Key to Sustainable Farming:

Market in the Niches*

John Ikerd

University of Missouri

Industrial systems of food and fiber production are widely heralded as the world's most productive, but are they sustainable? U.S. food consumers now spend just over 10 percent of their disposable income to feed themselves, but what are the environmental costs of producing the world's "cheapest" food? Industrialization has allowed fewer farmers to provide a growing population with better food and fiber at a lower cost, but what are the social costs of displaced farm families and dying rural communities? Industrial technologies have allowed U.S. farmers to reduce their costs and increase production, but how many of the remaining 2 million farms are economically viable?

Sustainable Agriculture

Any system of food and fiber production that degrades, or uses up, the natural resource base is not sustainable. When the resources needed to support production have lost their productivity, production ceases. Society will not sustain a system of agricultural that fails to meet their food and fiber needs. But neither will society continue to support a system that needlessly disrupts their lives and destroys their communities. Farmers must be able to survive financially for agriculture to be sustainable. An agricultural system is not sustainable if the only profitable farms are those which deplete the environmental and degrade human dignity.

On these grounds, U.S. agriculture can certainly be questioned, if not indicted, as lacking sustainability. The questions of sustainability are associated directly with specialized, mechanized, large-scale systems – the hallmarks of industrial agriculture. So why is the industrialization of U.S. agriculture moving ahead at an unprecedented pace?

First, sustainability is a long run concept. A sustainable agriculture must be capable of meeting the needs of people both of the current generation and for all future generations to follow. We can never know for sure if a system of production will meet the needs of all future generations, even if we were sure about today. We can't prove empirically that U.S. agriculture is not sustainable, regardless of what sound logic and common sense leads to believe.

Second, historically, we have been a nation that lives in the short run – what we use up today, we can replace tomorrow, what we destroy today, we can rebuild tomorrow. We seem to have a blind faith in future technology and human ingenuity to solve any problem we create today. Sustainability is about the future, and we will get around to worrying about the future only when we are sure that we have taken care of today. We have built an economy to accommodate our culture – an economy that thrives on short run profits and growth while giving little if any regard to the needs of future generations. Our economy will not reward sustainability until our society values sustainability.

The sustainability movement reflects an awakening of society to a growing heart-felt need -- a need to care about others as well as ourselves and to care about future generations as well as our own. We are beginning to realize that our quality of life today is not just a matter of how much money we earn or "stuff" we acquire, but also reflects the quality of our social interrelationships with other and our spiritual interconnections with those of the future. A life of quality is one in which we are able to apply the "golden rule" among, as well as within, generations. Those who feel and act on the contemporaneous values of self and others of the present and future, represent a growing but still small minority within U.S. society. For some time to come, those who pursue the goals of sustainability must be prepared to do so within the context of a hostile society.

Strategies for Sustainable Farming

How can farmers who pursue the goals of sustainability survive, and hopefully thrive, in the current hostile economic environment? The answer is not in farming more efficiently – not competing with industrial farming systems – but instead in farming more effectively – doing the things industrial systems can't do. Those who seem to be most successfully pursuing sustainability almost always tell of beginning their quest by rethinking farming from the ground up. They talk of changing their heads first – changes in their farming then follows.

The threats to agricultural sustainability are inherent within the fundamental concepts of conventional, industrial systems of production – specialization, mechanization, routinization, and economies of scale or size. According to Einstein, problems cannot be solved using the same thinking that lead to their creation. If so, sustainability will require a whole new, higher level of thinking. Some of the fundamental concepts of new sustainable systems may be diversification, humanization, individualization, and economies of scope or focus.

Farming sustainably in the current hostile environment will depend more effectiveness – doing the right thing – than on efficiency – doing things right. Farming sustainably will depend far more on doing better things differently than on doing the same things better.

Farming sustainably will require more intensive management of natural and human resources. In conventional agriculture, a better manager is defined as one who can manage more land, more capital, or more labor, more efficiently. Increased profits and returns to management come from being able to produce more output at a lower cost. In sustainable agriculture, a better manager may be defined as one who can earn a higher return to management and profit from less land and less capital with less labor. The increased returns come from managing each acre, each dollar, and each hour of work more intensively, and thus, creating more value while possibly producing less output.

Intensive management can be applied to marketing as well as production aspects of farming operations. However, most of the past emphasis in sustainable agriculture has been on managing farm production. The name for the initial USDA sustainable agriculture programs was "Low Input Sustainable Agriculture" or "LISA." Low input farming means to reduce reliance on purchases or external farm inputs, such as fertilizers, pesticides, hired labor, rented land, and borrowed money. However, if low input farms are to remain productive and profitable, they must substitute something else for the purchased inputs they are eliminating. They must use some other means of maintaining soil fertility, managing pests, getting the work done, and financing the operation. So profitable low-input farms must rely more on management of the farm's internal resources – owned land, operator and family labor, and equity capital. Intensive land management strategies include crop and pasture rotations, diversification of crops and livestock, utilization of family labor, and low investment systems to minimize debt.

Lower input farming systems work because they produce in harmony with nature – harvesting the maximum amount of solar energy – rather than attempt to conquer nature with technology or replacing natural systems with commercial inputs. However, producing in harmony with nature requires a greater understanding of nature and greater skills of timing and intensity of actions to maintain that harmony. In general, lower input farming methods require more intensive management.

Marketing in the Niches

The same logic that supports low input sustainable farming supports a management intensive approach to marketing the output of sustainable farms. Marketing begins with decisions regarding what to produce. In the current economic environment, sustainable farms will need to target higher valued products. Crops and livestock enterprises must generate more total dollars per acre of land or per dollar of capital investment than do most conventional farming enterprises. Enterprises yield more value with less land and capital only if they require more of something else – specifically labor or management.

Producing "higher-quality" end products can further enhance returns from high-valued crops and livestock – resulting in more dollars per unit of production. In the case higher quality, the focus should be on qualities inherent within the natural product – such as taste, freshness, or nutritive value -- rather than cosmetic qualities that can be enhanced more efficiently through use of commercial inputs.

In the current economic environment, sustainable farmers likely will be more successful targeting markets – individual and groups of customers -- that are least well served by the existing industrial markets. The recent dramatic growth in organic foods has arisen from farmers beginning to produce for a market that was not well served by the large supermarket chains. Likewise, the growth in "green" markets for all sorts of products has arisen from growing public concerns about the environmental impacts of industrial production methods. Customers who are not well served by the current industrial system will reward those who are willing and able to respond to their unique preferences and meet their specific needs.

Products can be tailored to meet the needs of specific customer groups by a variety of means beyond simply deciding what to produce. Unique ways of processing and packaging may separate one farmers produce from the rest in ways that better meet the needs of a particular group of customers. Home delivery, convenient pick-up, or even "inconvenient" but "authentic" visits to pick-up products at the farm may distinguish one farmer's products from another. Providing fresh, local products before or after the normal growing season or using innovative processing and storage methods to spread otherwise seasonal marketing may provide a unique advantage for others. The key concept in "not competing" is to produce, process, and deliver something different from anything consumers can buy in the supermarket or discount store -- something more valuable at least to some customers.

The strategy for targeting products to unique markets – relatively small groups of customers – rather than mass markets is called "niche" marketing. Niche marketing may well be the key to sustainable farming – at least in the current economic environment. First, about 80 percent of the current retail food value is value added after it leaves the farm. Management intensive production strategies must squeeze whatever economic advantage they achieve from the dime or so of the average retail food dollar that goes to pay for conventional farm inputs. In comparison, management intensive marketing has 80 cents of the food dollar from which to squeeze additional profits.

Secondly, niche marketing is particularly well suited to smaller, management intensive farming operations. The primary advantage of mass marketing is that processing, transportation, storage, packaging, and advertising when done on a large scale typically results in substantial cost savings. There is no way an individual farmer can match the costs of a large agribusiness firm in carrying out the same marketing functions. Simply cutting out the middleman gains you nothing unless you can do the job at lower cost than the middleman can.

However, a high degree of uniformity and consistency among products is required to achieve the cost savings of mass marketing. Processors need to start with large quantities of uniform commodities or raw materials to facilitate efficient processing. They must turn these raw materials into large batches of uniform products to facilitate efficient transportation, storage, advertising and merchandizing to masses of consumers. Differences among final products generally are limited to product presentation – package size, cuts of meat, degrees of processing, etc. – or product cosmetics – color, shape, blemishes, etc. In the case of broiler chickens, for example, there may be dozens of package sizes, varieties of cuts, and degrees of processing, but they all must come from the "same generic chicken" to achieve the economies of mass merchandizing.

The strength of niche marketing arises from the weakness of mass marketing. Niche markets focus on supplying relatively small quantities of unique products – products with differences that go beyond presentation and cosmetics. Organic vegetables have been a prime example of a successful niche markets. The differences go all the way back to the land and the farming methods under which organic crops were grown and are were preserved through the marketing system to the final customer. Rather than "minimizing costs," niche marketing focuses on "maximizing value" to the customer.

Different people value things differently. Niche marketing focuses on getting the right product to the right person at the right place at the right time. Niche marketing responds to the unique preferences and individual needs of specific customers – giving them what they want rather than trying to convince them to accept what everyone else seems to want. The more unique the product, the higher will be the potential premium in value over similar products available in mass markets. Niche markets focus on value rather than cost, thus, avoiding head-to-head competition with mass marketers.

Niche marketing has come into vogue for the same basic reasons as the sustainability. The benefits of mass markets have declined, as have the benefits of industrialization. Industrialization initially created tremendous societal benefits with few "apparent" social costs. However, over time, the benefits have declined and the costs have risen as the industrial model has been applied in situations where it is less and less well suited. Today, there is evidence that further industrialization, or even continued industrial production, may well create more costs than benefits. Rising environmental, social, and economic costs cast grave doubts on the sustainability of the industrial model of economic development. Society has little if anything left to gain from industrialization. The only force continuing to drive industrialization today would appear to be an insatiable quest for corporate power and greed.

Economics of Niche Marketing

Niche marketing may well hold the key to economic viability for systems of farming that are environmentally sound and socially responsible. The natural resource base that supports agricultural production is diverse – in soils, topography, climate, etc. Industrial farming methods – specialized, mechanized, large-scale production – dictate that natural resources be treated as if they were pretty much the same. Highly heralded "precision farming" methods are a feeble attempt to treat big farms as if they were small – but they only deal with one dimension of a complex multidimensional system of production. Niche markets for small quantities of many different types of products allow farmers to profitably match their enterprises and production practices to the unique and diverse natural resource base they have to manage. Niche markets can make ecologically sound farming systems economically viable.

Niche markets can also enhance the economic viability of a more socially responsible system of farming. Niche markets provide economic opportunities for those who manage more intensively by creating opportunities for more farmers to make a better economic living in a given geographic area or community with less capital investment. Thus, niche markets make possible a more socially responsible agriculture – one that not only meets the needs of people, as consumers, but also provides more quality opportunities for people, as producers, to work and live on the land. The corporate contract production alternative being offered to farmers today would only further reduce the number of people employed in production agriculture and convert independent farmers into corporate "hired hands." Niche marketing offers a more socially responsible, sustainable alternative.

The key dimension niche marketing adds to sustainable farming is the prospect for economic viability. By focusing on giving people what they want, niche markets focus on value, thus relieving the continual pressure to reduce costs that has characterized industrial production of the past. Profits, by design, were not sustainable under industrial systems of agricultural production. New output enhancing technologies made it possible to reduce per unit costs and created profit opportunities for early adopters; but as more farmers adopted the new technologies, total production increased, prices dropped, and profits were erased. Others were forced to adopt the technologies and expand production just to stay in business. Laggards were forced out of business. Each new round of technology created new profit opportunities, but only to be erased by increasing production and falling prices, leaving room for ever fewer farmers as farms grew ever larger. Niche marketing gives farmers an opportunity to get off the industrial treadmill of the past – to sustain profits over time.

Niche marketing creates economic value by matching the unique resources of farmers with the unique wants and needs of consumers. A brief review of basic economics validated the theoretical soundness of this proposition. All economic value or utility arises from four fundamental sources: form, place, time, and person or possession. In order to know the value of anything, we must first know its physical form – what is it? its geographic location – where is it? its time of availability – when can I get it? and finally the people involved – who has it and who wants it? Only when we know the answer to all four questions, can we know the economic value of anything.

During the industrial area our attention has been focused on the first three dimensions of value -- form, place, and time. The fundamental advantage of industrialization is that it greatly reduced the costs of changing the physical form of things – mass production, processing, and manufacturing; the cost of changing the place of things – transportation and distribution; and the cost of changing the time of things – storage, packaging, convenience. So the focus of industrialization has been on the things for which industrialization provided clear advantages.

But, value is also associated with the person dimension of things – who has them and who wants them? Different people have different abilities as producers. It matters who is doing the producing and who is offering something for sale. One person may be able and willing to produce and offer for sale a superior product at a lower cost than can another. The same thing at the same place and time may have greater value to one person than to another. It matters who wants whatever is, or isn't, offered for sale. But industrial systems couldn't create benefits for people as individuals, only for people as masses. So it seemed best to the industrialist if people didn't know too much about what they couldn't have.

Niche Marketing Versus Mass Marketing

The key weakness of the industrial system is that it ignores most real differences among people – both as producers and as consumers. Mass production treats workers as little more than sophisticated machines. The fact that workers are people, and therefore are different, is seen as an obstacle to industrial production. Henry Ford has been quoted as saying that one of his biggest problems was that he had to hire whole people when all he needed was their two hands. When most of the assembly line workers were displaced farmers and other rural people, the industrial factories worked well. Rural people worked, as a matter of principle, no matter how they were treated. But later generations of factory workers rebelled at the human degradation of industrial work. They demanded higher wages and worker productivity declined. Computers and robots are now replacing industrial workers – with no apparent consideration for future employment opportunities.

Industrialization, with its mass markets, also ignores the very real differences among preferences and needs of people as consumers. Mass marketing works best in cases where a lot of people want, or at least are willing to accept, pretty much the same thing. The model T Ford is a classic early example of a successfully mass marketed industrial product. Blue jeans were another example of something that could be mass marketed to working class people on the basis of comfort and durability. Many generic foods – beef, pork, chicken, rice, potatoes – also are examples of successful mass markets. However, such mass markets were successful because they offered lower prices than had previously prevailed in the market place. Consumers accepted these things not because they really preferred them, but because they were much cheaper than the alternatives.

As consumers' incomes increased, they became more able to buy the things they really wanted and less willing to settle for something else. And cost savings declined as industrial principles were applied to good and services where consumer want and needs were increasingly diverse – such as education and health care. In the case of food, we currently pay more for advertising and packaging that we pay to the farmers who produce our food. There is every reason to question a systems that requires more money to convince people they want something that it takes to produce the things they have to be convinced they want. Why not just produce the things they really want, even if those things cost more to produce? Niche marketing is an answer to this question. Niche marketing allows people to express their uniqueness, as producers and as consumers, and thereby creates true economic value.

Uniqueness: The Key to Sustainable Profits

Uniqueness is the key to sustaining profits – to getting off the technology treadmill where profits are inherently unsustainable. Uniqueness of natural resources – land, water table, climate, etc. – creates opportunities to produce products that cannot be duplicated in different locations. For example, wine from grapes grown under different soil and climatic conditions are unique in quality. Successful small-scale wine makers each have a niche market made up of customers who prefer their particular wines. Niche markets for Vidalia and Walla Walla onions provide similar examples of geographic uniqueness.

Each producer has a unique set of talents and skills that cannot be duplicated by other producers – although many have not yet discovered and learned how to use them. Such uniqueness is commonly associated with those who are labeled as "craftsmen" -- those who produce things of value that cannot be mass-produced. Those farmers who use unique talents to produce for unique market niches, likewise, are craftspeople – they produce things of value that cannot be mass-produced. There is sustainable value in the uniqueness of people.

Perhaps the most valuable uniqueness in niche marketing is that associated with relationships. In this case the uniqueness is not a characteristic of the people themselves, but of the relationships between or among people. Attributes such as trust, confidence, and respect exist between people rather than within people. One person may trust a person that is distrusted by another. Relationships can also change over time. A person who is respected today maybe despised tomorrow. Positive relationships are potentially valuable assets in business as well as personal endeavors. People like to do business with people they trust, respect, and have confidence will deliver on their commitments. They value such relationships and are willing to reflect that value in their terms of trade.

Industrialization is an inherently impersonal system. Rules of trade – government grades and standards, contract law, price-reporting requirements, and labeling and advertising requirements – have been devised to minimize the costs of a depersonalized market place. However, over time consumers have lost confidence both in the industrial corporations who are distributing their food and in the government bureaucracies that are supposed to protect them from the corporations. They don't trust either to ensure them that the food supply is safe and wholesome or that they are not being "ripped off" in the supermarket. Trusting relationships between farmers and customers are not only possible but are typical of successful niche marketing, and are valuable assets to both.

The sustainability of niche markets is directly related to their uniqueness. The level of profit that is sustainable is directly related to the degree of uniqueness. Substitutes exist for all economic goods and services – for all things that are commonly bought and sold. The degree of substitutability exists in the mind of the buyer. Some things have a lot of good substitutes and others have only a few -- and even those may not be very good. The latter – those with few substitutes -- are more unique. Things with a lot of good substitutes cannot command a price much higher than the price of their substitutes. Buyers will not pay much more for something that is not very different from, therefore not much better than, a lower priced alternative. Those things that have few good substitutes can command higher prices – there aren't many good alternatives at any price.

Others will try to emulate the higher priced, more profitable producers. In mass markets, where things are pretty much the same, competition quickly erases price premiums not associate with higher costs – in the absence of monopoly power. But if higher values are associated with characteristics unique to a specific producer and place of production, others cannot duplicate them elsewhere. The magnitude of profits will reflect the degree of uniqueness, and the sustainability of profits will reflect the persistence of that uniqueness over time.

How Much is Enough?

The sustainability of profits is also a function of the decisions of the niche marketer. Attempts to expand a market beyond its niche, in size and scope, invariably turns it into a mass market – with all the associated implications. If niche marketers have to go beyond providing product information -- to persuade customers to buy their products -- they are moving into a mass marketing strategy where costs and competitive strategies will eventually dominate. Their efforts to make more profits will destroy the sustainability of the profits they once had. They will have responded to the common human failing of not knowing how much is enough.

The recent controversy over national organic standards was as much a controversy over whether there should be national standards as what the standards should be. Organic producers, for the most part, have been niche marketers – with local customers for their products. Lacking effective state and national standards, many customers had to rely on their personal knowledge of the individual producer or local organization to ensure they were buying organic. The ability to gain customer trust effectively limited an individual producers market, but also provided protection from outside competition. Effective national organic standards will eliminate both. National standards will turn many small organic niche markets into one large organic mass market – with all the associated consequences.

The industrial system is driven by the conventional economic assumption that human wants are insatiable – that we can never have enough. We can get enough of specific things but never enough of everything – which translates into never enough money and never enough profit. But, sustainability is based on the assumption that we can have enough – that we will choose to leave something for others. Successful niche marketers must be willing to break out of the industrial mindset. They must be willing to decide when they have enough. They must be willing to accept the fact that niche markets are limited-sized markets, even though niches are not limited in numbers. The key to successful expansion is to find another niche rather than expand a niche beyond its natural limits.

Niche markets likewise are sustainable only if they are part of a sustainable system of production and marketing. If niche markets are pursued only for the purposes of enhancing profits, they will not be sustainable. A niche market for products produced by means that degrade the natural environment and degrade the quality of life of workers or others in the community is not sustainable. If production is not sustainable, the market is not sustainable -- no matter how profitable it may appear to be in the short run. Much of the current emphasis on niche marketing is a product of the same short run self-interest and greed that has driven mass marketing. Niche marketing becomes the key to sustainability only if it is used to enhance the economic viability of systems that are ecologically sound and socially responsible.

The fundamental purpose of all thoughtful human endeavors is to achieve and sustain a desirable quality of life. Quality of life has physical, mental, and spiritual dimensions. It is a product of personal, interpersonal, and intergenerational relationships. A life of quality is a life of harmony – not a life of extremes in either greed or depravation. The search for a desirable quality of life, and of farming, is a search for harmony among things ecological, social, and economic.

Some Promising Niche Markets

There are as many niche markets as there are individual wants and needs. But some niches are more promising than others. The key to finding profitable niche markets is to look where industrialization has either run its course or is being used where it doesn't fit, and thus, is causing problems.

In agriculture, the market niches tend to be more promising for those commodities where the farmers' share of the consumer's food dollar is least. Pastas, baked goods, natural cereals, are just a few examples where the farmer typically gets less than 10 cents from each dollar the consumer spends. By turning raw commodities into these final consumer products, farmers have an additional 90 cents from which to earn some additional profit.

Perhaps the most widespread successful niche markets are those for fresh vegetables and fruits. Success here can be traced to very real quality differences between local, fresh produce and produce shipped in from distant regions. Harvesting, storage and distribution methods made necessary by mass distribution systems have resulted in a significant deterioration in sensory quality of many fresh vegetables and fruits. Hard, tasteless tomatoes are a classic example. But, nearly all shipped fresh produce is bred for shelf life rather than flavor, shipped green, and has grown stale by the time it leaves the supermarket. Local producers who offer fruits and vegetables that are bred for flavor, picked ripe, and sold quickly have a natural quality advantage that cannot be duplicated by industrial systems. Similar untapped opportunities likely exist for other farm commodities.

A growing concern for food health and safety represents a potential growth area for niche markets. As markets move increasingly toward globalization, consumers will have even less knowledge, and a growing lack of confidence, concerning the conditions under which their foods are grown and processed. They are going to be increasingly concerned about the chemicals used in other countries that are not allowed in the U.S. and about sanitation standards in foreign processing facilities. Local producers, who can assure local customers of high health and safety standards –including but not limited to organic production – may find increasingly profitable, and sustainable, niche markets.

Environmental and animal welfare concerns provide similar opportunities for niche markets. However, in these cases the customers concern is driven more by ethics and moral values than by individual self-interest. The customer is less concerned about the healthfulness of the final product than with the methods used in producing it. This dimension of the recent organic standards debate seemed to catch the agricultural establishment by surprise. One group of potential organic customers may be concerned about food health, but others may be more concerned about the environmental impacts of conventional farming methods.

The agricultural establishment also has a hard time understanding customers who seem perfectly willing to have animals killed, but who don't want them to be mistreated. They don't seem to understand that it ‘s a matter of ethics -- fundamental beliefs about the right and wrong of human actions. It's not so much a matter of animal rights as of human responsibility. People are willing to pay to support those who share their beliefs – the poor as well as the rich. Producers who can find customers who share their ethical values concerning the environment or animal well-being may find sustainable niche markets.

The most numerous niche markets may be those that reconnect farmers with customers through the development of personal relationships. Farmers' markets and community supported agriculture enterprises provide prime examples. The industrial system had to separate people; within families, communities, and throughout society in general; in order to achieve the economies of specialized, large-scale production. It separated people from each other horizontally – e.g. farmers within rural communities – and vertically – e.g. farmers from their customers. Farming systems that bring families and neighbors back together can not only achieve economic advantages from better utilizing time and talents, but can strengthen a quality of family and community life that is threatened by industrialization. Kids that grow up knowing they are valuable – can do something productive – would logically seem more likely to grow up with a sense of positive self worth.

Local food systems that reconnect farmers and customers help build more sustainable communities as they help build a more sustainable agriculture. Communities require more than jobs, businesses, and social services to survive and to thrive. Communities are about people with common bonds of shared interests in the present and shared hopes and aspirations for the future. Industrialization has broken these common bonds – leaving collections of people living in the same places but with little sense of community. Local food systems can strengthen both the economic and social fabric of a community.

Break it!

The most difficult challenge in sustainable niche marketing is to break out of the old paradigms of industrial mass marketing. Those who start out as niche marketers almost invariably fall back into old mass marketing ways of thinking --about pricing, advertising, cost cutting, convenience, product appearance, shelf life, etc. Niche marketing requires new, unconventional ways of thinking and acting.

Bob Kriegel, in his book "If it ain't broke break it" outlines some "unconventional wisdom" that may prove valuable to would-be sustainable niche marketers.

"Believe in providence! Ride the waves of change!" Niche marketing is a wave of the future. Even the large corporations are moving away from mass marketing and are trying to tailor production to more narrow market niches. But the advantage of being big comes from being able to do a lot of the same stuff, over and over. Small producers can compete in niche markets. Small may well be the wave of the future. Be willing to ride the wave.

"Don't compete! Change the game instead!" If you want to compete with the big boys, you better be big and you had better be mean. Corporations have access to unlimited capital and they have no heart or soul. If you don't have a lot to invest and you aren't willing to sell your soul, you better stay out of the big boy's game. Change the game to one that the big boys can't play. Succeed by being small and unique rather than big and tough.

"Trust the unexpected! Plan to change your plan!" Sustainable agriculture and niche marketing are new arenas for most farmers. What we see today in sustainable farming and niche marketing is analogous to the old steam threshers that lumbered down the road in the early days of industrial agriculture. There is a lot yet to be learned, a lot of changes to be made, and a lot of things to happen that are totally unexpected. Be prepared to roll with the punches – plan on changing your plans.

"Don't be realistic! Dreams are goals with wings!" Many people, if not most, in the agricultural establishment believe sustainable agriculture is an idealistic dream. Many say that niche markets may work for a few folks in special situations, but is not something to be taken too seriously. But sustainable agriculture -- rather than biotechnology, precision farming, franchise farming – may well be the farming of the future. Niche markets – rather than mass markets -- may be the markets of the future. After all, we are all really want something different. Why should we be realistic when no one knows for sure what is really going to happen. Why not put wings on your goals and dream?

"Light a fire in your heart! Passion is contagious!" If you are going to try something really different, you had better do it with passion. New things take a lot of creative thinking and a lot of hard work. Other people are going to disagree with you and laugh at you. If you don't start with fire in your heart you better not start. Others will dump water on your flame, so you are going to need some friends to re-light your fire. Passion for life and work is the best way to bring others to share your cause. Light a fire in your heart and fuel it with passion, and you just might make it work.

"Joy pays off! Learn to play … to win!" Life is not a destination -- it is a process. The destination for all is death – not life. Most of us spend a good part of our life at work. If there is no joy in your work, there is no joy in a big part of life. If there is little joy in your life, there is little chance for success – regardless of how much money you earn being miserable. If you want to really succeed, you can do that only by putting joy in your work and your life. Find ways to make play out of work. Then you can play to win without losing.

Sustainable agriculture is a new way of thinking about farming, about work, and about life. In a sense, sustainable agriculture is about new life – and life begins outside the "egg shell." We may just have to "break it" before we can begin!