If you know me or follow me on Facebook, you likely know that I am a big fan of farmers’ markets. I often post pictures of my Saturday morning market haul. About 80% of the food I buy comes from the market! Why? I like to support local growers. I like that the produce didn’t travel hundreds of miles and is fresher than the stores’ produce. I like the community atmosphere of the market. I like the variety of food and people I find there. Even though some produce costs more than at the nearest grocery, I think the value offsets the cost. I thought it was great to see new markets opening up, creating more chances for shoppers to ‘buy local’. Yet all that said it seems lately I have noticed an increase in reselling – the vendor buys non-local produce at wholesale and resells it at the market. (Some markets prohibit this but not the ones near me.) It made me wonder why – is it because the AZ growing season was at its most quiet or is something else going on? Then I came across an article in Edible Baja Arizona written by Debbie Weingarten.* It shed light on why I might be seeing more non-local produce, but even more it opened my eyes to the disconnect I think the majority of us have. That is: the disconnect between how food we eat magically appears in the stores and markets and what it takes for small producers to grow it.
In this article, Debbie highlights the stories of several small farm families that gave up their farms because, while they were good farmers with high productivity, they could not sustainably make a stable living. The usual things were tried – diversity of products, CSAs, farmers’ markets, and more. All those farmers’ markets I was so happy to see – well, they have to be staffed and supplied each week, and that means lots of extra time each week. Some years were profitable but many more were not, and the constant worry and concern adds non-financial costs. Most of us like to romanticize family farms, visualizing bucolic settings of old-fashioned house and barn, lush fields, happy cattle, and apple-cheeked kids hugging their 4H pigs. Yet these small farmers have the same responsibilities that we non-farmers have – mortgages, saving for college, making ends meet – on top of making the farm successful and all that entails. Why is it so hard to grow food and make a living at it?
Let’s define “small family farm.” First, a farm is defined by USDA as any place where $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold or could have been sold in a year. Small family farms are those that gross less than $350,000 per year, which includes sale of product, any subsidies (more on this later), and other farm related income. Then this group is further divided into farms where the owner is retired or has an occupation other than farming, and those farms where the owner’s only occupation is farming. Then there are mid-size and large-scale family farms, owned by the operator and other family but where gross farm income exceeds $350,000 a year. [Note this is gross farm income, not what they live on! The cost of inputs has to be taken from the gross income, and those costs can be huge. As well, the gross income fluctuates from year to year with market conditions, weather events, and so forth.] The vendors I meet certainly fall into this category of small family farms. Just under half of these farms have annual gross farm income under $10,000. So while you may come across a report of median farm household income exceeding that of non-farm households (in 2014, latest I could find) be careful! This reflects ALL family farm households, some of which have over a million dollars of gross farm income annually.
Subsidies. Every time the US Congress takes on the budget, especially when they have to renew the Farm Bill, people start talking about the subsidies farmers get, “free money for doin’ nothing” people will say or make claims that farmers are rich because “look at the size of the subsidies” (expected to be ~$10 billion in the 2016-2017 payment year). However, most of that money goes to mega-corporate farms, certainly not to the small producers I try to support: “Since 1995, 75 percent of federal subsidies have gone to 10 percent of farms, the same consolidated group of commodity crop growers who will continue to eat up a disproportionate share of the subsidy pie under the new system, too.” and “While some family farms receive subsidies, they disproportionately benefit corporate mega-farms, which are able to buy more land and dominate the market. As the Heritage Foundation has noted, about 75% of larger farms collect subsidies compared with 24% of relatively smaller farms. The massive amount of money that goes to larger farms, in turn, increases demands (and prices) for land and other resources small farmers need.” Now, there are many, many detractors of crop subsidies and many supporters. And there are good reasons to have subsidies in place. But like so many well-intended programs, this one is no longer doing the good it was meant to do, and the people you think ought to be getting help are not; the crops which are better for our health and just as susceptible to natural events are not being supported at all. Too much of the money goes to corn and soy that is not even used to feed people but instead goes to industrial uses. Subsidizing crops is a way bigger subject than I will go into further, but my point is – small producers are not getting any of this assistance. Check out Environmental Working Group’s site for more info on who gets how much: https://farm.ewg.org/
Again, if you know me or follow me on Facebook, you likely know that I am very opposed to genetic engineering (GE) of food crops. You will also know I am a firm supported of local businesses and would rather pay a bit more buying from a local shop than ordering from Amazon. These are just two more reasons I write this post. I want to encourage each of you to think about who is supported by your purchases. Sure, the clerks at Walmart have jobs because people shop there and retailers haven’t figured out how to totally get away from humans at the checkouts or stocking shelves. But is your purchase there really keeping that store open? What if you spent that money at a local store or the farmers’ market? How much more would your purchase support – consider you pay the producer for the product, covering his cost and hopefully some profit; owner pays local taxes (real estate, sales, business, excise) because she lives here too, so that helps your community; owner may provide jobs for one or many people as his business stabilizes and grows and he can support his family; said family shops here too, maybe at your business, thus continuing the circle. Then too small producers are less likely to use GE seed and the attendant pesticides because 1) they likely can’t afford the inputs, and 2) they listen to their consumers better. So consider how you might shift your purchasing, especially of food, to support local growers. We need them.
For an excellent book on how small farmers can positively impact water conservation and global warming, read Water In Plain Sight by Judith D. Schwartz.
* Weingarten, Debbie. “Quitting Season.” Edible Baja Arizona. July/August 2015. 120-136. Print.