we’ve concluded that while powerful, this system is not untouchable. We believe its potency emanates from the lack of transparency, and as soon as honest, clear stories about people and products are added to the value chain, people can take the power back.

Imbalance and inequality are so written into the system that these farmers’ only option is to hustle outside of it. But success on the fringes requires expertise on so many fronts: logistics and distribution, marketing and brand-awareness.

What does this look like?

It looks like farmers who can afford to stop treating their land like mere engines of crop yield. It looks like brands using better products and supporting better agricultural practices by making clear value-choices about the ingredients they buy. It looks like consumers seeing the direct impact they have on people and landscapes, and driving the holistic health of our planet with every purchase they make.

We’ve worked with all kinds of farmers in all sorts of landscapes. We’ve spoken to brands throughout the world. We’ve talked to customers who are satisfied with the status-quo because they never thought to question it, and we’ve spoken to people who are thoroughly fed-up. Over the years we’ve accrued a wealth of knowledge about how and why our system is failing us, and how we can do better, and in May this year we’re going to launch our attempt at a solution. We can’t wait to tell you more.

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