Farmers are getting pinched while agrochemical titans stampede the market. What can be done to support local farmers?
By Ken Coulson, @4FutureBright
Do you know your farmer? Chances are the answer is no.
For years industrial economics has worked to remove the consumer from the source of their food and energy. The result has been a food grower sandwiched between every large and powerful distributor and input supplies.
The solution? Re-engaging consumers with food producers and growing support for local, organic growing.
However, growing food is complex and encompasses a number of risks. Let’s take a look.
Before the food is grown, equipment must be leased, inputs purchased and the fields prepared. This is often done against a loan backed by the harvest. The farmer can purchase insurance against a bad crop or weather-related disaster. When added up – it’s a whole lot of costs and a whole lot of risk.
So, what’s been happening?
1. Input Prices Are Rising
Input prices have been steadily rising between 2007 and 2014. Seed and chemical prices rose 53 percent. The cost of often-leased land has risen 85 percent, while machinery costs are up 51 percent [Iowa State University: Estimated Costs of Crop Production in Iowa 2014].
Input cost inflation has pressured many farms out of business while the market price has been lagging and volatile.
Further, increasing use of chemicals has failed to produce higher crop yields. Over one billion tons of pesticides is dumped on U.S. farms annually yet more is lost in the field before the $12.5 billion pesticide industry was spawned 50 years ago [Grace Communication Foundation: Natural Capitalism, Lovins, Hawkins 1999]. Our soil is becoming less productive as a result of the pesticide treadmill.
Besides, the top seed producers also happen to be the top agrochemical producers.
For 2007, the top six seed producers controlled 57 percent of the market and had $12.4 billion in sales. The top six agrochemical companies controlled 75 percent of the market with $28.8 billion in sales. The two lists share three names [Organic Consumers Association 2008].
2. Market Prices Are Volatile
From 2007 to 2014, the market price of corn fluctuated between $3.05/bushel and $7.63, and was $4.51 as of March 2014. Within the last year, the market price dropped from $7.13 in March 2013 to $4.51 in 2014, a 37% drop [University of Illinois, FarmDoc]. Volatile pricing against steadily increasing input costs with fewer choices for suppliers is a recipe for disaster.
3. Less to the Farm
Farmers have been pinched on the distribution side as well. For every dollar we spend on food, only 16 cents goes to the farmer [CNN 2012: Where Does Your Grocery Money Go].
The rest of the income is distributed along the long haul and big box distribution chains. For example, Walmart’s dominance as a food distribution outlet has eroded the negotiating power of the average farmer. Other components of this cost include refrigeration and transportation in a food system where food travels an average of 1,300 miles from farm to fork [Natural Capitalism, Lovins, Hawkins 1999].
Large farms now supply 75 percent of all the food consumed in the United States. In fact size has been the only way to compete with global oligarchical business partners.
Can our food supply survive this vice grip on growers? Time will tell but the most powerful agent of change lies in the hands or pockets of the consumer.
What Can Be Done?
- Vote with your dollars: Consumer choice can help us reconnect with our food and our farmers. Buy natural, organic and local foods whenever possible.
- Support local farms: Purchase a Community Supporter Agriculture contract (CSA) from a local farm or supporting local farmers markets.
- Network: Join or support Farmers groups like American Farmland Trust or the Northeast Organic Farmers Association, which can help give balanced views to the political apparatus. A cursory look at Congress shows former executives of the suppliers or distribution monopolies active within the food and energy nexus occupy many.
- Exercise your civic duty: Do our own research and demand proper alignment within the political apparatus. Our resource base, including food systems, is at a tipping point. The solutions require transparency, accountability and most importantly, your voice.
The condition of the food system is of concern to every living thing on the planet.
This article touched on the plight of the farmer within the vice grip of suppliers and distributors. Water use and soil health are two more issues that when taken in consideration with these suggestions, will necessitate the shift to a natural, local and balanced model.
In that model – it’s important to know your farmer.
In that model – the farmer may be you.
About the Author:
Ken Coulson is a musician, writer and advocate for sustainable development. He operates the think tank Future Bright to advise and develop integrated design solutions in the food-energy nexus and beyond. Ken is finishing his first novel, part of a larger creative project to promote positivity and sustainability. www.futurebrightllc.com | www.kencoulson.com