Food’s Missing Tail
The long tail of food has the power to transform our entire food system. It’s diverse, local, unique, and sometimes illegal.
Imagine that you could line up every conceivable food production activity and arrange them from most to least productive. On one end we’d see highly productive industrial farms, followed by large family farms, large and medium scale market gardens, hobby farms, CSAs, nurseries, urban agriculture projects, community and backyard gardens – all the way down to growing herbs on windowsills. Each produces food – all of it counts.
Let’s not get into the math, but if were to graph the result we’d see a “long tail distribution” curve – a property of networks and systems – in this case, the food system. What you need to know is that the graph has a short head of large-scale producers and a long tail of small producers.
The Short Head
Logic dictates that to produce as much food as possible that we should concentrate our efforts – policies, time, and resources – on the most productive (short head) methods. To its credit, this strategy has produced a tonne of food. Unfortunately, it’s also led to increasingly narrow profit margins and a “Get Big or Get Out” approach to agriculture. The short head is getting shorter as smaller farms sell to larger ones. A 2014 Statistics Canada study reported a 24.8% reduction in the number of farms between 1991 and 2011. Larger farms often represent a loss in diversity – crop variety, farming methods, and farmer demographics (The average age of a farmer is 54.)
Markets for short head products demand uniformity at high volumes, and low prices – traits like taste and nutrition take a backseat to appearance and shelf life. Plants and animal varieties unsuitable for large scale farming fall out of favour or go extinct.
“The U.S., which has lost stunning amounts of plant diversity to development and single-minded commercial agriculture, was once home to something like 7,100 different varieties of apple a century ago; only about 300 continue to exist in any quantity” – CBC News
The Long Tail
To the right of the short head, producers taper into a long, thin tail of smaller and less productive operations. It’s easy to shrug off long tail producers as quant, menial, and insignificant – hobby farms and backyard gardeners incapable of producing food at any real volume. And though that may be true for any single producer, taken as a whole, long tail food production is on par with the short head – or it could. Let’s not forget that in 1944, small victory gardens – some as small as window boxes – represented 40% of the food grown in the United States that year!
Not only does the long tail have the capability to produce large volumes of food, but the food it produces needs to be unique to survive. Whereas the short head demands uniformity and consistency, the long tail survives by differentiating itself. Competing against short head producers would mean offering an equivalent product at an increased price; leading people to complain about the cost. The smart long tail strategy is to provide something that larger producers can’t. Instead of competing with commercial pork, long tail producers raise heritage mangalitsa pigs. Rather than offering generic honey, long tail producers provide single-hive, hyper-local honey that varies between neighbourhoods. Long tail brewers don’t try to mimic Bud Light; instead, they brew dandelion or bacon beer (from mangalitsa pigs?). Long tail food doesn’t have the benefit of scale so, generally speaking, the further down the tail, the more a product need to differentiate itself.
Unfortunately for food – especially local food – the economics of long tail production is challenging and sometimes illegal. Bylaws often limit or outright ban urban agriculture while business licensing, market rules, insurance, and health and safety requirements trim the tail so thoroughly that most long tail businesses never make it off the ground. That’s to say nothing about distribution – which is a massive hurdle in and of itself. It’s not that zoning, licensing, liability and sanitation aren’t important – it’s that we need to create opportunities for small food businesses to meet them.
Regrowing A Tail
If health and safety standards are too burdensome for small producers, we could pursue common, commercial processing spaces. If regulatory confusion, fees, and red tape prevent vendors from attending markets, then the rules should be clarified and costs reduced. In 2014, “California legalised selling food make at home and created over a thousand local businesses.” It’s not about lowering the bar; it’s about enabling small producers to rise up to meet them.
We shouldn’t ignore the short head either – large producers still grow most of our food and are an important part of a resilient food system. However, increasing the productivity of short head farming has diminishing returns. So while investing millions of dollars into the short head might provide incremental change, the same investment into the long tail could launch thousands of unique business models, increase overall food production, provide jobs, and decrease food insecurity. The long tail has more growth potential and is an opportunity to diversify our food system. There are a large number of people interested in starting food businesses. Maybe they’re naïve. Maybe they’ll go out of business within six months. – But I wish they had the opportunity to find out. So if we want local food, if we want interesting food, if we want more small business opportunities, let’s turn to and invest in the long tail.
A quick thank you to Mel Priestley for looking over a rough draft of this post. For more information on Mel, visit her food, wine, and culture website at melpriestley.ca. Thank you, Mel.