A Farmers Perspective

While academia, NGO’s, non-profits, et al. debate whether Organic or GMO will ‘feed the world’ the farmers and ranchers producing that food must cope with the reality of economic viability on a daily basis. If you believe that organic prices are too high, you don’t understand the economics of farming. And if you believe that ‘conventional’ or non-organic food production is not as valuable, you don’t understand the economics of an industrial food system.

Food is way too cheap – all food – regardless of which certifications do or do not exist. Think of how many people have lived in an area where food is always available and always cheap – regardless of the ecological or nutritional value. We are now 3 or more generations into a food system where you can purchase a meal for under $5 – think beyond the health and economic impacts of this, and try to empathize for a moment with the women and men producing these products. How much do you think a farmer/rancher makes per bunch, per bushel, per pound? If you can walk into an establishment and pay 99 cents for a hamburger…you can see where I’m going with this…

We grow food on 2.5 acres each season. We direct market via CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) and farmers market. We make about $4.25/hr – and that’s selling at retail or market prices in a local-friendly market area: Seattle. All of our neighboring farms also engage in direct market sales and range in size from 2.5 to 200 acres – we are all struggling, to some extent, even in what many would consider a ‘top-tier’ market area. This is the reality of farming.

Why? Economics. We can’t increase our prices to reflect the realities of inflation because our customers already think market prices are too high. An example in Seattle: heirloom tomatoes have been $5/lb for 10 + years, meanwhile our costs have increased exponentially (I can go down the line of item like this from A to Z) Farmers/ranchers are no more immune to economic instability than our suburban counterparts. So while our farm inputs increase year after year (seeds, soil, fuel, fertilizer, etc.) our hands are tied – we can’t increase our prices to cover these costs. If you’re a farmer’s market shopper or CSA supporter think of this next time you shake your head as the prices your paying. Meanwhile, walk into your local grocery store or purchase wholesale and you see why small-scale is struggling. We cannot compete in an industrial food market. Think Earl Butz “get big or get out” – this is not some oft-uttered mantra that has little or no meaning. This philosophy is exactly why we’re having the discussion of how to ‘feed the world’. There is only one way to make a living selling at wholesale prices and that is to ‘get big’. We are in a market/economy of scale more so than ever in the world of agriculture. Our profit margins are as thin as the row cover we use to keep pests off our produce. Now we’re being asked to conform to an industrial scale that many of us couldn’t achieve even if we wanted to. You cannot expect local farmer’s to produce on a global scale AND also expect that local food to compete on price – it’s asking the impossible.

What we farmers and ranchers need is a different approach to the local food systems. We need innovative ideas to help us on the production side of things. What about food districts? Are you willing to pay a small levy each year to support the benefits that come with keeping food local? Are you willing to pay a little more for the open space maintained by farmers and ranchers – don’t forget folks, in many cases we ARE the buffers between deforestation, development and loss of habitat. We need cities and municipalities to offer vouchers to employees to purchase local foods. We need tax breaks for businesses that support local producers (for every $1 you spend on local food you get a property tax break of ‘x’ – etc.…) And if you believe in ending food deserts and bringing equality to those that need it – you’ll need a subsidy. The last thing we need is to create more welfare recipients: farmers – which is what we’ll have if we continue to devalue food. Think of our basic necessities: food, water, shelter. Isn’t it time our society places more value on food and nutrition than on reality television and video games? We’ve become numb to the incredible amount of work it takes to produce food – whether it’s a kernel of corn or a side of beef.

Many large cities and suburban areas want to support local producers, however, they are assuming we can produce that food at wholesale, or below, pricing. This is simply not a viable option and everyone needs to here it. If you want to support local producers you (the consumer) must demand that ALL farmers get paid more for his/her product. By demonizing or marginalizing hard working farmers/ranchers because they don’t conform to your philosophical predisposition, you are further consolidating an already limited production base. The recent Ag Census data tell us what we already know: very few farms produce the vast majority of food in the U.S. and abroad while the majority are family-owned, small operations. These are people struggling every day to compete on a global level, at a local scale. Agriculture is being drowned out by all the excessive noise being created by political battles. Every food company is selling propaganda – regardless of the environmental impacts – it’s up to you to demand an equitable food system for ALL producers…it’s the least you can do.

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