Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up to Be Farmers
NEW HAVEN — AT a farm-to-table dinner recently, I sat huddled in a corner with some other farmers, out of earshot of the foodies happily eating kale and freshly shucked oysters. We were comparing business models and profit margins, and it quickly became clear that all of us were working in the red.
The dirty secret of the food movement is that the much-celebrated small-scale farmer isn’t making a living. After the tools are put away, we head out to second and third jobs to keep our farms afloat. Ninety-one percent of all farm households rely on multiple sources of income. Health care, paying for our kids’ college, preparing for retirement? Not happening. With the overwhelming majority of American farmers operating at a loss — the median farm income was negative $1,453 in 2012 — farmers can barely keep the chickens fed and the lights on.
Others of us rely almost entirely on Department of Agriculture or foundation grants, not retail sales, to generate farm income. And young farmers, unable to afford land, are increasingly forced into neo-feudal relationships, working the fields of wealthy landowners. Little wonder the median age for farmers and ranchers is now 56.
My experience proves the trend. To make ends meet as a farmer over the last decade, I’ve hustled wooden crafts to tourists on the streets of New York, driven lumber trucks, and worked part time for any nonprofit that could stomach the stink of mud on my boots. Laden with college debt and only intermittently able to afford health care, my partner and I have acquired a favorite pastime in our house: dreaming about having kids. It’s cheaper than the real thing.
But what about the thousands of high-priced community-supported agriculture programs and farmers’ markets that have sprouted up around the country? Nope. These new venues were promising when they proliferated over a decade ago, but now, with so many programs to choose from, there is increasing pressure for farmers to reduce prices in cities like my hometown, New Haven. And while weekend farmers’ markets remain precious community spaces, sales volumes are often too low to translate into living wages for your much-loved small-scale farmer.
Especially in urban areas, supporting your local farmer may actually mean buying produce from former hedge fund managers or tax lawyers who have quit the rat race to get some dirt under their fingernails. We call it hobby farming, where recreational “farms” are allowed to sell their products at the same farmers’ markets as commercial farms. It’s all about property taxes, not food production. As Forbes magazine suggested to its readers in its 2012 Investment Guide, now is the time to “farm like a billionaire,” because even a small amount of retail sales — as low as $500 a year in New Jersey — allows landowners to harvest more tax breaks than tomatoes.
On top of that, we’re now competing with nonprofit farms. Released from the yoke of profit, farms like Growing Power in Milwaukee and Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, N.Y., are doing some of the most innovative work in the farming sector, but neither is subject to the iron heel of the free market. Growing Power alone received over $6.8 million in grants over the last five years, and its produce is now available in Walgreens stores. Stone Barns was started with a $30 million grant from David Rockefeller. How’s a young farmer to compete with that?
As one grower told me, “When these nonprofit farms want a new tractor, they ask the board of directors, but we have to go begging to the bank.”
And then there are the chefs. Restaurants bait their menus with homages to local food, attracting flocks of customers willing to pay 30 bucks a plate. But running a restaurant is a low-margin, cutthroat business, and chefs have to pay the bills, too. To do so, chefs often use a rule of thumb: Keep food costs to 30 percent of the price of the meal. But organic farming is an even higher-risk, higher-cost venture, so capping the farmer’s take to a small sliver of the plate ensures that working the land remains a beggar’s game.
The food movement — led by celebrity chefs, advocacy journalists, students and NGOs — is missing, ironically, the perspective of the people doing the actual work of growing food. Their platform has been largely based on how to provide good, healthy food, while it has ignored the core economic inequities and contradictions embedded in our food system.
Unlike our current small-bore campaigns, previous food movements of the 1880s, 1930s and 1970s were led by highly organized farmers’ organizations — like the American Agricultural Movement, National Farmers Union and Colored Farmers’ National Alliance — trailblazing new paths for the economy.
They went toe to toe with Big Ag: crashing shareholder meetings; building co-ops and political parties; and lobbying for price stabilization. In the late 1970s, for example, small-scale family farmers organized a series of protests under the slogan “Parity Not Charity,” demanding a moratorium on foreclosures, as well as the stabilization of crop prices to ensure that farmers could make a living wage. They mobilized thousands of fellow farmers to direct action, including the 1979 Tractorcade, where 900 tractors — some driven thousands of miles — descended on Washington to shut down the nation’s capital.
It’s not the food movement’s fault that we’ve been left behind. It has turned food into one of the defining issues of our generation. But now it’s time for farmers to shape our own agenda. We need to fight for loan forgiveness for college grads who pursue agriculture; programs to turn farmers from tenants into landowners; guaranteed affordable health care; and shifting subsidies from factory farms to family farms. We need to take the lead in shaping a new food economy by building our own production hubs and distribution systems. And we need to support workers up and down the supply chain who are fighting for better wages so that their families can afford to buy the food we grow.
But none of these demands will be met until we start our own organizations — as in generations past — and shape a vision of a new food economy that ensures that growing good food also means making a good living.
We can’t stomach the real cost of food
Elizabeth RenzettiI’m going to apologize right now if you’re eating breakfast, particularly if it includes a nice bit of bacon and a lovely runny egg. Look away now, because this column is about the crappy things we do to animals in our pursuit of a cheap breakfast – or lunch, or dinner, or one of the 60 snacks that seem to fall between.
I’m a meat eater, an omnivore, a slurper of chicken soup and a cruncher of bacon, but sometimes I wonder how I can continue when faced with the reality of animals’ largely miserable journey from feedlot to plate. Like many people, I feel a momentary revulsion whenever I see one of those undercover videos of chicks being thrown live into grinders, pigs unable to turn in their crates and cows beaten with iron bars. Then, a day later, I’m glad I have enough loose change in my wallet to buy a club sandwich.
Those videos, which tell the story of the real costs associated with cheap, factory-farmed food, are painful to watch. They are shaming. And, for that reason, they are also under threat in the United States, where so-called “ag-gag” laws punish anyone who goes undercover at a farm or processing plant to take surreptitious video (the term “ag-gag” was coined by The New York Times food writer Mark Bittman.)
Seven states in the U.S. have these laws, which punish whistle-blowers who either try to expose cruel practices, or who falsify their applications to get jobs in the agriculture industry (which is how activists capture their evidence). Nearly 20 other states have tried to pass similar legislation.
You might have seen some of the video that these laws would block, such as the footage of cows being rammed with a forklift, shot secretly by the U.S. Humane Society in 2007. That particular exposé of a California slaughterhouse and its cruel, unhealthy practices led to the largest meat recall in U.S. history.
In Idaho and Utah, a disparate group – including animal-rights and First Amendment activists, alongside food-safety groups and unions – have launched challenges to the ag-gag laws in federal courts. In Washington, investigative journalist Will Potter has a successful Kickstarter campaign called “Drone on the Farm” to subvert ag-gag laws by using airborne cameras to photograph factories from above.
But their opponents, who raise the meat and bring it to market, have deep pockets, and rely on the public’s desire for cheap chicken to outweigh its passing disgust. (In both Canada and the U.S., consumption of red meat has fallen over the past three decades, but demand for poultry has soared, if you’ll pardon a bad pun.)
As the Guardian newspaper wrote in recent undercover exposé of vile conditions in U.K. chicken-processing plants, where two-thirds of fresh chicken is infected with the potentially toxic campylobacter bacteria, “poultry firms and retailers are locked in to an economic structure of their own making in their race to produce the cheapest possible chicken.” But who demands the cut-rate nugget and the fire-sale fajita? That would be us, the consumers.
We may not have ag-gag laws in Canada, but we still rely on the undercover surveillance of activist groups like Mercy for Animals to expose the dirty links in our food chain. In two recent high-profile cases, Mercy for Animals revealed alleged abuses (and got action) that would otherwise have been overlooked. Its undercover investigators released a video showing the suffering of live turkeys at Hybrid Turkeys in Ontario, which led to 11 charges of animal cruelty being laid against the company.
At Chilliwack Cattle Sales, the country’s largest dairy producer, Mercy for Animals captured footage of cows being beaten and abused with farm machinery by young employees who whooped with glee. The question “who tortures cows for fun” is not one I am equipped to address, but at least when I watched the footage I was pretty sure I could identify the dumb animals in the frame. Those workers were fired, and the company’s milk temporarily boycotted. Once again, public outrage soon faded.
I’m sure Mercy for Animals would like us all to turn vegan so they could hang up their cameras, but this is not likely to happen in the near future. In the meantime, we could at least acknowledge the price we pay for convenience, and cost-saving, and have the guts to look it in the eye.