It’s that time of year when I find myself eyeball deep in receipts, invoices, cash register slips, and scribbled notes—making sense of the mess of bookkeeping for a complex and diversified farming operation. Spending hours upon hours with Excel spreadsheets and an accordion file is far down my list of favorite farm tasks. Heck, I might even take cleaning the chicken coop over this job!
But just like cleaning the chicken coop is making order out of mess, and just as having fresh bedding and sweet-smelling air is important to the health of the chickens, so too is having organized accounting at the end of the year important to the overall health of the farm as a family enterprise.
Let’s be perfectly honest. Farming is a hard way to earn a living these days. I think (I hope) that most folks are aware of this fact. So few Americans are currently engaged in farming as their main income source (somewhere less than half of a percent of the population) that this is no longer an occupational category in census materials. Instead, I find myself glumped into the amorphous conglomerate of “self employed.” How ironic that what was once “a nation of farmers” no longer sees this way of life as a viable constituency.
There are many factors which have led to this situation. To tell them all would take far more words than this article could hold, but here are a few key points especially worth mentioning and mulling over as we enter into this New Year.
Firstly, as late as the 1920’s and 30’s, Americans, like most Europeans, were accustomed to paying 30% of their expendable income on food. Much of this food was prepared at home from raw ingredients, which had to be mixed, chopped, baked, boiled, kneaded, cured, and such in the family kitchen. All this changed with the industrialization of the food system, fueled by technologies developed to feed soldiers during WWII.
Suddenly, there were box mixes and canned soups, powdered potatoes and eggs, and so many other “labor saving devices and options,” which began the onslaught of processed foods that separate the consumer from the original, raw foods produced on farms. Remember, this was all supposed to make life easier for families. That was good, right? Science was going to fix all our problems, feed the world, and drive away the specter of Great Depression hunger and want.
The industrialization process was also fueled by another wartime obsession along these lines—boosting production. From research-driven hybridization and fertilization programs to Genetically Modified Organisms, the drive to “feed the world” has been used to threaten smaller family farms to “Get Big or Get Out.” Many got out, leaving behind the agrarian heritage they’d worked so hard to build.
With fewer people farming, agriculture became more mechanized, which meant that even fewer people were needed to keep larger acreage in production (it’s a chase-the-tail process). Excess production, along with government subsidies, continued through the decades to artificially drive down food prices. While Europeans continue to expect to pay 30% of their expendable income on food for the family, Americans have grown accustomed to paying 5%.
Maybe you think that’s great. Many of the people I talk to at Farmer’s Market or at Farmstead think so too. But who is picking up that 25% remainder of the bill? Subsidies are part of the answer, which come out in your taxes. However, it’s the big corporate farms (which are sometimes being run as sideline operations by even bigger companies in order to benefit from tax write-offs) that gain the most from the system. It doesn’t take long for the whole rigmarole to start sounding like Big Oil.
But farmers pick up most of the tab. There’s a joke among farmers that goes something like this: a farmer wins the lottery for a million dollars. The news crews swarm around his little place, hoping for a word. One of them stuffs a microphone into the farmer’s face and asks, “So, what do you plan to do with all the money?” The farmer looks at the reporter as if this were the silliest question he’d ever heard. “Why, keep farming until it runs out, of course.”
Every agricultural newspaper I read tells of someone having an auction—selling the cows, the machinery, all the bits and pieces that made up their lives as toilers of the land. Even with one spouse working “off the farm” for extra income and health insurance, they’re still strapped with debt, exhausted, and have just plain given up. The barn is falling apart, built by great-grandpa’s hands, and there’s no hope of fixing it up. Perhaps they’ll sell the wood for picture frames to help pay off a loan. This, my friends, is the legacy of our country’s luxury of 5%.
“But why does local and organic cost so much more?” people ask me over and over again. If I had a dollar for each time I’ve had to soldier this comment, perhaps I could lower the prices, but the truth is that I don’t receive any subsidies. I don’t want to be in loads of debt, with a barn falling to pieces and the auctioneer coming because I have to sell it all and lose the farm. If we want to keep our farmers in our community as dignified individuals who give their lives as stewards of the land and animals in their care, then we have to be honest about how we price our food.
Just in the news today, there is a terrible drought in California. In order to have enough water for the population’s needs, water meant for irrigating agriculture is being diverted. A hierarchy of priority has been set, preserving water to maintain the health of tree crops (a long-term investment in almonds, apples, pears, peaches, oranges, cherries, etc.), while the first to have the irrigation pumps turned off will be lettuces. Already there is talk of rising food prices nation-wide as the biggest produce-growing area of the nation buckles down in the face of raging drought. Oh how inconvenient for everyone else! Whatever shall we do!
There are two potential outcomes from this scenario that I hope will transpire. One is that a greater portion of the population will take the issues of Global Climate Change more seriously because as ecosystems and weather patterns change, this will equally threaten our food supply. Secondly, as food prices rise nationwide, I hope that people will look around and say, “You know, maybe it makes just as much sense to spend my food dollar locally, rather than just at the supermarket. That way, I am investing in maintaining and growing a vibrant food network right here where I live, rather than depending on having everything shipped in from someplace else.”
In the end, “you always get what you pay for.” Taking an honest look at pricing also involves keeping in mind one’s personal influence as a consumer. Where do you want your food dollar to go? Do you want it to encourage a convoluted agribusiness system that pushes out the small-scale, sustainably-minded agrarian family? Or is having these family farms as part of our community and landscape important to you? If this is the first time you’ve had a chance to work this issue over, I applaud you for reading my thoughts to their current conclusion. And I hope that we may have a more informed discussion on the price of local and organic when we see you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com