Monday, October 13, 2014

Small Potatoes and Industrial Food Economics

I decided to write about this subject because of a New York Times opinion piece that came out in August titled, "Don't Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers".  While it may have hit some of us a little close to home, with its photo of three straw-hat-plaid-shirt-wearing lads, bending to pick up rocks in a dry dusty field, it made some good points.  The author, himself a young farmer, argued that for all the hullabaloo of the foodie movement, small-scale farmers are just not making ends meet.  Taking a look at the statistics, he might be right.  US median farm income in 2012 was negative $1,453.  This article got my parents concerned.

According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, over 75 percent of all farms in the US had annual sales of less than $50,000 ("small farms"), but together they produced only 3 percent of the total value of agricultural products sold.  In contrast, less than half of one percent of farms had agricultural sales of more than $5,000,000 ("big farms"), but these few farms produced 32 percent of the total value of all agricultural products sold.  Farms with sales of $1,000,000 or more -- 4 percent of all farms -- produced 66 percent of the total value.

So there are a few big farms out there, making most of the money, and there are a lot of little farms out there, barely making anything.  And the gap is widening.  Between 2007 and 2012, the number of "mid-sized farms" has steadily declined, while large farms (over 1,000 acres) and small farms (under 10 acres) didn't change.

If you look up "Economies of Scale" on Wikipedia, you'll see a simple graph explaining that as quantity of production increases, cost of each unit decreases.  This principle, with the help of US farm policies over the years, has led to bigger and bigger farm operations in this country.  Big farms just make sense (economically).

A quick walk through the produce section of a Rochester, NY grocery store illustrates how vegetables from all over the country, even from all over the world, find themselves on our local shelves.  And you can bet that most of these don't come from small farms.  Supermarkets rely on producers that can offer quantity and consistency.  HUGE quantity.  And year-round growing consistency.  Cal-Organic grows organic produce on more than 28,000 acres; Earthbound Organics, 50,000 acres.   Earthbound's slogan is "Scaling Organic for Consumers Everywhere."  And certainly, having this many acres converted to chemical-free production is a great thing, as is the benefit of making more organic food available to more people.  But lets look at some of the other realities of big and small.

In the early 1970s, the US Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, famously promoted the mantra "Get Big or Get Out" to farmers across the country.  The policy shifts that he helped set in motion coincided with the rise of major agribusiness corporations, and the declining financial stability of the small family farm.  The agribusiness lobby today is nearly $60 million a year, with the interests of agricultural corporations highly represented.  Thus US policies stay kind to big farms, because big farms can afford to hire big lobbyists and lawyers. 

(Side note: if you're wondering about subsidies, the US gives out about $14 billion a year to farmers who grow things like corn, wheat, and soybeans, but nothing to "specialty crops," otherwise known as fruits and vegetables.  Yep, that's $14 billion of taxpayers' dollars going mainly to help make cheap factory meat, soda pop, and processed foods that make us sick.  This helps the pharmaceutical industry thrive but not so much our local vegetable growers.)
But things could be changing.  Our current Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, in a very recent NY Times article, spoke about his plans to "revitalize the rural economy," by supporting local and regional food distribution systems with $52 million from the USDA.  "Small and medium-sized operations end up helping to generate more employment than commercial operations because of their different distribution systems and their local natures," Vilsack said.  "If you can connect local produce with markets that are local, money gets rolled around in the local community more directly compared to commercial agriculture where products get shipped in large quantities somewhere else, helping the economy there." 

Tom Vilsack brings up two good points about the small farm vs. large farm debate:  employment & local economy.  Almost three quarters of all agricultural workers in this country are not US citizens; half are unauthorized immigrants.  Small local farms often employ local residents instead of migrants, keeping them around for longer and taking better care of them because they depend on them (and they might be neighbors!) 

Working on a small farm could be more appealing to locals, because of the diversity of tasks, chance to understand the bigger picture, satisfaction in feeding their local community, and potential for management responsibilities.  Working on a large farm is likely to be repetitive, specialized, more similar to factory work, and disconnected from the end product and customer.  So larger farms import their workers, who then export our money.  Pay a crew of Mexican workers and they will send the money home to Mexico; pay a crew of local kids, and they spend the money locally.  Small farms really do help revitalize the local economy, albeit in their small-potato ways.

Mud Creek Farm
Earthbound Farms
It seems like the food production industry's natural drive toward higher production, the "Industrial Growth" model that our economic system seems to inevitably follow, often leaves out the local.  Global trade has allowed for multi-national corporations to thrive, for big businesses to benefit, while small farmers all over the world are forced by economic conditions to "Get Out."

But the thing that a 28,000 acre farm misses, and consistently tries to convince customers through marketing campaigns, is the heart and soul.  The human.  The place.

People who work the land they call "home," care about how it is treated.  They may have had grandparents who put everything they had into the farm, into the family, into the community.  They may have grandchildren who will depend on the health of the land, who will breathe the air and drink the water.  A large farm might have a difficult time caring about more than just bottom line, but care comes easy when it's your own backyard. 

Betsy (MCF 2013 crew) is a third-generation on her land, living on a country road bearing her family's name.
Environmentally responsible management is one of the values that small farms offer, a value that doesn't often end up translating into grocery store prices.  Yet it is vital for the future of our soil, water, and ecosystems.

Big farms often have a traditional corporate labor structure, with CEOs and professional managers who rarely step foot in a field.  These people make decisions which get passed down through the hierarchy of people in charge, to folks actually working on the ground.  Farmworkers are given tasks to carry out as fast as possible, with little understanding of the bigger picture, or concern for anything other than keeping their jobs.  Where is the care in this kind of structure?  The executive may claim benevolent motives, a spirit of goodness toward the land, the people, the health of the customer, but at the end of the day, the big house where they live is probably far from the fields that grow their profits.  Bottom line is bottom line.  Big farms are big business, run by people in suits and not Carharts.

Small-scale farmers live in the communities they feed.  They are held accountable in a real way for any negative actions that might harm the community, whether that's mismanagement of the land, people, or product.  Knowing your local farmer establishes a trust-based relationship with the people providing your daily bread.

Small farms can protect diversity of crop varieties, which is important as we move into uncertain climate times.  Large farms often streamline their operations by selecting a few proven varieties with high yield, but more local farm operations can help preserve genetics adapted specifically to certain regions.

Local farms often produce food that tastes better and has higher nutritional content, due to the fact that it's not shipped across the country and moved through distributors' warehouses.  Efficiency often sacrifices quality for the sake of quantity -- are we just trying to survive or do we actually want to thrive?  Is our ultimate goal to be able to eat cheaply, or to feel healthy?

And, last but not least, small farms give urban and suburban dwellers the chance to connect to the land, to our rich agricultural history.  They offer a place for kids to learn about the miracle of turning dirt into food with just a tiny seed.  And to understand everything that goes into that process, learning patience in the natural pace of the seasons, nurturing in the caring hands of the planter and harvester, interdependency with the sun, the rain, the living ecosystem, and gratitude for the planet which sustains them, three meals a day.

Maybe it's time to redefine our food system in terms of values beyond the economic principles that drive us toward more and more efficiency.  Values of a life-sustaining civilization based on love, care, and connection to a place we call home.  And connection to each other.

So, in answer to the dilemma of small farm viability, a Saturday Evening Post article puts it well: 
"This is how organic family farms will survive: by bypassing long supply chains and dealing instead with the people who eat their food."
Farmer Jim Riddle says: "It's a personal relationship: 'If you buy from me, I'll be here tomorrow.  I'll be here next year.  I'll respond to your needs.  We're in this together.'"

(Harvesting small potatoes at Mud Creek Farm)

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