Ag economist helps farmers find their niche
As suburban kid from Ohio, Larry Lev didn’t give agriculture much thought until he found himself in France as an undergraduate student.
After spending a semester attending university there, he traveled as a migrant worker picking strawberries and Champagne grapes.
“It was just a way to stay in Europe,” said Lev.
His overseas experience piqued his interest enough to eventually lead to a career as an agricultural economist at Oregon State University.
Lev’s next step after college was the Peace Corps, where he basically served as an extension agent to farmers in Tanzania.
At the time, his goal was helping growers shift from tilling the earth with hand tools to plowing with livestock.
The time he spent in Africa taught Lev that agricultural progress often requires more than technical expertise — it’s tied up with economic and political issues.
His interest in agricultural economics prompted Lev to obtain a doctorate in the field from Michigan State University.
When he was hired by Oregon State University, his job again took him to farmers in Africa and France.
Returning to Tanzania, Lev assisted farmers with growing an early-maturing corn crop that they planted in fields along with cotton.
The “kito” corn variety doesn’t have many conventionally desirable attributes, like high yields or pest resistance.
However, it is short in stature and is harvested a month earlier than other cultivars, giving the interplanted cotton enough sunlight and time to achieve an acceptable yield.
Lev learned an important lesson from the corn experiment — it’s better to engage in research with farmers as full participants, rather than impose objectives that may not fit their needs.
“A lot can be done by building off the ideas they have,” he said. “It’s a bottom-up approach, rather than the approach of coming in with a solution.”
Years later, Lev revisited France while on a yearlong sabbatical and developed an interest in the culture of locally based foods.
He continued this research upon returning to Oregon in 1997 and began studying farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture and other alternative sales models for small- and mid-sized growers.
Since then, Lev has had an opportunity to examine these niches as they’ve flourished, said Lauren Gwin, associate director of OSU’s Center for Small Farms and Community Food Systems.
“He really has a breadth of experience,” Gwin said. “His research is always very applied.”
Lev noticed that mid-sized farms were often too small to compete in the commodity market but too large to effectively sell directly to consumers.
“A lot of those farms are struggling,” he said.
In some cases, these farmers were able to use their situation to their advantage by providing unique values, like traceability.
Lev refers to the phenomenon as “ag of the middle.”
For example, ranchers formed the Country Natural Beef cooperative to sell meat to Burgerville restaurants and Whole Foods grocery stores.
Individual ranchers would have been unable to supply these companies with enough volume by themselves. Driving hundreds of miles to sell to consumers at farmers’ markets wouldn’t have penciled out financially.
By joining together, the ranchers were able to build enough critical mass to create a viable market for their product.
“It’s been rewarding to see farms be able to fill those specific niches,” said Lev. “We call it values-based supply chains.”
The strategy allows consumers to feel like they have a connection with the grower while still providing an economy of scale and distributing goods efficiently.
Such cooperatives often “share the hurt” by requiring that everybody cut back on production during periods of excess supply, rather than simply kicking out the newest members to join, said Lev.
“It’s part of their value system,” he said. “It becomes part of the story they can tell: ‘We respect our growers. We’re all in this together.’ They’re differentiating themselves not only with their product, but also in the way they operate.”
Not all of Lev’s research pertains to successes, however.
Strong growth in the total number of farmers’ markets has obscured the fact that many markets fail each year.
Markets that are new and small are most likely to falter, he said.
To persist, a farmers’ market must essentially have enough gravity to attract consumers and growers.
Consumers won’t be motivated to attend a market without many vendors, and farmers won’t travel to markets with low attendance.
“It’s more complicated than it looks, so people should do their homework,” Lev said.
Despite its growing popularity, value-based food marketing does face constraints, he said.
Food distributed through such systems is generally higher priced and not everybody will make an effort to seek it out, said Lev.
Even so, these venues have improved the fabric of the farm economy, he said. “Agriculture is stronger by providing those alternatives.”
Occupation: Agricultural economist at Oregon State University
Hometown: Corvallis, Ore.
Family: Wife, Ann Shriver, and a grown son and daughter
Education: Bachelor’s degree in political science from Wesleyan University in 1975, doctorate in agricultural economics from Michigan State University in 1984