Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The Real Cost of Food

As a small scale farmer, I tend to obsess a lot about money. 

Ask any small farmer and they'll admit the same...

If you ever wondered what's going through the head of the farmer standing behind the table at your local farm market, here are some examples:

Will we have enough to pay our bills this month? 

Can we buy feed this week? 

Do we have enough to buy hay? 

The pigs ate HOW MUCH this month!!! 

Boy market was slow this week :(

...and even, occasionally, 'I think I'm going to have a nervous break down'. 

Surprisingly, my worries are less about running the farm, sick animals, staffing issues, the weather or any of the thousands of things affecting my farm. Its always about the money.

While any small business owner can identify with the chronic undercurrent of financial tension that is owning a small business, farming is a famously awful way to make money.

As the old joke goes, 'how do you make a small fortune in farming?'

Answer: 'start with a big one!'

So, why is that? Are small producers just clueless and terrible business people?

Well sometimes, it is just that. Some farmers are terrible at managing money, but those guys are usually gone pretty quickly. The survivors, in my experience, actually tend to be pretty good at getting by on a shoestring, very innovative, resourceful...often just down-right clever!

I cannot tell you how many times I've been impressed and a little intimidated by the resourcefulness of some of my peers. 'Why didn't I think of that before!' is another common thought that crosses my mind.

So what is it that makes farming so financially challenging? 

Growing up in Western New York, farms built in the 19th and early 20th Centuries typically featured a large, often grand, main house, a large barn, and many outbuildings, often including small cottages for a good number of farm workers. 

Clearly, these people were not just scraping by....

When I visit many modern day farms, the thoughts that most commonly crosses my mind range from 'the whole place could use a coat of paint' to something much worse.

Are these people just lazy? Blind? Clearly, given how hard these small farmers work, a strong work ethic is not the problem.

What it boils down to is the economics of farming.

At the turn of the 19th to 20th Century, the average American household spent 18 to 20% of their disposible income on food. Food was expensive, it was local, and it was essentially 'organic' by today's standards.

After WWII, the United States created a policy of lowering the cost of food, primarily through farm subsidies that encouraged efficiency, centralization, and mechanization of our food supply.

This was a time where everything modern was viewed as superior. Tang instead of orange juice, science and technology over nature, and an end to hunger in the U.S. at least, if not the world. Sounds pretty good, doesn't it?

Well, how things have changed!

While, hunger remains a big problem in much of the developing world, in the U.S. we have the unique problem of persistent hunger in some populations alongside an explosion in our rates of obesity. 

We are overfed, and often, paradoxically, malnourished.

Much of this, in my opinion, relates to the 'cheapness' of food - not just its monetary value in the market, but also, what's in it.

We now spend about 9% of our disposible income on our food. We have some of the cheapest food in the world, and yet I would argue, we are far worse for it.

By artificially price-supporting cheap food at all costs, we are now swimming in it. The farm bill in combination with the industrialization of our food system, effectively produces food on the retail level that is priced below its cost of production.

But the costs are still there, just hidden in government subsidies, low wages, environmental pollution, and animal cruelty.

At the turn of the 19th Century, meat cutters at this country's abbatoirs made a living wage. A man could support a family on the wages he made working there and these were desirable jobs.

Now we pay poverty-level wages to the workers in our meat-processing facilities, shifting the burden of providing for those workers to other government programs like food stamps, in order to survive.

The animals have faired far worse than the people in most circumstances. Despite the pretty names and pictures on the packaging of most grocery store items, most food comes from industrialized farms where the animals are treated very poorly, often cruelly, all in the name of maintaining low costs.

The system teeters along, the whole time assuming that gasoline and corn will be cheap and plentiful forever.

Now, even these horrible facilities in the U.S. are too pricey in the eternal quest to maximize profit. The FDA has recently approved plans to begin sending whole poultry to China for butchering and packaging, then back again to the U.S. for resale.

We throw antibiotics at our sick livestock, pesticides and herbicides at our crops, all in the name of producing more for less. The environmental and health effects are catastrophic.

Depleted and contaminated aquifers (thank you fracking), depletion of our topsoil through non-sustainable farming practices, and long-term affects of the overuse of pesticides and herbicides on human health and the environment are what we have to look forward to.

So what can your average person do? 

First of all, accept the idea that good food, real food, costs more than what you see at your local Walmart or Costco. 

Secondly, STOP shopping at Walmart and Costco. Agree that you will make it a priority to buy less but a better quality of food whenever possible.

Third. Buy fresh, buy local. Seek out local producers and support them. Pay what they ask. Ask them how they're doing. Make them feel important, not just some idiot banging his head against a wall to change the world for the better.

Fourth. Buy organic. While there are problems with the NOP (National Organics Program) as run by the USDA, the organic label does require (if properly enforced) non-GMO and NOP-approved inputs. This increases the market for non-GMO crops and organic farming methods on a larger scale.

Fifth. Avoid products grown and produced outside the U.S. There are fewer controls and a greater risk of shortcuts. Did you know for example that only 5% of USDA, NOP-approved 'organic' producers overseas are inspected annually?

Sixth. Kill the Farm Bill. More specifically, kill subsidies in the farm bill. If any subsidies are to be provided, they should produce the following in your local grocery store:

a. fresh fruits and vegetables should be the cheapest items on the shelves.

b. processed foods, sodas, chips, and the like should be the MOST expensive items to buy.

Seventh. Cook real food. This means cook things from real, raw food, not boxed processed food, not bagged precut vegetables.

Eighth. Learn about seasonal eating. Rediscover the deliciousness of fruits and vegetables that used to be staples of the American diet - squash, parsnips, rutabaga, cabbage, etc.

Ninth. Rediscover pickled and fermented foods. There are many studies that suggest eating these products promote good health.

While there are many more possible suggestions, the truth is that if followed, these 9 ideas would transform the average American's diet in a very positive way, would support local sustainable agriculture, and would start the process of dismantling our dysfunctional, industrial food chain.