10 Questions For Farmers About Farms

Over the last six months, I’ve tried to learn as much as I could about our conventional food system and options to that system focused on sustainability. Many people from around the country (and world) have provided much insight, but also have shown me yet another polarizing issue in America.

With that, I am asking anyone interested in food, but especially farmers, to consider 10 questions that continue getting in the way of constructive, innovative and action-oriented conversations on how to make our food system stronger.

So, here is an opportunity to enlighten me (and others reading this blog) by answering 10 questions. Just remember the one ground rule – civility. I will not publish comments that unnecessarily attack one side or the other of this debate.

  1. Do most federal subsidies go to larger farms?
  2. Are all federal subsidies granted to farms growing commodity crops (monoculture in many instances)?
  3. Given #1 and #2, are small farms growing specialty crops (e.g., human edible fruits & vegetables) at a considerable financial disadvantage in the marketplace?
  4. Do you believe that consumer demand for sustainable and organic specialty crops exceeds supply?
  5. Do you believe that the farm lobby has less money than environmental lobbyists targeting the food supply (as opposed to the overall environmental field, which covers a lot beyond food)?
  6. If a subsidized farm no longer wants subsidies, what options are available to move away from them? Do you have any examples of farms that have successfully abandoned subsidized operations?
  7. I don’t know anyone disputing jam-packed shelves in our supermarkets and cheap food. What I do hear is a rapidly growing concern that cheap and edible food-like substances (i.e., highly processed food) do not necessarily equate to healthy. In fact, some research shows that with the decline in food prices, we are seeing an opposite increase in health care costs. Does this make sense?
  8. Do you consider organic and sustainable food “movements” or a food category, e.g., produce?
  9. Should there be more small-to-medium sized farms free to grow what they want to serve local markets?
  10. Should the government shift subsidies to those farms to level the playing field? Or should the government scale back subsidies?

I look forward to any and all responses.

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14 responses to “10 Questions For Farmers About Farms

  1. 1. It depends on your definition of ‘large’ farm.

    2. Your insinuation that growing ‘commodity crops’ is a bad thing, I find to be intellectually disingenuous. Beyond that, subsidies are given for a reason. Many of us farmers don’t philisophically support them, but know they are there for a reason. Sometimes to counteract foreign subsidies, sometimes to ensure a low cost of food for the greater consumer populus, sometimes to help get bio fuels off the ground. Subsidies are given by the government to support something beyond the market place which the government finds to be important. Like wind energy, solar energy, entrepreneurs, clean water programs, etc. Is your intention here to attack subsidies in general? If so, I might be on your side, just make sure you realize that subsidies touch far more than just the small segment of crops which you’re pigeonholing now.

    3. I’m not sure disadvantage is the right word. Depending on how you look at it, less farmers producing these crops (due to lack of government funding) should decrease supply, and improve the price of said crops. As a fundamental free market individual, I tend to think that they’ll be better off in the long run because the government is interfering less with their operation and because they’re able to more quickly react to market conditions.

    4. No, I don’t. If demand outstripped supply, prices would shoot upwards, producers would produce more, consumers would want less (due to price). The free market is incredibly efficient at managing prices without governmental influence. By definition, I’d say supply and demand are at a healthy balance.

    5. I believe that the farm lobby represents millions of farmers across the country. The environmental food supply lobby represents a growing but small number of food nazis who think its up to them to dictate what the rest of us can and can’t eat, even though we have all the facts on what is healthy and what isn’t. I believe that these food nazis rely on fear (much like Bush used to start Iraq war, and Obama used to push stimulus plan through) to sway public opinion, when the truth is much less ‘exciting’.

    6. If a farmer doesn’t want subsidies, they just don’t fill out the necessary forms to receive them. It’s not difficult, and thousands of farmers do it every year.

    7. Our jam-packed shelves of affordable food is the perfect evidence of the success of our modern agriculture system. Because of it, we spend less money as a percentage of our income than any country in the world on food. Some countries spend over 50% of their income on food. Your attempt to start a war-of-words by using terms like ‘food-like substances’ is not fooling anyone, and it makes you seem like a complete extremists with an agenda, unwilling to listen to reason or logic. Also, your attempt to tie food prices with health care prices is intellectually bankrupt. The healthcare mess is so incredibly complicated, and I think you know that your being misleading here. The fact is that people are living longer, healthier, better lives today than ever in the history of man. Along with modern medicine, modern agriculture is probably the single most important reason this is true. Show some respect.

    8. Movements designed to spread fear.

    9. What are you talking about here? No one is keeping anyone from starting a ‘small-to-medium’ sized farm to grow whatever they want at a local market. They’re ALREADY free to do that, and many already do, at good profit margins.

    10. In a perfect world, there would be no subsidies. The solution is not to increase subsidies to other crops, but to reduce it on the ones who receive it now.

  2. 1) Subsidies are distributed on per acre basis so larger acre farms will get more total subsidies
    2) Yea,even many farmers agree that is negative of current setup
    3) Not “considerable” — for example, in our operation we recieve less than $15 per acre in subsidies, and at today’s costs it takes about $500 per acre to grow a crop, much higher for specialty crops, so the subsidies are not really “significant”.
    4) Until lately it appears that way but many organic producers (esp livestock) are really stuggling b/c demand has slackened
    5)Since you are only taking part of the environmental lobby, you cannont compare against the entire farm lobby (which is involved in MANY areas, some even contradictory amoung themselves
    6) YES, you simply elect to not signup for the farm program – it is a yearly exercise.
    7) Agreed
    8) Some of both
    9) I don’t think “free to grow what they want” is the issue, I think growers will respond to economic incentives to grow what consumers want. I have an uncle that grows produce, things like lettuce and tomatos can be shipped in from 1000 miles away SO much cheaper than he can grow and earn an income comparable to his town neighbors that he can only capture a small amount of sales.

  3. Since the industrial revolution we have moved farther and farther away from sustainable living. There are very few people in the USA that could say that if the food chain was distrupted that they could survive. That being said why are farmers paid so little for feeding the world? The government steps in and subsidizes the ones who can grow the most for the least amount of money. Insuring that the mass production continues and millions are not starving. In doing so we have created generations that believe the McDonalds commercials in thinking this food is healthy because they show vegetables…yet we all know that one half of a slice of tomate on a fat filled burger and fries is not a healthy meal. Yet we continue to feed it to our children. It is the mentality of society that feeds this beast. That will cause the health of our children to decline as fast as the industrial revolution rose. There is now a small wave in the ocean that brings hope to those who believe we need to keep our plant healthy and ourselves healthy in order to survive. Small family farms grow what their community will buy. We share recipes so that more will expand their food senses and feed their families real food. That it is not hard to prepare a home cooked meal even if you work 70 hours a week if you make it a priority for your families health. We must start teaching sustainability in order for our society to continue. We are one family that could say if the food chain was disrupted we would not only survive but we would thrive. All of my children know exactly where their food comes from. How it is grown. That the cows, pig, chickens, sheep are raised to feed us and others. The vegetable are grown to feed us year round and we must work to maintain the land in order to continue and that, that land continues well past the boundries of our property our community our country and our earth. We are at a financial disadvantage but realize that I do not know a single family farmer that ever thought about farming as a way to get rich. It is a choice. A way of life we choice. A gift to our children. The demand for real food is getting larger and we plan our crops to meet those needs but it is year to year. You can not create and apple in a day. The government subsidies are a double edged sword the USA has become so dependent on them that if they stopped so would our food chain. It would have to be a slow painful withdrawal of funds and many would go out of business. But we all know that it will never happen because the lobbiest all need their money.

  4. Pingback: 10 Questions for Farmers About Farms « Farm To Table: The Emerging American Meal

  5. Why not ‘accept’ my comment above? Are you filtering comments, or just haven’t gotten to it yet? It’s been several hours.

    • DBB: Contrary to my initial reaction, especially your use of “food nazis,” I published your comments as is. Readers are entitled to read verbatim your views, whether I agree with them or not. Having said that, if you comment again using such inflammatory language, I will delete your comment without question. That would be a shame, since I found the balance of your comments helpful in understanding your perspective.

  6. 1. Subsidies are generally acre-based, so larger may get more (may!), but that depends on crop grown

    2. Yes/No – Everything is a commodity, but if you mean crops with most acres than yes. Most acres are not monoculture, despite what people may think. Many farmers rotate (corn/soy, for example)

    3. No. In many cases they have an advantage. But it depends on what is considered ‘small’. Fruits and veggies are worth more in the marketplace than corn/soy/cotton, etc. Example: 1 lb. of corn = current value of 7 cents. 1 lb. of green beans = $1.50

    4. Organic/specialty does not equal sustainable. If demand for any food exceed supply more would be produced. Doesn’t matter where or how it is grown. Farmer’s goal is to meet market demand.

    5. Depends on the issue, as both sides have many issues – and many that they agree upon.

    6. If one doesn’t want them, he/she can simply not accept or do paperwork.

    7. You make many leaps of faith on this question – in fact it seems more like your opinion rather than a question. “Food like substances” are carefully chosen words, like “industrial” or “factory”. Healthy is what you make of it – too much of anything is bad. Whether that is oranges or orange juice concentrate. Or organic granola or organic granola bars. “Rapidly growing concern” over certain foods comes from your perception based on what you follow and read. Others may perceive lack of food as a larger and more relevant concern. I’ve avoided references to extremists here, but in general, this kind of question is more leading

    8. Both. Food companies and grocers view them as a food category. Others (disciples of Pollan or those with similar agendas) view them as movement. Farmers do not have a problem with the food category. But they may have a problem with the movement – as the movement believes the only way it can be successful is by painting with broad brushes and, in general, bashing what millions of Americans do on a daily basis to feed the world.

    9. Farmers grow what they want that makes the most sense for their geography and families. Size here is irrelevant. If a local market demands more of a certain kind of food, then farmers will figure out a way to produce it.

    10. Based on crop value, the playing field is pretty level already. But goal should be to reduce all subsidies (globally). Encouraging ‘local’ if there isn’t enough of a local demand won’t solve any problems.

  7. NOTE: This post was received by email, so I am posting per Ray’s request.

    1. Do most federal subsidies go to larger farms? No, this is mostly true except in the case of dairy. Dairy farmers of all sizes receive subsidies.

    2. Are all federal subsidies granted to farms growing commodity crops (monoculture in many instances)? Usually this is true. As in the case of soy, corn, wheat, and the worst offender, cotton. Often times this leads to the production of commodities at a financial (and environmental) loss. Big lobbies and powerful senators and reps perpetuate this.

    3. Given #1 and #2, are small farms growing specialty crops (e.g., human edible fruits & vegetables) at a considerable financial disadvantage in the marketplace? Yes. But not only true for crops, but for livestock as well. Subsidies AND policy place small farms at a competitive disadvantage.

    4. Do you believe that consumer demand for sustainable and organic specialty crops exceeds supply? Yes, but I fear how the demand is being met. Since organic certification has been taken over by the Feds, they have lessened and bent the standards to allow the big players to enter this lucrative market (I could go on ad nauseum).

    5. Do you believe that the farm lobby has less money than environmental lobbyists targeting the food supply (as opposed to the overall environmental field, which covers a lot beyond food)? Depends on your definition of farm lobby. Do you include Monsanto? There is more money thrown at this than anyone wants to admit.

    6. If a subsidized farm no longer wants subsidies, what options are available to move away from them? Do you have any examples of farms that have successfully abandoned subsidized operations? Why would anyone turn down tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars?

    7. I don’t know anyone disputing jam-packed shelves in our supermarkets and cheap food. What I do hear is a rapidly growing concern that cheap and edible food-like substances (i.e., highly processed food) do not necessarily equate to healthy. In fact, some research shows that with the decline in food prices, we are seeing an opposite increase in health care costs. Does this make sense? Yes, the poor buy cheap food that is not healthy and as a result they become obese and sickened. Another point is the strain that this is putting on our health care system.

    8. Do you consider organic and sustainable food “movements” or a food category, e.g., produce? Both. Depends on the intention. I think that local is a better definition of a movement as it involves getting to know where your food comes from and how it is produced. More importantly, it cuts out the middleman and puts $ directly in the farmers pocket.

    9. Should there be more small-to-medium sized farms free to grow what they want to serve local markets? Yes, as with all business, our salvation will be of the small beautiful type. Vertical integration of the economy will be our end.

    10. Should the government shift subsidies to those farms to level the playing field? Or should the government scale back subsidies? I think that we should go back to quotas. Although they helped make this country and its farmers strong though the 50’s and 60’s, this system was abandoned by Earl (get big or get out) Butz, Sec. of Ag during the Nixon era. The rest of the first world continued with the New Deal programs of quotas and continue to have many highly diverse small farms (as well as quite a few huge ones). A quick drive north will easily demonstrate the difference. I travel to Quebec often, and have yet to see an abandonded farm. In addition, every farm is painted and tidy with a new Combine of Tractor in the field.

    Thanks for these thought provoking questions. I think about this stuff a lot. Keep up the good work.

    Ray Lewis
    Square Deal Farm
    Walden, VT

  8. Anthony Boutard

    Rob,

    U.S. Agricultural policy is a thorny thicket. The focus has been on subsidies, but there are other forms of market intervention. Here is an example from my life as a berry grower:

    Several years ago a cabal of six large marionberry growers, controlling close to a majority of the state’s blackberry production, proposed a USDA marketing order that would have created a committee to determine how many blackberries any grower could sell in a given year. The formula was complex, and based that year’s production. We had a new planting that was not in production — it takes three years before the first commercial harvest. We would have been put at a huge disadvantage, never knowing how many berries we could sell. As a matter of agricultural policy, I think market orders are outdated and ineffective.

    The USDA and the growers’ committee refused to exempt certified organic blackberries, which were, and still are, in short supply. So Carol and I fought the proposal for two years, facing withering hostility from the marionberry industry group. The proposal died because the newer blackberry growers, the “True Believers” who had fled from Russian religious oppression, joined with me to oppose the order. The elders were initially reticent to get involved, but the younger members rallied the community.

    It was an incredible moment to hear first generation Americans, stand up to the old guard marionberry growers and explain why the order reminded them of the oppression they fled. In that meeting, a poll showed that growers opposed the proposal 67 to 6. The whole mood had changed, and USDA finally backed off of the proposal. That was lucky, because the USDA was not going to listen to an organic grower, and they told me so.

    These marketing programs are not voluntary, and can be devastating to farmers. As with cash subsidies, they twist and distort the way we make decisions. I doubt we will ever pull the greater part of the agricultural sector away from its dependence on subsidies, marketing orders and the like. However, I hope we never extend that system of crop supports and marketing programs to truck farmers. It is a toxic elixir.

    Regarding commodities, we grew blackberries for Small Planet Foods, a division of General Mills, for ten years. For the most part, growing a commodity for a big corporation was a pleasure. Harvesting and delivering 20,000 pounds of top quality fruit a day is a gratifying experience. Some days we had 200 people working for us. We never knew how many people would show up, but we paid well and were never short of help. The”field man” for the company was great to work with, and we remain friends. A commodity is simply a product where the identity of the grower is not known by the end consumer.

    Selling to a multi-national corporation was no problem. We sell to the national chain Whole Foods, it is also straight forward and uneventful. New Seasons, a local chain, is a delight. On the other hand, a local food co-op was a horrible to work with because they were disorganized, heaven forbid that someone might be considered in charge, and really careless with our fruit. From my experience, it is the people and the culture of place of the company that counts more than size, locality or corporate structure.

    Ultimately, farms develop their own character derived from the individuals who manage them. Commodities have a role in the mix for some farms. From my perspective, the less intervention the better.

    I will challenge the notion that our food system is a beacon for the world. The declining nutrient density of our fruits, vegetables and grains should be a concern. I believe the U.S. is 32nd in terms of infant mortality, and rates of Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, obesity, diabetes and autism are rising. Our life expectancy trails other democracies and industrialized countries. The way we grow our food, and the resulting decrease in vitamin and mineral content, probably has some role in our infirmities.

    The rhetoric that we have the safest food in the world, or the best food in the world, bears close scrutiny. In fact, the data available point in the opposite direction.

    Finally, we are a certified organic farm. I don’t regard us as part of a movement or a product, we are simply adhering to a production standard.

    Michael Pollan, Alice Waters and Carlos Petrini are educators. As a gardener and farmer, my educators were J.I. Rodale, Adele Davis, Ewell Gibbons, Rachael Carson and Albert Howard. All of these people have provide information which we can chose to act upon or ignore. Movements are driven by evangelists, not educators.

    Good luck with your quest.

    Anthony Boutard
    Ayers Creek Farm

    • Anthony: Thank you so much for sharing your direct experiences with me and my readers. This is the kind of information, which expands the issues we face beyond subsidies, that is most important to share and act upon. Cheers to you and the “True Believers.”

  9. 1:Do most federal subsidies go to larger farms? depends on the subsidy, Direct payments are set up as a per/acre basis, therefore, the more acres you have the more subsudies you get.

    2:Are all federal subsidies granted to farms growing commodity crops (monoculture in many instances)? The most common subsidies are for the corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton, and milk. All ag. crops are commodities unluss the individual farmer takes steps to differentiate his crops from others then brands them that way

    3: Given #1 and #2, are small farms growing specialty crops (e.g., human edible fruits & vegetables) at a considerable financial disadvantage in the marketplace? No, I have heard several sustainable farm advocates say that fuits and vegetables have a much larger profit margin/acre than corn and soybeans, therefore the $10 – $20 subsidy/acre would not put them at any disadvantage!

    4:Do you believe that consumer demand for sustainable and organic specialty crops exceeds supply? Currently organic is still getting a premium, but I fear with the growth in the amount of producers growing organic and the fact that the organic market has stablized in the past year that their niche market may no longer get a premium.

    5: Do you believe that the farm lobby has less money than environmental lobbyists targeting the food supply (as opposed to the overall environmental field, which covers a lot beyond food)? I dont have enough info to answer this because on both sides their are also large companies lobbying thier position that makes it hard to calculate.

    6.If a subsidized farm no longer wants subsidies, what options are available to move away from them? Do you have any examples of farms that have successfully abandoned subsidized operations? All you have to do is not take the subsidy anymore, I am contemplating not signing up this year. I know of a farmer that drained a wetland, after he refused to return that ground back to its original state, he agreed to pay back his subsidies for the past 5 years. In short, subsidies also allows the Gov. to enforce its environmental policies.

    7: I don’t know anyone disputing jam-packed shelves in our supermarkets and cheap food. What I do hear is a rapidly growing concern that cheap and edible food-like substances (i.e., highly processed food) do not necessarily equate to healthy. In fact, some research shows that with the decline in food prices, we are seeing an opposite increase in health care costs. Does this make sense? We all have the choice to eat healthy. Everyone knows that TV dinners are not healthy, but people still buy them. Non proccessed foods are not more expensive, they are just harder to prepare. It seems to me that the real corelation to food and health care is not cheap food, but the fact that we have become to lazy to prepare our own food and buy more expensive junk food instead.

    8: Do you consider organic and sustainable food “movements” or a food category, e.g., produce? – I am still confused over the definition of sustainable food movement. Obviosuly our county has a sustainable supply of food, we currently have one of the lowest cost of food in ever in the world!

    9: Should there be more small-to-medium sized farms free to grow what they want to serve local markets? There can be! its a free market! If there is a local market that is willing to pay more for food off the farm then somebody will fill that market. This is happening, why do you think farmers markets and CSA’s are becoming more popular?

    10: Should the government shift subsidies to those farms to level the playing field? Or should the government scale back subsidies? My problem with Gov. trying to put a cap on large farms getting subsidies is that they are using gross income figures. Obama keeps saying $250,000, well even if they only profit $10,000 most full time farmers are grossing more than $250,000. Therefore, if there is a cap on a $250,000 gross then that puts a full time farmer at a disadvantage to a part time farmer that may be making $150,000 at his full time job.

  10. 1. Yes, the vast majority of subsidies go to large farms. In part this is because the system was designed by those from the large farms. In part because they’re large so they get more. Unfortunately there is the perception that farms all get subsidies. The reality is about 96% of farmers do not get any subsidies.

    2. Yes, most federal subsidies go to large farms. The system is designed for them and by their lobbyists. They also have the trained professional assistance to jump through the hoops to get their subsidies. Lots of paper work.

    “Should the government shift subsidies to those farms to level the playing field? Or should the government scale back subsidies?”

    I would like to see all subsidies eliminated, not just with farming but with all markets. That would create level playing fields. As it stands, I compete as an unsubsidized farmer against my subsidized competition.

  11. sustainableseafood

    While I don’t have any information to provide in direct response to the questions posed above, I would like to add two thoughts.

    Firstly, thank you for this post. It encourages rich dialogue, and I am better educated for having read through all these responses. The information presented is dynamic and furthers healthy discussion regarding not just subsidies, but the American mentality when it comes to food.

    On a second general note, I must introduce into the conversation the larger issue behind commodities, large scale food production and the proliferation of “food like substances”. It seems as if in our drive to produce more and more and get richer and richer, we have lost sight of some of the values upon which communities are built, the most important being food. The idea that culture is deeply seasoned into food, and the practice of sharing stories/traditions through this conduit, has been lost. Instead we talk about numbers and how much money we spend on food and how it is essential to eat quickly in order to spend more time chasing the dollar. While this is important to increase productivity as a nation, realistically it causes more harm than good.

    I suggest that we focus on making simultaneous changes in the way we behave as families and individuals by thinking about food more, regardless of the financial losses associated with such practices. If we can enrich our days by spending more time developing a national culture and cuisine, built upon local food systems void of food-like substances, we will be a better healthier nation. In the long run, the cost benefit analysis will prove that regardless of the immediate financial losses, the social and health benefits will far outweigh the inability to buy more useless stuff.

    Thanks for opening up this conversation.

    • Danderson: Thanks for your terrific comments on this blog post. Personally, I believe the true value of food is steeped in sensory and social experiences, many of which were given up at least one, but perhaps two generations ago in pursuit of the elusive American dream. What I expect many of us would realize when finding our way back into our kitchens and around our dinner tables is a personal satisfaction that most wouldn’t immediately recognize, but just as quickly realize how much they have missed it. I hope that day will come before my kids have kids.

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