The Farmplate Blog

More Politics of the Plate: Avoiding the “Commodity Trap” of Industrial Agriculture

Jeff Gangemi Dec 07, 2011 News 0 comments

This is part two of our conversation with Barry Estabrook, food journalist and author of Tomatoland. In yesterday’s post, Barry discussed how transparency can help remedy some of the modern-day farm labor abuses. He also named some of the great local producers in and around his home state of Vermont.  

Today, Estabrook shares some of the small, local producers that are going against the grain of large-scale industrial agriculture, particularly in the Central Valley of California. 

“I talked with a famous organic farmer, and he went on about how good we have it in Vermont — how easy the food movement in Vermont is,” says Estabrook.  “He was comparing it to the Central Valley of California, which grows half of the produce we eat, but it’s still hard to get a fresh anything there…”

That may be changing. Estabrook says there are folks doing it right, even where it's hard to see them — like in California’s San Joaquin Valley.  “Even in the heartland of industrial agriculture, there are people who are figuring out ways to farm in ways that are environmentally sound,” he says. 

Key to the success of such operations, says Estabrook, is their ability to bypass what he calls “the commodity trap,” where food companies compete on price and volume, instead of quality and trust.  If a company makes cheese, for example, it behooves them to differentiate their cheese from Kraft’s cheese. “If you can do that, then that changes the financial model completely,” says Estabrook.  

For proof, he points to five producers he interviewed for a recent assignment, “all of whom were extremely successful,” he says. Click on the green links below to learn more about these great San Joaquin Valley farms and food artisans: 

Open Space Meats • Newman, CA - grass-fed beef
T & D Willey Farms • Madera, CA - vegetables 
Fiscalini Cheese Company • Modesto, CA - cheese 
CandyCots • Modesto, CA - apricots 
Kokuho Rose • Dos Palos, CA - rice 

The success of small food enterprises like these bodes well for the future of small-scale agriculture, Estabrook says, even where they’re literally dwarfed by their industrial-sized neighbors.

Images courtesy of Politics of the Plate.


Jeff Gangemi is FarmPlate's Director of Partnerships and Communications. A lover of both local and far-flung foods like soup dumplings and carnitas tacos, Jeff believes in the power of food, writing and entrepreneurship to effect social change.