The following is adapted from Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture (revised and expanded) by Elizabeth Henderson.
I grew up in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, a bedroom suburb of New York City, raised by parents who were deeply committed to the struggle for world peace and economic justice. They were city people through and through, as were my grandparents. No one even gardened, but at the dinner table we had long, disturbing conversations about world politics, hunger, malnutrition, and inequality. A few miles up the Hudson, the government stored millions of tons of surplus grain in cargo ships anchored along the shore. Playing hooky from school, I sometimes drove along the scenic river and puzzled over those hulking gray vessels. If all that surplus was such a big expense and there were so many starving people, I reasoned in my innocence, why couldn’t they just sail those boats to wherever food was scarce and feed the hungry? The irrationality of the food system seemed unfathomable.
After forty-five years and a lot of travel, reading, and thinking, I see some pieces of the picture starting to fall into place. I do not make any claim to be an expert analyst of the world’s food and agriculture systems, but after two and a half decades of living and working as an organic farmer, this is how things look to me. Food is basic to human existence. We can go a day or two, even a week, without eating; most people worldwide, however, prefer at least one daily meal. “Our bodies,” as Bill Duesing, an organic educator in Connecticut, explained on the Living on Earth radio program, “run on the solar energy collected by plants, which are nourished by the nutrients they gather from water, air, and soil.” Farmers are “managers of solar conversion,” to borrow a term from Holistic Resource Management. In cooperation with the forces of nature, farmers and gardeners actually create wealth. For most of human history, human beings have not taken their food supply for granted and have regarded the creation of food as a sacred act, surrounding it with rituals of blessing and expressions of gratitude to the Earth or the gods or God. Growing food is the most basic use of the natural resources of the Earth, and through food production, we make our own working landscapes, ranging from patchworks of tiny gardens with diverse plantings to vast fields of single crops. How each society or nation produces and distributes food in large measure determines its identity.
At Farm Bureau meetings, Cornell annual agricultural economy updates, and New York Agricultural Society gatherings, I have heard farm and food industry leaders say that the U.S. food system is the safest, cheapest, and best in the world. Not only do American farmers feed the growing population of this country, but they keep the rest of the world from starving as well. With barriers to trade cleared away by the international General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), U.S. farms, we are told, will be able to outcompete all others. The prognosticators predicted that the $57 billion worth of agricultural exports in 1997 could rise to $75 billion in the near future as the standard of living rises in China, boosting purchases of U.S. grains and meat products. U.S. farmers planted 3.7 million acres of genetically modified (GM) corn, soybeans, and cotton in 1996, the first year of significant GM commercialization, increasing to 128.3 million acres in 2005, and this is only the beginning. A team of researchers at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory predicts that agrogenetics, genetic engineering combined with plant manipulation, will reduce agricultural impacts on the environment.
The library of genetic information is doubling every twelve to twenty-four months: Monsanto, the “life sciences” company, can create ten thousand new genetic combinations a year, according to Barnaby Feder in The New York Times. Genetically engineered crops will, it is claimed, resist pests, requiring fewer applications of pesticides, and will assimilate nutrients more efficiently, reducing the need for fertilizers. By using custom-designed, genetically engineered seed varieties, global positioning computers, and precision farming technologies, as few as fifty thousand farmers will supply 75 percent of the country’s agricultural production from 50 percent of the currently cultivated farmland. Ray Goldberg writes that these farmers will work as “farm technology managers” under contract to the vertically integrated distributors and processors. Armed with scanning feedback devices providing them with unparalleled amounts of intelligence on consumer finances and purchasing patterns, distributors will become the market coordinators of the domestic and global food systems.
How does this upbeat presentation fit with some of the other realities of our food supply? While I am impressed by the promise of global efficiency and technological innovation our food system leaders predict, I continually encounter evidence that the system they praise fails to provide adequate nourishment for large numbers of people, does not account for many environmental costs, and concentrates decisions over food in fewer and fewer hands. The stores in the developed world are well stocked with food, and there are no obvious shortages, yet the supply of food actually on hand in Northeastern cities would last only thirteen days should some emergency occur. The Rome Declaration, adopted by the United States and 185 other countries at the 1996 World Food Summit, pledged that we would reduce the number of undernourished people by 50 percent by 2015. Yet a 2004 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report revealed that over 38 million households in the United States were “food insecure,” an increase of 7 million since 1999. As 2005 drew to a close, a record 27,575,192 people were using food stamps. The number of food banks—community warehouses distributing salvaged and donated food to emergency food providers—rose from 75 in 1980 to 225 in 1990, and the number of pounds of food distributed rose from 25 million in 1980 to 2 billion in 2005. On its Web site, Second Harvest reports that 23 million people, including 9 million children, rely on the emergency feeding programs their network serves. In 2005 the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that requests for emergency food assistance rose by 14 percent on average, increasing in 96 percent of the twenty-seven cities surveyed. Yet Congress has responded by reducing funding for food stamps! Samir Amin estimates that 3 billion people worldwide have less than $2 a day to spend on food, a mind-numbing level of human misery.
Within the memory of people still alive, fruits and vegetables grew on the outskirts of most major cities. Market farms across the Hudson River in New Jersey supplied the vegetable needs of New York City dwellers. Apple orchards blossomed in the Bronx. Since that time, urban, and then suburban, sprawl has paved over cropland and planted houses and highways where cabbages used to grow. Food production has shifted to where it is most “efficient,” where bigger machines can maneuver over larger, flatter fields, where chemicals and technology reduce the need for horse and human power, and where crews of poorly paid migrant workers do their jobs and then move on.
The global food system plays economic hardball. A vicious speed-up has been going on in the countryside. In 1950 a farmer could support a family with a herd of twenty cows; today two hundred are needed to eke out a living. Where once a 160-acre “section” produced enough grain for a family’s livelihood, today 1,600 acres with a much greater yield per acre is just barely enough to keep a farm in business. Increasingly large and specialized farms produce basic commodities, yet rural areas no longer feed themselves. The Field to Family Community Food Project states, “Iowa is a ‘textbook example’ of the effects of an expansive industrial food system. The state’s agricultural production, focused on grain and livestock, is highly specialized for export purposes, and because there are few food processing industries based in the state, almost all of the food consumed by the state’s 2.8 million citizens (including that derived from the basic commodities produced in the state) is imported. The state depends on such imports for essentially all of its vegetables and fruits.”
Until the twentieth century, the United States was largely an agrarian society. As recently as 1910, one third of the population, some 32 million people, lived on farms. The Dust Bowl, the Depression, and World War II drove 9 million people off the land, but those major upheavals pale in significance compared with the decimation of the farming population that followed the restructuring of farm price supports in the 1950s. In 1937 there were 7 million farms; by 1993 less than 2 percent of the population was left on only 2.2 million farms—so few that the U.S. Census Bureau announced it would stop counting them. Since that time the decline in farm numbers has slowed. The Census of Agriculture reported 2,215,876 farms in 1997 and 2,128,982 in 2002. African American farmers have been squeezed off the land even faster than white farmers. Particularly in the South, the discriminatory policies of government lending agencies and county agricultural boards dominated by white farmers compounded the economic pressures on all family-scale farms. In 1920, one out of every seven farmers was black; in 1982, the national Land Loss Fund indicated that African Americans counted for only one out of sixty-seven farmers and operated only 1 percent of the farms.
Wherever there are farms within commuting distance of cities, development is eating up prime farmland at an accelerating rate. According to the National Agricultural Lands Study completed in 1981, the United States was losing one million acres of prime cropland every year, or four square miles a day. Julia Freedgood of American Farmland Trust says that this rate of loss of three thousand acres a day continued through the 1990s. Between 1987 and 1992, Vermont lost seventy-three acres of farmland a day. In the 1980s and 1990s, New York State lost farms at the rate of twenty a week and farmland at the rate of one hundred thousand acres a year. The country lost 8 percent of its dairy farms in the years 1996 to 1997. The 2002 Census of Agriculture found 21.5 million fewer acres in active farming than in 1997, a loss rate of 4.2 million acres a year.
Farmers have a saying: Farmers sell wholesale and buy retail. The terms of this deal get worse and worse. The index of prices farmers pay for seed, equipment, and other necessities has risen 23 per the farm gate have fallen 60 percent. The value of the basic commodities produced by farms is sinking: Between 1978 and 1988, the wholesale price of milk fell by 11 percent, potatoes by 9 percent, fresh vegetables by 23 percent, and red meat by 37 percent. Since the passage of the 1996 Freedom to Farm Act, the domestic price paid to farmers has fallen below the crops’ support prices, and the government has to make up the difference. In 1981 dairy farmers received $13.76 per hundredweight (the national average), while consumers paid $1.86 per gallon of milk. Throughout 2006, the price per hundredweight fluctuated at less than $13 a hundredweight, lower than the 1981 price even without adjusting for inflation. After deductions for payments to their milk co-op to make up for previous losses, equity in the co-op, dues, loan repayment, and local and national promotion, dairy farmer Shannon Nichols told me her family’s net earnings in 2006 were $10.74 per hundredweight. Meanwhile, the price to consumers rose to $2.47 for a gallon of whole milk.
The complex and confusing federal system of loans, set-asides, loan deficiency payments, and the like has not resulted in prices that cover the cost of production on the farm. Let me give an example: In 1993 the annual cash expenses for growing an acre of corn, as calculated by the Economic Research Service of the USDA, amounted to $177.89. The total gross value of selling that corn was $227.36, for an apparent profit of $49.47 an acre. However, when the government economists added in the full “ownership costs”—expenses that must be covered to keep a farm economically viable for the long run, such as capital replacement, operating capital, land, and unpaid family labor—the bottom line was minus $59.74 per acre, and this did not include money put aside for retirement. An acre of oats came in at minus $51.18, wheat minus $52.87, and milk, per hundredweight, at minus $2.02.
Small surprise then that, farms all over the country are going out of business. In a little booklet published in 1979, The Loss of Our Family Farms, Mark Ritchie, founder of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and recently elected secretary of state in Minnesota, asks whether this is the inevitable course of history or the result of conscious policies.8 He concluded that the loss of so many farms is not the unfortunate result of policies that failed but rather the result of a concerted and unrelenting drive by agribusiness, government, banking, and university forces to restructure agriculture by reducing farm price supports, manipulating the tax structure, and conducting research and development in support of largescale agricultural enterprises. Ritchie identifies the men who made these policies as representatives of the largest corporations, banks, and universities who saw their work, in their own words, as contributing “to the preservation and strengthening of our free society.”
Midsize farms, those with gross sales ranging from $10,000 to $99,999 a year, are disappearing the fastest. Remarkably, in the years between the census reports of 1997 and 2002, two size categories have actually grown. There are 33,000 more farms with ten to forty-nine acres and 544 more with more than two thousand acres. But the farms in the middle dropped by 182,236, a decline of almost 29 percent. In Family Farming: A New Economic Vision, Marty Strange presented convincing evidence that farms in that middle category, particularly those in the $40,000 to $250,000 income range, make better use of their resources and are more likely to practice careful land stewardship than the largest farms. For every dollar that the family-run, middle-sized farms spend, they produce more income. Production expenses on the largest farms averaged 85 percent of gross sales, while the middle farms averaged only 72 percent. (On organic CSA farms such as Peacework, production expenses are even lower, in the range of 40 to 50 percent of gross sales.) Like Ritchie, Strange concluded that the obstacles to the survival of these farms come from public policy, not from poor farm management or a lack of efficiency. Since the 1950s, public policy has been pushing farms to “get bigger or get out.”