“How do the economics of small, low-tech, agriculture-based manufacturing work? There is so much romance about these kinds of businesses, but really, what does it take to ensure a happily-ever-after?”
In 2007 I started a small hard cider company in Vermont. I’d been working in the mainstream business world for 25 years, and I thought it would be fun to take the skills I’d acquired and apply them to making a “real” product on a small scale in a beautiful New England setting.
There is a lot of hype about small food producers these days, especially in Vermont. There needs to be. Hype is the only way most of us will survive.
Why? Because without hype, consumers won’t learn about the underdogs – the small entrepreneurs who are trying to bring high quality, ‘real’ food back to the market. And unless consumers start purchasing from these underdogs, they won’t be able to overcome the obstacles that the modern food system poses for them.
The same forces that have led to consolidation of wealth and the erosion of the middle class, have led to consolidation of resources among large corporate producers and the disappearance of small and mid-sized producers. Despite the internet, social media, and falling computing costs, the relentless application of economies of scale continue to drive consolidation in production, in distribution and in the wealth of the owners of those consolidated assets. It’s not all a bad thing – the world produces food calories at a tiny fraction of the cost of centuries past. Solving world hunger in 2015 is not a production problem, it’s a political problem.
But there used to be successful small producers that made high quality products, paid their employees well, and were real assets to the smaller towns and cities in which they were located. These businesses formed a bridge in our economy and in our communities between subsistence production and conglomerate production. That bridge has been collapsing for years, and with it the social fabric and local economies of those communities.
Now there is a new wave of food entrepreneurs willing to put their sweat equity and their capital on the line. Do we have a chance at medium-to-long term survival? Are we all just gradually pouring our resources down the drain? How high will the ultimate failure rate be, and at what cost to our food system and social fabric?
Our best hope for success is that consumers start to vote for underdogs with their wallets. People can and do make a difference through their consumption choices. We need what’s left of the middle class to understand that supporting underdogs is not only a way to eat and drink better, but the only way to bring back our communities, and grow our middle class.
Vote for the underdogs. Who are we and why are we underdogs? Let me show you.