Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Squeezing the Middle

Farming in America is becoming increasingly polarized.

We have the very small farms (<$50,000/year in farm revenue). These farms are booming at the moment, with farmer's markets and CSA's cropping up all over the country. New York State is a fine example, with most of its farms falling into this category. These are largely organic, bio-dynamic, or simply higher quality then their larger competition. They have more transparency, and have a reason to produce better products - livelihood.

On the other hand we have Mega Farms (>$250,000/year in farm revenue). Cal-Organic, Earthbound Organic, all the produce of your local supermarket, whole foods, etc. These farms are equipped to supply the supermarkets of the country, almost all of which are national or regional chains which can impose price restrictions that are impossible to meet for small or mid-size producers. Additionally they are lowering standards and quality as carefully as they can. Here is a (not very well written, sorry) article about Horizon Organic Milk, and the degradation of standards.

The Middle is dying. At a rate of almost 10% every 5 years. Read more on that here. The author, Tom Philpott discusses the mid-size farm squeeze.
These mid-size farms are largely family owned operations with decent production potential and less industrial waste and pollution potential then large operators. But they have been squeezed out of the market by large buyers (Wal-Mart and its organic counterpart Whole Foods) who can save more money via single contract with Cal-Organic then they can via 10-20 individual mid-size farms.

He also talks about the ways to save the middle. Philpott's solution is simple: return to locally owned markets and co-ops. Let these drive the market, buying locally from the mid-size farms. This has been tried successfully successfully.

Why is mid and smaller better?

"4. Smaller farms are more productive
Mid-sized and small farms are more productive than large farms when measured by total farm output per acre rather than the yield of a single crop, according to a review of the literature published several years ago by the non-governmental organization Food First. Mid-sized farms were also found to be better stewards of natural resources. But a recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report found that commodity payments to support row crops such as corn, soybeans, and cotton go overwhelmingly to large operations that are pushing mid-sized and small farms out of business. The report also found that farms that receive commodity payments tend to grow even bigger. Currently, two percent of U.S. farms qualify as "small" (less than 50 acres), and 67 percent are considered "large" (1000 acres or more)."

read the full survey here.

There are many other reasons, but I will not further belabor the point.

Be Well.

No comments: